Best Children’s Books of the Year

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If you are looking for Christmas gift ideas for the 8 to 12 year-old in your life, here are some of the best middle-grade books I have read this year:

A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll

11-year-old Addie is autistic but her new class teacher thinks she’s just being difficult, her best friend has dropped her for someone else, and even her older sister Keedie, who understands her better than anyone else, is now away at university all day. When Addie learns about her town’s history of witch trials she is determined to find a way of commemorating these women who were tortured and executed, just for being a little bit different. But no one wants to listen to Addie. Can she find a way to speak up for these women and for herself in the process? This is a brilliant book that raises awareness and understanding about autistic people, in particular those who are not as obvious due to masking. But it is also a wonderfully moving and inspiring story about kindness and tolerance in general. Highly recommended.

The Beast and the Bethany by Jack Meggitt-Phillips, illustrated by Isabelle Follath

The Beast and the Bethany is a hilariously macabre story about a nasty, self-centred man, called Ebenezer Tweezer, who adopts a badly-behaved orphan in order to feed her to the Beast that lives in his attic. But neither the Beast, nor Ebenezer is fully prepared for The Bethany! It sounds like a pretty horrifying concept, but this is also a charming, beautifully illustrated story, full of heart and humour, that children will love. 

The Girl Who Stole An Elephant by Nizrana Farook

When Chaya breaks into the palace and steals the Queen’s jewels she has no idea that her actions will lead to a prison break, political unrest and a madcap escape with her friends through the jungle on the back of the King’s elephant, Ananda. The book is set in the kingdom of Serendib, inspired by the author’s home country of Sri Lanka, and the lush vegetation and dense jungle are beautifully evoked. This is a fun, fast-paced adventure with a feisty protagonist.  

The Strangeworlds Travel Agency by L.D. Lapinski

Twelve-year-old Flick Hudson has always longed to travel the world, but she’s never been anywhere, until she stumbles across the Strangeworlds Travel Agency and discovers a whole shop-full of suitcases leading to other worlds. This is a wonderfully imagined, delightfully magical book and hopefully, the start of a brilliant new series.

The Castle of Tangled Magic by Sophie Anderson, illustrated by Saara Soderlund

Sophie Anderson is such a deft and accomplished storyteller—her books all seem to spring forth as fully formed modern-classics. I loved The House with Chicken Legs and The Girl Who Speaks Bear, so I was anticipating great things from The Castle of Tangled Magic and it didn’t disappoint. Olia lives in an old castle full of secret ways and fantastical domes. She’s sure there is magic in the castle and can’t wait to share it with her baby sister. But one day there is a terrible storm and the castle is damaged. Olia follows a magical guide through the castle’s domes to a land beyond, where a host of magical creatures have been trapped by a cruel wizard. Olia must defeat the wizard to save her castle and free the magic, but she must also make some difficult decisions and some sacrifices along the way. A spellbinding, heart-warming story about growing up and taking responsibility. (There’s also a lovely link to one of the other books that I particularly enjoyed.)

The Vanishing Trick by Jenni Spangler, illustrated by Chris Mould

When destitute orphan Leander meets the mysterious Madame Pinchbeck, she seems kind and trustworthy but by the time he meets the other children under her ‘care’, Charlotte and Felix, it is too late and he is as trapped as they are. The resourceful children must work together to foil her nefarious plans and find a way to escape. This book has a definite Series of Unfortunate Events feel, and Madame Pinchbeck is a dastardly villain worthy of comparison with Count Olaf. A dark and sinister tale set in Victorian England.

My Name is River by Emma Rea

Dylan is devastated to learn that his family farm in Wales has been sold off to a multinational corporation called BlueBird. His friend Floyd’s Dad works for BlueBird, but he’s currently in Brazil with Floyd’s little brother, and Floyd and his Mum are worried that something is wrong as they have lost touch with him. Dylan and Floyd hatch a crazy plan to fly to Brazil, bring Floyd’s brother home and save Dylan’s family farm. En route, they meet the charming Lucia, a resilient street child with a peculiar range of vocabulary (because she learned English by reading a thesaurus), and her Great Dane, Pernickety. Their quest takes them to Manaus and on a boat up the river and deep into the Amazon Rainforest to confront a heartless villain with a horrifying agenda. My Name is River evokes the same sense of adventure as Eva Ibbotson’s ‘Journey to the River Sea’, through a more contemporary lens. It is a gripping story of friendship and courage, saturated in the sights, scents and sounds of the rainforest, with a vitally important message about environmental conservation. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Wild Way Home by Sophie Kirtley

All Charlie has ever wanted is a little brother or sister, and when his wish is finally granted on his twelfth birthday, he resolves to be the perfect big brother. But when Charlie’s little brother is diagnosed with a life-threatening heart condition, Charlie runs away to the forest that has always been his refuge. But something in the forest has changed: Charlie finds himself caught up in a Stone-Age quest that will challenge him and ultimately give him the courage to be the big brother he wants to be. There are some major challenges about writing a story set in the Stone Age, the language barrier in particular, but Sophie Kirtley makes the imaginative leap with ease and flair to create a sincere friendship between Charlie and ‘Harby’, a Stone Age boy, despite the thousands of years that separate them. The Wild Way Home is a page-turning adventure, but also a wonderful tribute to the lingering magic to be found in all wild places.

Wonderscape by Jennifer Bell

While investigating some mysterious exploding garden gnomes on their way to school, Arthur, Ren and Cecily are sucked through a portal to another planet, 400 years in the future, and find themselves in the Wonderscape—an in-reality adventure game featuring famous historical characters. As they play their way through the various realms, they must learn to conquer their own fears as well as their prejudices about each other so they can work together to find a way to escape and get back to their own time. But behind the entertaining facade of the Wonderscape, there is something sinister going on—can Arthur, Ren and Cecily solve the mystery of the missing founder and help the others trapped in the game before their time runs out? Wonderscape is a fun, fast-paced and immersive story, perfect for fans of the new Jumanji films and Anna James’s Pages and Co. series. Jennifer Bell creates the sense of being in another dimension in a way that will appeal to gamers, but with real-life stakes. I particularly enjoyed the juxtaposition of the futuristic gaming-theme with the fascinating stories of real historical figures—some more obscure than others. And I love the beautiful cover design—it perfectly encapsulates this thrilling world of imagination and possibility. Highly recommended. 

The Ship of Shadows by Maria Kuzniar

Aleja dreams of adventure while working in her Grandmother’s kitchen in Seville, but as everyone always tells her – girls can’t be explorers. But one day a mysterious ship sails into the harbour, crewed by women, and Aleja becomes a temporary crew member on the Ship of Shadows – a pirate ship full of secrets and magic. But Aleja has to earn Captain Quint’s trust and respect before the true purpose of their voyage is revealed to her. Of course, the author had me at ‘pirate ship crewed by ruthless women’, but this is also a lovely story of friendship, courage and empowerment. I thoroughly enjoyed it and will look out for more of Aleja’s adventures.

Nothing Ever Happens Here by Sarah Hagger-Holt

Nothing ever happens in the small town of Littlehaven, where 12-year-old Izzy lives, until the day Izzy’s dad comes out as a transgender woman called Danielle. At first Izzy is confused, anxious and terrified about anyone from school finding out. But as her dad begins the process of transition, Izzy comes to terms with their new family dynamic and finds the courage to stand up to the bullies. I loved this book. Nothing Ever Happens Here is a warm-hearted, empathy-inducing family story, with the same deceptively simple style as the Judy Blume books that I read as a teenager and fulfils a vitally important function of providing fiction to represent the full spectrum of different types of families.

WildSpark by Vashti Hardy

Prue Haywood and her family are still mourning the death of her brother Francis when a stranger comes to the farm looking for apprentices to join the Ghost Guild in the city of Medlock, where they have managed to bring machines to life by harnessing ghosts. Prue runs away from home and pretends to be ‘Frances Haywood’ in order to claim her brother’s place in the guild. But she has an ulterior motive – perhaps she can find a way to restore the ghosts’ memories of their former lives and bring her brother back. But in a city already filled with tension between citizens and ‘personifates’ – the ghost-animated machine animals, Prue’s experiments could have catastrophic consequences. WildSpark is a thrilling sci-fi adventure that takes traditional elements of children’s fiction (ghosts, robots) and melds them into an innovative, sparkling new world. I loved this.

