Favourite Books 2019

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The temptation is to make this list longer and longer each year, but to avoid this I have excluded all of the books previously mentioned in my Summer Reading Recommendations and I will do a separate list for fantasy books and children’s books. Without further ado…

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Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

This is my favourite book of the year. One dark night on the Thames, a group of pub regulars are exchanging stories when the door bursts open to reveal an injured stranger carrying the body of a drowned girl. An hour later the girl takes a breath and comes back to life. How did she survive? Who is she? And what are the circumstances that led up to this night?

Once upon a River is an absolutely enchanting and lyrical novel full of folklore, mystery, love and science, set on the Thames in Victorian England. I loved every minute of this book!

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Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver

Maud lives with her horrible, repressive misogynistic father on the edge of the fens. When he accidentally discovers a medieval panel portraying the devil it triggers the memory of a guilty secret he’s kept buried since childhood and it slowly starts to eat away at him. Maud reads his diary and tries to protect the fen and the people she loves from her father’s increasing suspicion and hostility.

This book was everything I hoped it would be, a sinister and atmospheric gothic tale of murder and superstition. Brilliantly done. (Plus – what a beautiful cover design!)

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To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

Could Becky Chambers write anything I wouldn’t love? Not likely. I was excited to hear she had a new book coming out, less so to hear it was just a novella, but To Be Taught, If Fortunate is such a perfectly polished gem of a book that I can’t criticise it for its length. It it encapsulates the spirit of space exploration but also muses on the ethics of space exploration – a fascinating thought in light of the damage that colonialism has done to earth. 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 Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker

New York, 1899. Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by dark Kabbalistic magic. When her master dies she must find her own way to live. Ahmad the djinni has been trapped in an old copper flask for centuries but when he is accidentally released he must find a way to free himself once and for all. The golem and djinni become unlikely