The Polar Bear Challenge

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I’ve always been a seasonal swimmer. I grew up in Durban, swimming in unheated outdoor pools. We swam in the summer and we ran in the winter—perfectly logical. But this year, September came around and I carried on swimming outdoors. And then it was October and I was still swimming. It wasn’t so much a conscious decision to swim through the winter, as simply not making the decision to stop swimming.

And then I did something foolish and impulsive. As I often do. I signed up for the Polar Bear Challenge. I didn’t know much about it but with supremely misplaced confidence I decided to go for Gold level and committed to swimming at least 250 metres outdoors, twice a month from November through to March, with a total distance of 5000 metres required. Swimming costume, cap and goggles only—no neoprene. Easy.

Percy the Polar Bear – my thermometer

The temperature in the river has fluctuated over the last couple of months but my first properly cold swim was on Friday the 2nd of October, a grey and blustery day at Hurst Park, with Rebekah—my regular partner in lunacy. (They now know us at Shepperton Lake as ‘the two Rebeccas’.) It was about 11°C. A parent and toddler, wrapped up warmly in their winter waterproofs, watched in astonishment as we walked down the slipway into the Thames. As I gingerly lowered my shoulders into the water and pushed off, the back of my neck was gripped in an agonising vice, a horribly painful, claustrophobic feeling, and for a moment I started to panic. I told myself to breathe slowly and calmly, and after several deeply unpleasant minutes, my body relaxed and the pain in the base of my skull subsided.

It was not a great swimming experience. The wind blew us upstream and then we fought the waves back downriver again. The whole way I was strongly regretting my decision to sign up for the Polar Bear Challenge and had just about decided to blow the whole thing off as a stupid idea. But two days later I had a swim on a sunny day, in the water exactly the same temperature, and it was a blissfully pleasant experience. And I haven’t felt that cold-water-panic to the same extent since then. 

Swim 1: Sunday 1 November

My first swim of the Polar Bear Challenge was at Shepperton Lake. The sun was breaking through the clouds. The water was a balmy 12.9°C degrees. The swim course had been reduced to 300 metres for the winter. We managed three laps of front crawl and felt fantastic. (Aided by the tot of Drambuie we were handed as we got out of the lake.) This whole Polar Bear thing was going to be easy. 

In between the first and the second swim, Lockdown Number 2 began. The swimming pools and the lakes closed. (While people some had their last hurrah at the pub, we spent our pre-Lockdown night at Hampton Pool. It was my first time in a chlorinated, heated pool this year.)

Then it was back to the river. We swooshed downstream in the Thames at Hurst Park on Monday (not an admissible Polar Bear swim as it was aided by the current) and the temperature was similar to the lake. But then the air temperature dropped below zero on Tuesday night, and Wednesday and Thursday were both very cold. 

Swim 2: Friday 6 November

Next to Shepperton Lake there is a small creek that branches off the Thames and meanders below willow trees with nearly no flow at all—ideal for swimming when the current is too fast in the main river. It was a beautiful morning with that hazy autumnal light and a striking cloud-dappled sky. We knew it was going to be cold. Very cold. Rebekah, who had been swimming in neoprene booties and gloves up until this point, decided, for some reason, that this was the day to shed her neoprene and go full Polar Bear. The slipway was appropriately slippery, so we had to sit on our bottoms and slip into the cold water, like we were on a dirty, mossy water slide. We didn’t dither about, shoulders in, and we were swimming. It was definitely cold. My hands started to hurt, and I felt pins and needles all over my body. It was painful and delightful at the same time. Percy, my polar bear thermometer, said it was just under 10°C—a drop of 3°C since our last swim. We’ve generally been managing 25-30 minutes in the water, but we decided to be sensible and reduce our swimming time. We climbed out after 17 minutes and 450 metres at a relaxed, heads-up breaststroke pace. We were both red all over. (As Rebekah observed—we matched the lobsters on her swimming costume.) Fortunately, at this spot you can park right next to the river, so our towels and warm clothes were close by.

The process of getting warm and dry after a winter swim is almost ceremonial. All of your clothes have been laid out in preparation, in the correct order. (There’s usually a ten-minute window to get dry and dressed before the afterdrop hits and you start to shiver.) After the swimming robe, the woolly hat goes on next to keep your head warm, then clothes, socks and shoes. Then, the most important part, tea and cake (Rebekah’s lemon drizzle, in this case). There should always be cake. While eating your cake and drinking your tea, it is compulsory to do the warming-up dance: a combination of foot stamping, bottom jiggling and uncontrolled shivering.

I don’t like cold water. Being forced to have a cold shower is on the list of my least favourite things. It reminds me of the time our local reservoir sprang a leak when we were living in Joburg. We had no water for a week, and I had to bath in the swimming pool every morning before work. (FYI: never shampoo your hair in a swimming pool—it makes the pool go green.) So I was extremely sceptical of this addictive ‘buzz’ that cold water swimming supposedly gives you, as outlined in this hyperbolically named article. Was this the same as that alleged ‘endorphin rush’ people get from running? (Other people, apparently. Not me.)

But, against all my expectations, I have been converted to the cult of cold water. It doesn’t make any sense but even as; the ice-cream headache strikes, your fingers and toes burn, your skin tingles all over and turns bright red; you somehow feel amazing—exhilaratingly, buoyantly alive.

Halloween Swim

I have completed my required Polar Bear Challenge swims for November, but of course I will continue to swim at least twice a week for the sake of acclimatisation. (I’m not sure if it’s acclimatisation or global warming, but these days I feel like the Dad in Friday Night Dinner—I’m always BOILING!) Of course, November is the warmest month of the challenge—February/March will be the true test of my winter-swimming allegiance. I have been googling minimum temperatures in the Thames and it seems that it could go as low as 5°C. I’m just taking it one degree at a time. 

Best Books – Autumn 2020

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Just in time for half-term, here are some reading recommendations for the long evenings to come.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Kya lives with her family in a shack in the marshes on the coast of North Carolina. Her mother leaves when Kya is seven, then one by one the rest of her family leave until, at ten, Kya is left alone to fend for herself. (It’s not a cheerful start.) The story is told on two parallel timelines: in the past Kya hides from the truancy officer and finds a way to provide for herself and find beauty in the natural world around her as she grows up, even as she is viewed with suspicion and derision by the townspeople. In the present: two boys discover a body in the marshes and the Sheriff investigates the murder. Where the Crawdads Sing is a beautifully constructed story, full of loss, loneliness and pain—but also hope, wonder and love. Highly recommended.

Here Is the Beehive by Sarah Crossan

Ana and Connor have been having an affair for three years but suddenly, one day he is gone. Ana must grieve for the relationship in secret, reach some kind resolution with Connor’s wife, and find a way to move on with her own life. First person narration can sometimes sound glib or melodramatic, but Sarah Crossan’s signature style, comprising poetic fragments of thought and memory, is incredibly intimate and authentic, particularly as Ana addresses her thoughts to ‘you’—Connor. Ana’s affair has forced her to keep secrets and compartmentalise her life, and this allows the reader to make assumptions about her and be blindsided by new information as she gradually allows it into her conscious thoughts. From a situation that seems sordid and depressing, and a protagonist who doesn’t evoke much sympathy, Sarah Crossan distils pure pain in a cathartic, lyrical process that is somehow life-affirming and redemptive, as well as devastating. Exquisitely done.

Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me by Kate Clanchy

Kate Clanchy often posts her student’s poetry on Twitter and I am always astounded at how assured and profound it is. (We had the privilege of having her as a guest lecturer at Birkbeck once and I definitely remember her as a warm and inspiring teacher.) In Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, she writes about some of the children she has taught in her thirty-year career in secondary-schools. It is a heart-breaking, hilarious and profound memoir about the incredible influence a good teacher can have and the power of poetry to give powerless children some sense of control over their circumstances. I’m recommending this to everyone I meet at the moment. Brilliantly, beautifully written.

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

The Once and Future Witches is the story of three sisters in 1893: Juniper, Agnes and Bella, who each separately escape their abusive father, and later reunite in New Salem—drawn together by a vision of a mysterious tower. The cause of the suffragettes inspires them to find a way to empower women by bringing back the forgotten words and ways that were lost when the last witches were burned in Old Salem. Historically, of course, strong independent women have frequently been accused of witchcraft and I loved the idea of the suffragettes being actual witches. This story is not only a fast-paced, thrilling battle between supernatural forces, it is also a richly layered fantasy in which magic is woven into the syntax of rhymes, proverbs and fairy tales, as well as a sensitive delving into the deep currents of the relationships between sisters. An exquisitely crafted and intensely moving book. 

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

Matt Haig is always reliably entertaining and thought-provoking, and The Midnight Library is no exception. Nora Seed is filled with regret about the opportunities she has failed to take advantage of in her life but when she finds herself in a mysterious library between life and death, she has the chance to experience parallel lives in which she has made different decisions. This is a poignant story about regret and having another go at all the opportunities you missed out on in your life. I thoroughly enjoyed this, and of course I loved the idea of an afterlife library.

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

After Lydia’s whole family is gunned down by a cartel at a family barbeque, she has to flee Mexico City with her eight-year old son, Luca, and join the trail of desperate travellers hoping to make it across the border into the US. I’d heard of the controversy surrounding this book before I’d heard of the book itself and I certainly can’t comment on the accuracy of the facts or the right of the author to tell this story. But from my uninformed perspective, it was a gripping, powerful story that kept me hooked and gave me a new understanding of the refugee and migrant experience in Mexico and the US. I don’t think there could ever be too many books like this—books that create empathy for migrants and refugees rather than fear and suspicion. Brilliantly done.

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

Another controversial book: when Vanessa Wye hears about the accusations of sexual abuse her former teacher, Jacob Strane, is facing, she knows that the charges must be false. Because when she was fifteen, she had a relationship with him and it was not abuse—it was love. This is an incredibly gripping but disturbing story as Vanessa recalls her ‘relationship’ with her teacher, in the context of the Me Too era, and gradually, horrifically, begins to see his actions in a different light. The author was hounded into revealing that this story is based on her own life, but it shouldn’t have been necessary for her to justify her right to tell this story—it is too common an experience. My Dark Vanessa is an important, timely read.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

The identical Vignes twins, Desiree and Stella, run away from home at 16 to escape the drudgery of their life in a small town that no one has ever heard of. (An unusual town, where the black people are known to have particularly fair skin.) After they leave, the twin’s lives diverge in very different directions. Ten years later Desiree returns to her hometown, with her black daughter, while Stella lives a completely different life on the opposite side of the country with her white family, entirely cut off from her past. But fate conspires to bring their daughters together. The Vanishing Half is a fascinating story about family, identity and reinvention.

The Empire of Gold (The Daevabad Trilogy #3) by S.A. Chakraborty

The Daevabad Trilogy is an ambitious fantasy series set in the magical world of the Djinn. Nahri is a fortune teller and thief living off her wits and her magical healing abilities in Cairo until the day she accidentally summons a Djinn and is swept away (on a magic carpet of course) into a world she knows nothing about. The Empire of Gold is an epic and satisfying conclusion to an incredibly rich and atmospheric fantasy world populated with brilliant characters. As Dara begins to count the cost of his loyalty to the Nahids in a divided city, Nahri and Ali must look for allies in their attempt to rescue Daevabad from a new tyrant and bring the tribes together in a lasting peace. An absolutely enthralling series—I loved every minute of it.

The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex (March 2021)

I’ve  always been fascinated by the disappearance of the Flannan Isles Lighthouse Keepers, so when I heard about this book inspired by those events, I was excited to see what the author made of the disappearances. The story has been relocated from the Outer Hebrides to Cornwall and the dates have been shifted from 1900 to 1970, but the basic conditions are the same: three vanished lighthouse keepers, a door locked from the inside, stopped clocks and strange entries in the logbook. The life of a lighthouse keeper is a desolate existence and the book beautifully evokes a sense of alienation and loneliness. I thoroughly enjoyed this atmospheric and richly imagined story.

Wild Swimming

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Yes, I know everyone’s going on about wild swimming at the moment. I’ve always liked the idea of being a wild swimmer—but I wasn’t one really. I was an ‘outdoor swimmer’ in Hampton Pool, an ‘open water swimmer’ at Shepperton Lake, an occasional paddleboard dipper—but I wasn’t a wild swimmer. 

I should’ve been—a long time ago. I live a five-minute walk away from the Thames. I’ve swum from Hampton Court to Kingston in the river twice, in organised open water swimming events. But outside of these strictly controlled conditions, I have been waiting for someone to give me permission to get into the river. It took lockdown and the closure of swimming pools for me to finally make the leap.

I began swimming twice weekly at Shepperton Lake at the beginning of June, as soon as it reopened after lockdown, but the river was calling to me. I’d been a lurker in the Surrey Outdoor Swimmers Facebook group for a year, but I’d never actually joined them for a swim. But then Rebekah, my swim buddy (who had always been extremely reluctant to swim in the river), began swimming in the river on Tuesday mornings with the SOS crew and invited me along. My first swim was on a cloudy day at Sunbury. Rebekah’s friend Sue had organised it, and we were joined by Judith and Diana. I had all the gear: goggles, hat, tow float, swim booties, and I was excited. The water was cold at first, but I didn’t feel cold while we swam. It was a relaxed, sociable meander upriver, and then back down again. It was free from chlorine, lane-rage, timekeeping and entrance fees. I was hooked.

The Downside of Wild Swimming:

I have discovered something called duck mites (alternatively called ‘swimmer’s itch’ which sounds like a venereal disease). This is an allergic reaction which causes itchy welts on your arms and legs, like mosquito bites. You are more likely to get these from swimming through weeds, like the thick tangle of waterweeds we swam though in the River Wey for a beautiful view of the ruined Newark Priory. It was an (itchy) sacrifice I was willing to make.

And yes, there are things in the river. There is a lot of plastic litter—particularly after a sunny day when people have been picnicking on the shore. On a swim from Teddington to Twickenham we encountered a children’s solid-plastic sandpit in the shape of a turtle floating in the middle of the river. There are also grumpy fishermen, flotillas of SUPs, drunken Go Boat pilots, and sometimes there are aggressive swans with cygnets who will hiss at you in warning and then give chase. There are also fish in the river. The intrepid women I’ve swum with (no names mentioned) are not immune to the occasional acrobatic ‘what just touched my leg’ leap—which is always highly entertaining to everyone else.

I did not swim the Hampton Court to Kingston race the notorious year when everyone got sick, but many people’s first question is whether the river is clean enough to swim in. Fifty years ago, the Thames was declared biologically dead, but it is now apparently the ‘cleanest river in the world that flows through a major city’. But it still doesn’t have the ‘bathing status’ protection that many rivers in Europe have been given. Swimming in the Thames is a calculated risk. With heavy rain, contaminants can wash into the river and sewage is occasionally released—although it seems unbelievable that Thames Water is allowed to do this. There are campaigners working to prevent this—or at least to force the water companies to provide information about when and where this is happening. I try not to swallow the river water, of course, but when you’re swimming the water does go in your mouth. I have been swimming in the river all summer and I haven’t been ill. Fingers crossed.

The Upside of Wild Swimming:

The positive effects of wild swimming on mental health have been widely documented. In the early days of lockdown, many people felt anxious and claustrophobic. The outside world was out of bounds—or at least any part of the outside world that required a car journey to get to. But when I gave myself permission to get in the river, new vistas opened up. I began to feel guilty that I was feeling so positive and cheerful during a global pandemic. 

And I have never felt so confident wandering around in a swimming costume. The online wild swimming community is a powerful advocate for body positivity. It is all about celebrating and enjoying the outdoors, rather than worrying about what we look like while we’re doing it. It’s brilliant to see the way that swimming costume advertising and sizing have changed over the last few years to incorporate different body types. 

Wild swimming is also an extremely sociable activity—the Surrey Outdoor Swimmers are a friendly, inclusive bunch who embraced me with open (socially distanced) arms. I’ve been part of a regular swimming group who have become friends, but I have also turned up to swims organised by people I’ve never met before and been welcomed and included—our common passion giving a group of strangers something to talk about while we swim.

I finally felt like a true Wild Swimmer on the day I organised my own swim. It was a night swim from Canbury Gardens to the Hawker Centre—with an exit point known only to me. Fortunately, I did manage to find it in the dark. As we all walked back along the Thames path in our robes and headtorches, I know we must have looked like members of some strange cult. But then again, that’s probably what we are.

But within the wild swimming community exists an even more niche subculture—tail-swimming. AKA mermaids and mermen. Yes, really. Did you know that you can buy a mermaid tail on Amazon—a monofin with a tail covering that you can actually swim in? My inner ten-year-old freaked out and immediately put it on my birthday wishlist. As a joke. Sort of. Of course, then my sister actually bought me the mermaid tail for my birthday, and I participated in my first mermaid pod swim in the Thames near Hampton Court, in front of a disbelieving crowd of onlookers. It was deeply embarrassing but also kind of awesome. As the world begins to look increasingly dystopian—a little whimsy makes life a lot more enjoyable. 

The next challenge is whether I will continue to swim in the river into the chilly winter months with the hardest of hardcore SOS-ers, to experience that cold-water buzz I’ve heard so much about. We’ll see.

Best Books – Spring 2020

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I’m way ahead on my Goodreads 2020 Reading Challenge—thanks to the Covid-19 lockdown. Here are some of my favourites:

(I’ll do a separate post for young adult and children’s books.)

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Humankind
by Rutger Bregman

Rutger Bregman sets out to debunk the ‘veneer theory’, the idea that humans have a thin facade of civilisation that easily cracks under pressure to reveal the evil creature within all of us, as depicted in William Golding’s classic novel, The Lord of the Flies. Some of the examples Bregman investigates are fascinating, from the Christmas truce in the trenches of World War I, to the history of Easter Island, to the psychological thought experiments that supposedly proved how evil we are: the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram Shock Machine experiment.

This is not a blindly, naively optimistic book. Bregman addresses the evils that humans perpetrate, but he is also clear on the role that newspapers and social media play in creating clickbait content that incites fear and prejudice and doesn’t in fact accurately reflect how most of us live. Humankind is, however, a book with a purpose—to raise our expectations of humanity and to inspire us to hope that we can create a better society. It is a thoroughly inspiring book as well as being very readable and engaging.

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A Thousand Ships
by Natalie Haynes

A Thousand Ships is the story of the women of the Trojan War: from Queen Hecabe and her daughters, prisoners of the Greeks after the fall of Troy, to Clytemnestra plotting revenge on her husband Agamemnon, and capricious goddesses fighting over who is the most beautiful, callously setting in motion the events that lead to the war. One of my favourite strands was Penelope’s caustic and sarcastic letters to Odysseus as she hears tales of his vainglorious exploits, long after he should have returned from the Trojan War.

This book will inevitably be compared to Pat Barker’s devastating The Silence of the Girls—though The Silence of the Girlssees the story of the Trojan woman through a twenty-first century lens, while Natalie Haynes tells her stories in a style more faithful to the original tales—an accretion of small cuts rather than the horrific gaping wound of Pat Barker’s novel. This brevity makes the book less emotionally engaging to start with, but it weaves a tapestry of woman’s voices that create an impressively epic narrative that encompasses vast distances and many years.

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The Dutch House
by Ann Patchett

Tom Hanks was the perfect narrator for Ann Patchett’s family drama centred around the relationship between Danny Conroy, his sister Maeve and their childhood home—the ‘Dutch House’. The story flits backwards and forwards in time from their father’s sudden windfall and the initial acquisition of the Dutch House, to Danny and Maeve’s banishment from the house, their adult relationships and the arrival of the next generation of Conroy children. Eventually the story comes full circle with the resolution of family relationships long steeped in bitterness and resentment. Danny is the self-centred, and sometimes obtuse narrator but his older sister Maeve is the fierce heart of the book and the subject of the painting on the cover—which I believe the author had specially commissioned.

There is something immersive about listening to an audio book, perhaps because it forces you to slow down—I spent days with Danny and Maeve in the Dutch House, rather than hours. An incredibly insightful, warm and engaging story.

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A Girl Made of Air
by Nydia Hetherington (September 2020)

You’ll have to wait a few months for this one, it will be published in September 2020, but it is currently available to pre-order. An unnamed tightrope walker relates the story of her childhood in a post-war English circus and her rise to fame in New York. While the headliner of this tale is the ‘Greatest Funambulist Who Ever Lived’, ‘A Girl Made of Air’ is the story of several women: the Funambulist herself, her mother Marina, her mentor Serendipity Wilson, and Serendipity’s daughter, Bunny. At first, the narrator strives to become the greatest funambulist who ever lived, but this ambition is overtaken by a more solemn quest—to find a missing child and make amends.

The story is told in fragments: diary entries, taped interviews, letters and Serendipity Wilson’s Manx folk tales. This may sound disjointed, but these aspects intertwine to create a rich tapestry of family history, myth, trauma, love and loss, and the narrator’s quest provides a momentum that blends the disparate pieces into an engaging story. There is an element of magical realism, but this is grounded by the circus setting: the visceral odours, the clamour of the crowds, the glitz and the grubbiness of this itinerant life. Though she narrates her own story, the sense that the funambulist herself and all her achievements are as evanescent as air, adds a melancholic and wistful quality to this tale. Thankfully, there is an appropriately serendipitous ending to leave a lingering glow as the stage lights dim. I thoroughly enjoyed this vivid, lyrical and poignant novel.

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Hamnet
by Maggie O’Farrell

Few historical details are known about William Shakespeare’s life, but Maggie O’Farrell has taken two scraps of information: the death of Shakespeare’s son Hamnet at eleven, and four years later, the production of his play Hamlet, and spun them into an incredibly powerful and moving novel about love and grief. It is beautifully structured, flitting from Hamnet’s desperate search for help when his twin sister Judith falls ill, back to the moment Shakespeare first sees his wife Agnes, and onwards. Shakespeare himself is mostly absent in the story—referred to only in reference to the other characters: the oldest son, the husband, the father. Instead the story belongs to Agnes (Anne Hathaway) a woman traditionally pitied and scorned by history as Shakespeare’s older, spurned wife—left to moulder in Stratford while Shakespeare found fame in London. And I think that is what I love the most about this book, that it gives Agnes agency and a voice in her own life, and in Shakespeare’s. Hamnet’s death is, of course, heart-breaking, but the final scenes of the book are particularly stunning and devastating. Absolutely brilliant, this might be my book of the year.

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The Mirror & the Light
(Thomas Cromwell Trilogy #3) by Hilary Mantel

I read this book very slowly through the first few weeks of the Coronavirus lockdown, which made it quite an intense and emotional experience. I found it quieter and more contemplative than the first two books—Anne Boleyn’s execution is such a dramatic moment that this book was bound to feel a bit like one long denouement. But it is as brilliantly written and as immersive as the other two, with an additional undercurrent of impending doom (which was exacerbated by the current circumstances).

One of my favourite moments was when Cromwell is astonished and delighted to meet a daughter he never knew existed (she is a fictional character but real historical accounts do suggest he could have had an illegitimate daughter). One of the most poignant aspects of Hilary Mantel’s portrayal of Cromwell is the contrast of his humour, his loyalty and his compassion, with the way his actions are interpreted as cold-hearted, ambitious scheming, by many of the other characters—and by history. The final betrayal that leads to his downfall is just as heart-breaking as I was anticipating. 

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Daughters of Night
by Laura Shepherd-Robinson (June 2020)

I thoroughly enjoyed this atmospheric and meticulously plotted mystery, set in the dark underbelly of Georgian London. Caroline Corsham escapes the crowds at Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens for a clandestine meeting, but instead discovers the body of a murdered woman. When the authorities dismiss the investigation because the woman was a prostitute, Caro cannot let it go and engages thieftaker Peregrine Child to help her investigate the tangled web of events that led to the woman’s death. Caro finds herself not only disillusioned at the vice, corruption and hypocrisy of the Beau Monde, but also in mortal danger as she unearths secrets that threaten to embarrass some of the most prominent and powerful citizens in the land.

Caro is a wonderfully brave and stubborn character as she seeks justice for voiceless women, while weighed down by her own devastating secret and increasingly aware of her tenuous position—even though she is wealthy, she is still subject to the authority of her family and her absent husband. (I didn’t realise till the end that Caro Corsham and Peregrine Child also featured in the author’s previous novel, Blood & Sugar, which I haven’t read, but it worked perfectly well as a standalone novel.) Daughters of Night skilfully combines evocative, immersive historical detail with a gripping, page-turning plot that will keep you guessing till the last page. Brilliantly done.

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The Mercies
by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

The Mercies is based on true events—in 1617 on a remote Norwegian island of Vardo there was a terrible storm that took the lives of nearly all the men in the village and this is the starting point for the book. Maren loses her father, her brother and her fiance all at once. But the women of the village do not have time to grieve, life must go on and in order to survive the women take on the men’s responsibilities of fishing, herding and butchering reindeer. But there are bigger issues that will come to bear on this small community. The King of Norway is determined to bring God’s word to all his citizens, and in particular to stamp out the traditional religious practices of the Sami people. Enter Absalom Cornet, a Scottish witch hunter sent to subdue the women of Vardo. A lyrical and captivating story, I couldn’t put it down.

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The Five
by Hallie Rubenhold

Jack the Ripper’s victims are often dismissed as ‘just prostitutes’ as though the killer had done society a favour by disposing of them. But the first four victims, were not prostitutes at all, just destitute, homeless women with sad life stories, who were murdered while they were sleeping rough. The fifth woman had worked as a prostitute, but does that mean she deserved what she got? The mystery and mythology surrounding Jack the Ripper has made him into an increasingly heroic figure, while reducing the women he murdered into disposable objects of shame. In The Five, Hallie Rubenhold tells their stories in an attempt to reclaim the narrative.

This is a devastating read—firstly for the incredibly difficult lives these women led in Victorian London, where poverty was considered a moral failing, but even more so for the victim-blaming narrative perpetuated by the newspapers and still prevalent today in the media, in courtrooms and government, that suggests that sexual violence against a woman is somehow invited by the way she dresses, the places she goes, or how much she’s had to drink. An important book.

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The Confession
by Jessie Burton

A beautifully crafted literary mystery. Rose’s mother disappeared when she was a baby and her absence has coloured everything in Rose’s life until one day her father gives her a clue—the name of a novelist who was close to her mother, who was the last person to see her and might be able to finally give Rose answers and closure. The story follows Rose’s quest and at the same time reveals the story of what happened when Elise, Rose’s mother, met the novelist, Constance Holden, on Hampstead Heath in 1980. An intriguing and compelling story about friendship, truth and motherhood.

Uplifting Reads for Dystopian Times

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Much as I loved Station Eleven, I entreat you not to read it at the moment, this is not the time for dystopian fiction. I’m an escapist reader. I can cope with any amount of misery and peril if it’s set in an alternate universe or a fantasy world that feels far removed from our present reality. So, for a change I set myself a challenge to find books that were not merely distracting, but actually optimistic, redemptive, inspiring, or at least amusing. It’s an eclectic list but hopefully it should cater to a variety of reading preferences.

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The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse
by Charlie Mackesy

Now that we spend most of our days reading on a screen it is easy to forget the simple pleasure of paging through a beautiful book. The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse is a visual feast—an exquisitely illustrated book, filled with thoughtful and lyrical meditations on friendship, kindness and life in general.

 

 

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Becoming
by Michelle Obama

I’m not one for non-fiction generally and political memoir falls even lower on my priority list, but Michelle Obama won me over with her warmth, her sincerity and her wonderful storytelling gift. It probably helped that I listened to an audio version of this book—listening to Michelle Obama tell her own story only enhanced the experience. Becoming has powerful things to say about prejudice, privilege, ambition and personal growth—an inspiring read.

 

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The Giver of Stars
by Jojo Moyes

Set in the mountains of Kentucky in the 1930s, The Giver of Stars is based on the true history of travelling ‘packhorse librarians’, set up by Eleanor Roosevelt, an intrepid group of women delivering books and literacy to the far-flung families of Appalachia. A story of hardship and injustice but also of courage, love, friendship and triumph over adversity. (And crucially—the importance of libraries and librarians!)

 

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To Be Taught, If Fortunate
by Becky Chambers

I couldn’t resist one escapist read from my favourite sci-fi author. To Be Taught, If Fortunate is a novella about Ariadne, an astronaut, on a long voyage of exploration to four different planets. It encapsulates the spirit of space exploration but also muses on the ethics of space colonisation. And that is what I love most about Becky Chamber’s fiction—in her universe the future is a hopeful place where, though we have suffered the consequences of our own self-destructive tendencies, we have also actually learned something from our mistakes. Imagine that?

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The Portable Veblen
by Elizabeth Mckenzie

The Portable Veblen is a simply lovely book about an incongruous selection of subjects: marriage, familial relationships, medical advertising blurbs, the FDA approval process, and squirrels. The squirrels are the most important bit of course. I particularly enjoyed this bit of wisdom a squirrel imparts to the main character Veblen: ‘I want to meet muckrakers, carousers, the sweet-toothed, and the lion-hearted…’ Don’t we all!

 

 

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Where’d You Go, Bernadette
by Maria Semple

Fifteen-year-old Bee Branch has achieved perfect grades and as a reward her parents have promised her a family cruise to Antarctica for Christmas—but this could prove a problem for Bee’s agoraphobic mother Bernadette. When Bernadette disappears, just before the family are due to leave, Bee must investigate to find out where her mother has gone. This is a clever satire on contemporary life, but the story is relayed with a lot of warmth and affection, in particular the relationship between Bee and her mother, and it has many laugh-out-loud moments. A satisfying and enjoyable read.

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The Humans
by Matt Haig

The Humans is the moving and enjoyable story of an alien experiencing human life for the first time and trying to decide if there is any value to it. At first, he finds us repulsive but soon he is won over by Emily Dickinson, Debussy and peanut butter. I can’t fault his taste. The Humans is a philosophical novel but one with a sense of humour and a refreshing lack of pretension, for example, this wise advice: ‘Don’t always try to be cool. The whole universe is cool. It’s the warm bits that matter.’

 

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Wild
by Cheryl Strayed

What, another memoir? After the death of her mother and the breakdown of her marriage, Cheryl Strayed made an impulsive decision to hike the thousand-mile length of the Pacific Crest Trail, alone. I was worried that this book was going to be a bit too Eat, Pray, Love but fortunately it doesn’t have the same canned-epiphany vibe and I really enjoyed it. Cheryl Strayed’s journey, both geographically and emotionally, is completely captivating and inspiring (and made me want to hike the Pacific Crest trail!)

 

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Good Omens
by Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman

Perhaps this one is little too on the nose, but if anyone can make you feel cheerful about the end of the world, it’s going be Pratchett and Gaiman. Good Omens is a laugh-out-loud hilarious adventure about an angel and a fallen angel teaming up in an attempt to locate the Anti-Christ and prevent the end of the world. It also has some delightfully poignant moments and (spoiler alert) a happy ending—in case you were worried. Thoroughly enjoyable.

 

And to finish—some classic reads…

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Cold Comfort Farm
by Stella Gibbons

One of the most delightfully weird books I’ve ever read, Cold Comfort Farm is pure satirical silliness. Recently orphaned socialite, Flora Poste, moves in with her country relatives, the gloomy Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm, and has to sort through the tangled web of problems that beset them. I will always wonder what it was that Aunt Ada Doom saw in the woodshed.

 

 

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Catharine and Other Writings
by Jane Austen

I’ll admit this is a niche interest selection. Emma of course displays the pinnacle of Jane Austen’s sparkling wit and narrative genius, but can you call yourself a true Janeite if you haven’t read her juvenilia? Catharine and Other Writings is full of unending swooning, matter-of-fact murders, and Austen family in-jokes—the roots of her later works clearly visible in these playful scribblings. I cannot understand or forgive (looking at you, Charlotte Bronte) those who dismissed Jane Austen as a mere observer of banal trivialities, an 18th century Michael McIntyre, without discerning her fierce intellect and scalpel-sharp humour. Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.

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Sylvester
by Georgette Heyer

For pure enjoyment I love a Regency romance, and Georgette Heyer is the queen of the genre. Sylvester is one my Heyer favourites: a hero who is titled, rich, principled but proud (AKA Mr Darcy) and a heroine who is witty and intelligent but not pretty enough to be noticed by him in her first London season (Elizabeth Bennet). But she is not just Elizabeth Bennet, she is also Jane Austen, a secret novelist, and she takes her revenge by writing a sharp parody of him as the villain of her gothic tale. Escapes via curricle, kidnappings and other japes ensue…brilliant fun.

Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange

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61scQWukLuLFor the fourth meeting of The Book Fanatics (Mwah Ha Ha Ha Ha) Year 8 Book Club the group voted for Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange.

What follows are the perspicacious ponderings of Ernest, Garfield, Gloria, Karen and Oggy. (Real Year 8 pupils, not their real names.)

Book: Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange

Genre: Historical Fiction

Describe this book in three words:
Ernest: quiet, historic, engaging
Garfield: historic, engaging, nice
Gloria: odd but cool
Karen: history, sisters, crime
Oggy: war, bombs, death – lots of it!

If this book was an animal, what kind of animal would it be?
A hermit crab, a stone animal, a goldfish, a dragon, an octopus.

If this book was a colour, what colour would it be?
Space grey, a whirl of colour, green, and yellow. 

Main character/characters & their Hogwarts Houses:
Petra: Hufflepuff
Everyone else: Slytherin

Which character would you most like to be friends with?
Ernest: Mutti
Garfield: Grandpa Joe
Gloria: The Sea Monster
Karen: Magda because she is cool
Oggy: Magda

What decision would you have made differently from the main character?
Ernest would have told on Michael, everyone else would have pushed him off the cliff. Garfield and Gloria would have followed Magda. Karen would’ve told Magda about Michael. Oggy would’ve told everyone’s secrets.

Who would you cast in a movie version of this book?
In Ermentrude’s absence, Greta Thunberg was unanimously cast as Petra. Gloria suggested Jennifer Lawrence for Mutti and Tom Holland for Michael. Karen also suggested Tom Holland for Michael and Emma Watson for Magda. Oggy suggested Ian Somerhalder for Michael.

What did you enjoy the most about this book?
Ernest enjoyed the secrecy, Garfield liked the history, Gloria and Oggy liked Michael, and Karen liked the suspense.

Have you read any other books you could recommend to someone who likes this book:
Letters from the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll

Give the book a star rating out of five:
An average of 3.5 stars.

Best Children’s Books 2019

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We are truly in a golden age of children’s fiction and there are so many amazing new children’s books that I still want to read, but here are some of the best ones I have read this year:

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Starfell: Willow Moss and the Lost Day
(Starfell #1) by Dominique Valente

One of my favourites: the delightful and charming story of Willow Moss, the youngest and least impressive witch in her family. Willow’s gift is for finding lost things, which doesn’t seem very exciting, until the day that the most powerful witch in Starfell comes to Willow for help in locating last Tuesday – which has mysteriously gone missing. Willow sets off to find last Tuesday with the monster under her bed (who is definitely NOT a cat and will get very angry and explode if you call him that). I thoroughly enjoyed this book, it’s full of funny, inventive detail, great characters, and is beautifully illustrated throughout by Sarah Warburton. Absolutely enchanting!

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Roller Girl
by Victoria Jamieson

With more and more kids reading ebooks these days, a graphic novel is a perfect Christmas book gift. (I’ve gifted one copy of this book already.) Astrid has always done everything with her best friend Nicole. So when Astrid falls in love with roller derby and signs up for a summer camp, she’s sure Nicole will come too, until Nicole signs up for ballet camp instead. Astrid sets off for roller derby camp alone and discovers that it’s a lot more difficult that she thought it would be. I loved this funny empowering story about friendship, bravery and resilience set in the crazy world of roller derby.

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The Star Outside my Window
by Onjali Q. Rauf

From the author of The Boy at the Back of the Class, Onjali Rauf tackles another tricky and topical subject in her latest book, The Star Outside My Window: domestic violence and in particular the impact this has on children. If this sounds like a bit much for a young audience (I was slightly horrified when I realised I’d given this book as a prize for a nine-year-old), be reassured that the issue is treated with sensitivity and there are helpful warnings and advice at the beginning and the end of the book. Ten-year-old Aniyah has just arrived at a new foster home with her five-year-old brother. She is struggling to understand what has happened to her family but when she sees a news story about a competition to name a new star she realises that the star must be her Mum and she makes a daring plan to travel to Greenwich to tell the astronomers what the star should be called. In the process she finds out what really happened to her Mum and she finds a new family. It’s a devastating, heartbreaking story (even writing the review is making me cry) but somehow the author manages to finish on a hopeful note. The Star Outside my Window is a powerful story with the potential to help those who have experienced violence at home, but also to inspire kindness and empathy in those who haven’t. Highly recommended.

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The Girl Who Speaks Bear
by Sophie Anderson

Yanka was found in a bear cave as a child and has always been a little different to everyone else in her village – taller and stronger than all the other children, who call her ‘Yanka the Bear’. After an accident leaves Yanka changed, she goes in search of the bear who raised her to find answers about who and what she is. As Yanka journeys through the forest she meets some other characters and they share stories with each other (including another house with chicken legs) and eventually Yanka must team up with all her new friends to defeat a dragon, break a curse and discover who her family really is. This is an enchanting, lyrical adventure, based on Russian folklore, full of wonderful characters, stories, and a heartfelt message about friendship and family. I particularly enjoyed Mousetrap the house weasel who has an inflated idea of himself but, as it turns out, does actually have some bizarre and useful skills.

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Brightstorm: A Sky-Ship Adventure (Sky-Ship Adventure #1) by Vashti Hardy

Maudie and Arthur are twins left alone when their father doesn’t return from an airship expedition, but there are suspicious circumstances surrounding his disappearance and their father stands accused of breaking the explorer’s code. The twins must find a way to join another airship expedition to see if they can find their father and clear their family name. A thrilling steampunk-style adventure full of brilliant characters, magical creatures and exciting technology. I thoroughly enjoyed this – highly recommended.

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Can You See Me?
by Libby Scott, Rebecca Westcott

11-year-old Tally is starting secondary school but she has a secret that only her close friends and family know – Tally is autistic and she spends a lot of time and energy trying to act like everyone else so she will fit in. Tally’s narrative is interspersed with diary excerpts written by 11-year-old Libby Scott inspired by her own experience of autism. Autism, at the milder end of the spectrum, does tend to be portrayed in books and films as a fun personality quirk but this story reveals the struggles and anxiety that many autistic people hide. Can You See Me resonates with warmth and authenticity – a thoughtful, informative and moving book.

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Not My Fault
by Cath Howe

Maya and Rose are sisters, but that’s about all they have in common. Rose is neat, diligent, and a star gymnast, but is also secretly eaten up with guilt about Maya’s accident. Maya is charismatic, chaotic, and driven to self-destructive behaviour by physical pain and anger about her accident. Maya and Rose are not talking to each other, but a school residential trip to Wales will be the catalyst that makes or breaks their relationship. The story is told from both of their perspectives and beautifully illustrates the ways that siblings can know each other so well, but also completely misunderstand each other. Sometimes it’s harder to forgive your family than anyone else, but Not My Fault is a prescription for sibling empathy. Highly recommended.

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A Pinch of Magic
(A Pinch of Magic #1) by Michelle Harrison

A Pinch of Magic is the story of the three Widdershins sisters, three magical objects and a terrible curse that has been passed down through generations of Widdershins women. Betty has always longed to escape from Crowstone and find adventure out beyond the confines of the The Poacher’s Pocket, but when she discovers the truth about the curse Betty finds herself thrust into an situation that could break the curse forever but it could also be the death of her and her sisters. This story has all the elements you could possibly want from a magical middle-grade adventure – an atmospheric setting, a thrilling plot and a brilliant protagonist. Loved it.

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Legacy (
Keeper of the Lost Cities #8) by Shannon Messenger

One of the girls at school turned me on to this series and I have to agree that it is thoroughly addictive. In book 1, Keeper of the Lost Cities, 12-year-old Sophie discovers she’s a telepathic elf and is whisked off to Elf-Hogwarts to start her education. It sounds slightly derivative but it is a page turner and by book 2 Sophie’s world is well established and her adventures are off to solid start. This is book 8 in the series and supposedly book 9 will be the final book. Keeper of the Lost Cities is a fantasy adventure with a very mild hint of romance (team Foster-Keefe forever) and highly recommended for series binge-readers in particular.

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Magnus Chase and the Ship of the Dead
(Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard #3) by Rick Riordan

This is the third instalment in the Magnus Chase series based on Norse mythology, in which Magnus and his friends must defeat Loki in order to prevent Ragnarok. This series is longer and raises some more complex issues that Percy Jackson, and as such I think it is intended for a slightly older child or as the next level up for those die-hard Percy Jackson fans. I read this one aloud to the kids, it’s a very long book with some extremely hard-to-pronounce Norse vocabulary, but as always it is a hilarious, action-packed adventure. (Our favourite part is always the chapter headings.) The story of Percy Jackson began as a way for Rick Riordan to give his son a dyslexic, ADHD character role model, and Rick continues this tradition of inclusivity in the Magnus Chase series. What is particularly great in this series, is that the inclusive characters are not token figureheads – they are very deliberately and purposefully used. No one ever forgets to speak to Hearthstone in sign language, however awkward that is to the scene, Alex Fierro, Magnus’s crush is gender-fluid, and Magnus always has to be aware which pronouns to use, and of course Muslim Valkyrie Samira has to pray, wear her hijab and fast for Ramadan – in between saving the world.

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Aru Shah and the End of Time
(Pandava Quintet #1) by Roshani Chokshi

I also love the fact that Rick Riordan uses his platform to support other writers through his Rick Riordan Presents series. Which brings us to Aru Shah. Aru Shah and the End of Time features two kickass protagonists, Aru and Mini, a disgruntled pigeon, and huge cast of gods and monsters who help and hinder Aru and Mini in their quest to stop the sinister Sleeper. This is a funny, fast-paced adventure story based on Hindu Mythology, perfect for fans of Rick Riordan as it follows the same kind of pattern. I read this one aloud to the kids too and we thoroughly enjoyed it. A second book in this series, Aru Shah and the Song of Death, was published this year and I’m looking forward to reading it.

Books for Teens:
It’s hard to draw a definitive boundary but the following books are more suited to a secondary-school audience…

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Orphan, Monster, Spy
(Orphan Monster Spy #1) by Matt Killeen

This is my favourite teen book of the year. Sarah is a Jewish girl living in Nazi Germany, her mother sacrificed everything to get her out of the country – but instead of running away Sarah fights back against the regime by becoming a spy and going undercover in an elite Nazi boarding school. A thoroughly gripping WW2-based spy thriller, with a super-smart, fiercely brave protagonist – I couldn’t put it down. The sequel, Devil, Darling, Spy is due out in 2020.

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Deeplight
by Frances Hardinge

Thirty years ago the gods of the Undersea destroyed each other and now the islanders of the Myriad live on stories of the gods and scavenge ‘godware’ – relics brought up from the seabed. When Hark and his friend Jelt find a relic that seems to have healing powers they are inadvertently sucked into an adventure that endangers their lives and the future of the Myriad. As always, Frances Hardinge’s fantasy world is brimming with life and her characters, delightfully and authentically flawed. Hark and Jelt’s dysfunctional relationship is particularly poignant, as is the inclusion of the ‘sea-kissed’ characters – divers who have lost their hearing due to accidents at sea. I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of this story – brilliantly done.

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Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus

A thoroughly engrossing teen murder mystery, perfect for fans of Veronica Mars and Pretty Little Liars. (In fact I imagined the whole story with a geographically-inaccurate grimy, sun-bleached style and a cynical, wisecracking teen-PI narrator.) Twins, Ellery and Ezra are sent to live with their grandmother in Echo Falls when their mother is checked into rehab, but it’s a town with a dark history. Five years earlier the homecoming queen was murdered and her body dumped in ‘Murderland’ – the local horror-based theme park. And there’s a dark event in Ellery and Ezra’s own family history too. The action starts up immediately – there’s a hit-and-run on the night they arrive in town, soon someone starts posting anonymous threats aimed at the next homecoming queen, and when a girl disappears it starts to look like history will repeat itself. True-crime obsessed Ellery must team up with Malcolm, brother of the prime suspect from the previous case, to unravel the mystery. I enjoyed One of Us if Lying but I found this book to be more atmospheric and more unpredictable – I loved it and couldn’t put it down.

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The Vanishing Stair
(Truly Devious #2) by Maureen Johnson

Thoroughly enjoyed the first two books in this series. True-crime aficionado Stevie Bell is accepted into the prestigious Ellingham Academy, scene of a notorious unsolved case from the 1930s. Stevie is determined to solve the cold case but there’s a mystery afoot in the present as well. Book 1 ends with a murder and a fiendish cliffhanger so I downloaded book 2 immediately. Stevie has been pulled out of school, for her own safety, but she’ll do anything to get back there to be with her friends and continue her investigation. The final book in the trilogy is due out in January 2020.

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Jemima Small Versus the Universe
by Tamsin Winter

From the award-winning author of Being Miss Nobody, Jemima Small Versus the Universe is a wonderfully life-affirming story about learning to love yourself. Jemima Small just wants to be like other girls. She hates being forced to join the school health group, AKA Fat Club, and that she can’t apply for her favourite TV show without worrying everyone will laugh at her. But perhaps Jemima can do more than just stand out, perhaps it’s her time to shine. A funny, moving story about bullying, body confidence and learning how to be happy with who you are. All hail the new Judy Blume!

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The Gifted, the Talented and Me
by William Sutcliffe

When Sam’s family come into some money unexpectedly, they move from Stevenage to Hampstead in London, and Sam and his brother and sister are enrolled in a special arts school for the gifted and talented. This suits Sam’s siblings just fine but Sam doesn’t feel particularly gifted or talented, he just wants to be normal, play football and hang out with his mates. But football is taboo at his new school. Sam is a wonderfully relatable character and there are some great laugh-out-loud moments, I thoroughly enjoyed this story of trying to fit in when fitting in means standing out.

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The Deathless Girls
by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

An evocative, gothic story of the Brides of Dracula. Lil and her twin sister Kizzy are travellers who are captured and enslaved by a local Boyar but this is just the beginning of their journey. Will Lil and Kizzy have the courage to do what it takes to survive. This is no Twilight, it is a lyrical,  beautifully imagined alternative version of a classic story, perfect for anyone who loved Louise O’Neill’s The Surface Breaks. Highly recommended.

 

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Heartstopper: Volume Two (Heartstopper #2) by Alice Oseman

Based on a popular webcomic series, Heartstopper is an LGBTQ+ graphic novel and this is the second volume in the series. Charlie has had a rough year, he came out and was bullied but he has good friends and he hopes that things might be looking up. When he meets Nick he starts falling for him, but he’s sure Nick is straight and that he won’t have a chance. But love works in surprising ways, and sometimes good things are waiting just around the corner. Heartstopper is about friendship, loyalty and mental illness. This is a very sweet, heartwarming story, perfect for fans of Love, Simon.

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On the Come Up
by Angie Thomas

I’m sure you will have heard of Angie Thomas’ breakout hit The Hate U Give. On the Come Up is her second novel, it is not a sequel but is set in the same neighbourhood as her first book. Sixteen-year-old Bri wants to be a rapper to fulfil her father’s legacy, but also to save her family from poverty. The Hate U Give was always going to be a tough act to follow but Angie Thomas has risen to the challenge – On the Come Up has many of the same elements that made THUG so successful but it surpasses it in depth and nuance. Bri is a grittier, more complex character than Starr and her compelling rap lyrics add an extra layer. It’s also a thoroughly gripping story. I loved it and was privileged to hear Angie Thomas perform Bri’s battle rap at the Southbank Centre earlier this year.

Best Fantasy 2019

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I’ve read a lot of fantasy in 2019. It’s been that kind of year. Here are some of my favourites:

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Darkdawn (The Nevernight Chronicle #3) by Jay Kristoff

The Nevernight Chronicles was my favourite fantasy series of the year and Darkdawn was a perfect ending. It was funnier, bloodier and even more ambitious than the other two books. It’s difficult to review this book without spoilers but needless to say: the identity of the loquacious, hyperbolic narrator is revealed, the full story of the clash between gods that created the fundamental imbalance of Mia’s world is explained as well as the origin of the Darkins, and Mia realises the role she has to play in restoring balance. And just for fun: the author takes the piss out of his own prose, there is an excruciatingly awkward dinner on a pirate ship and there are some great new characters, including Mia’s snarky little brother and a pirate called Cloud. I know some have taken issue with the ending but I thought it was perfectly satisfying and very moving. Thoroughly enjoyed this series.

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Kingdom of Ash (Throne of Glass #7) by Sarah J. Maas

I started 2019 by rereading all of the Throne of Glass books in preparation for the final instalment, Kingdom of Ash. (Including the prequel novellas – very important!) So I started the final book thoroughly absorbed in the world and caught up on all the obscure side characters who might be likely to reappear unexpectedly and play a starring role. As they do…
Kingdom of Ash itself reminded me a lot of The Lord of the Rings – it had a lot of Tolkienesque aspects, from evil objects of power and giant spiders to deus-ex-machina battle turnarounds, unlikely heroes and lost monarchs. There were a couple of moments in this book where I wanted to strangle Aelin – where her actions seemed to be in service to the unfolding of the plot rather than in character, but altogether a coherent and satisfying end to the series. I loved the fact that Aelin didn’t just fry all her enemies with her fire magic in the end, but the resolution depended on the contributions of all the other characters – the women in particular.
What an ambitious, epic adventure – brilliant world-building, complex, interesting characters and heart-stopping action. Highly recommended.

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The True Queen (Sorcerer Royal #2) by Zen Cho

The Sorcerer Royal series earns points with me for being set in Regency England in the vein of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which I loved. In the second book, sisters Muna and Satki wake up on the shores of Janda Baik with no recollection of who they are or where they come from. They set out for London via the Fairy Realm to see if the Sorceress Royal can help them to banish the curse that has stolen their memories, but Satki disappears en route and Muna must brave London society alone while plotting to rescue her sister from the Queen of the Fairies. I loved the first book and was really looking forward to returning to this world. I’m not sure I liked this one quite as much as The Sorcerer to the Crown, but it’s certainly an enjoyable and unpredictable adventure with some brilliant world-building. I hope there are more adventures to follow.

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Fire and Blood: A History of the Targaryen Kings from Aegon the Conqueror to Aegon III (A Targaryen History #1) by George R.R. Martin

I started reading with some trepidation as this is an extremely weighty tome (I bought the hardback – for the pictures) but I was soon swept away by the triumphs and tragedies of the Targaryen dynasty. If Game of Thrones is the War of the Roses then surely the Targaryens must be the Roman Empire – I was also reminded of the convoluted machinations of Robert Graves’s I, Claudius. The scope is epic and cast of characters is overwhelmingly numerous but George RR Martin is brilliant at painting a vivid, detailed image with just a few lines while maintaining the context of the bigger picture throughout the book. An impressive achievement, and it’s only the first half. I think the pilot has been picked up for a television series as well, so that’s one more thing for George RR to finish before he gets around to The Winds of Winter!

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Bloodchild (The Godblind Trilogy #3) by Anna Stephens

I don’t think I’ve come across the genre ‘grimdark’ before, but this series gleefully fulfils this description. Anna Stephens tosses you into a disorientating world of multiple narrators, fast-paced action, warring gods and vivid, visceral violence, but the narrative is fiercely compelling. In this final book, Rilporin has fallen but so has the god of the conquering Mireces, the Dark Lady. But there is a prophecy that a baby will be born who can return the Dark Lady from death. The Rilporians must find a way to stop this while they prepare for a final battle. A suitably bloodthirsty and harrowing end to a great series. I did have a little weep at the loss of some of my favourite characters, but all in all a satisfying conclusion. I needed to read some light-hearted romantic fiction afterwards to recover…

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Ninth House (Alex Stern #1) by Leigh Bardugo

A story of murder, ghosts and secret societies at Yale. Alex Stern never fitted it at school, no one one believed her when she was attacked by things that no one else could see. When Alex is the sole survivor of a horrific massacre, she is given the opportunity to attend Yale, bastion of wealth and privilege, another place where Alex definitely doesn’t fit in. But when her mentor goes missing under mysterious circumstances and a woman has been murdered, Alex’s special gifts might mean that she is the only one who can trace those responsible and bring them to justice. A gripping, atmospheric supernatural murder mystery with a damaged, complex narrator. Hoping there will be a sequel soon…

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The Toll (Arc of a Scythe #3) by Neal Shusterman

In the blurb this series sounds like another tedious Hunger Games wannabe, but it is so much more than that. In a ‘utopian’ future, the world is run by a benevolent AI called the Thunderhead, who administrates every aspect of life with perfect fairness, apart from one thing – death. With no hunger, disease, and quick resuscitation from accidental death provided by the Thunderhead – population control is a problem. Death is administrated by an order of ‘Scythes’ who cull the population supposedly impartially and randomly. Of course this system is open to exploitation and corruption but the Thunderhead is compelled never to interfere in scythe affairs. It is the most chilling and disturbing dystopian series I’ve read in a long time, but also completely gripping, weirdly enjoyable and it raises some fascinating philosophical questions. The Toll is a pitch-perfect ending to each character’s storyline and to a thought-provoking, moving & brilliantly orchestrated series.

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The Queen of Nothing (The Folk of the Air #3) by Holly Black

The Folk of the Air is a deliciously dark series that begins with the protagonist’s parents being brutally murdered, following which Jude is adopted by the murderer and taken away to Faerie with her sisters. This pretty much sets the tone for the the rest of the series. Jude is human and grows up despised and disparaged by the fae, in particular Prince Cardan, the younger son of the King. But this only makes Jude more determined to prove herself and find a role for herself in the faerie court. Her political machinations triumph at the end of book two but then Cardan banishes her back to the human world and the final book starts with Jude, miserable in exile – desperate to get back to the faerie world she loves and hates in equal measure. The final book resolves Jude’s role in faerie, her relationship with Cardan, and provides appropriate comeuppance for her murderous stepfather. A very satisfying ending to a brilliantly compelling and imaginative series.

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The Bone Houses by Emily Lloyd-Jones

A rare standalone fantasy novel. Ryn is a gravedigger in the remote village of Colbren, which sits at the foot of a sinister forested mountain range, once home to the fae and now home to the ‘Bone Houses’, a plague of reanimated corpses. Since the death of their parents, Ryn and her siblings have struggled to survive, but everything gets much worse when the bone houses suddenly leave the forest and start to attack the village. Ren joins up with Ellis, an apprentice map-maker, to journey into the mountains to find a way to break the curse that has brought the bone-houses to life, and perhaps they can also solve the mystery of Ellis’s origins. I thoroughly enjoyed this dark gothic tale: Welsh myths, a peculiar goat, romance and kickass zombie-slaying – what’s not to like?

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Call Down the Hawk (Dreamer Trilogy #1) by Maggie Stiefvater

It took me several tries to get into Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle books but once I’d been sucked in, I couldn’t tear myself away from the bizarre, dreamlike world of Blue, Gansey, Ronan and Adam. Call Down the Hawk is the start of another series featuring Ronan and his brothers, focusing on Dreamers and the mysterious group who are intent on killing them all. It took me a while to get into this new cast of characters (and in fact I’d just got invested in the story when it ended) but it has the same intensely compelling, surreal quality and vivid characterisation of the Raven Cycle.

I would also include the following books that I wrote about in a previous post:
The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon
The Kingdom of Copper (The Daevabad Trilogy #2) by S.A. Chakraborty
The Winter of the Witch (Winternight Trilogy #3) by Katherine Arden

Deeplight by Frances Hardinge

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44647479._SY475_For the third meeting of The Book Fanatics (Mwah Ha Ha Ha Ha) Year 8 Book Club the group voted for Deeplight by Frances Hardinge, and were entirely mature about the illustrations of the Hidden Lady’s boobs in the endpapers.

What follows are the unfathomable inklings of Ernest, Ermentrude, Garfield, Gloria and Oggy. (Real Year 8 pupils, not their real names.)

Book: Deeplight by Frances Hardinge

Genre: Fantasy

Describe this book in three words:
Ernest: tense, confusing, long
Ermentrude: very long, good
Garfield: tense, magical, confusing
Gloria: confusing, confusing, confusing
Oggy: deep, light, confusing

If this book was an animal, what kind of animal would it be?
A lionfish, a Nemo-fish, a kraken, a blobfish, a jellyfish

If this book was a colour, what colour would it be?
Blue or black

Main character/characters & their Hogwarts Houses:
Hark: Gryffindor
Jelt: Slytherin

Which character would you most like to be friends with?
Ernest: Selphin
Ermentrude: Jelt
Garfield: Hark
Gloria: The sea
Oggy: Dr Vine or the gods

What decision would you have made differently from the main character?
Ernest and Oggy wouldn’t have saved Jelt, Ermentrude would’ve married Jelt, Garfield would’ve destroyed the heart.

Who would you cast in a movie version of this book?
As usual, Ermentrude would’ve cast herself.

What did you enjoy the most about this book?
Ernest enjoyed the suspense, Ermentrude liked Jelt, Garfield liked the mystery and Oggy liked the gods.

Have you read any other books you could recommend to someone who likes this book:
The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge, The Surface Breaks by Louise O’Neill

Give the book a star rating out of five:
An average of 4½ stars.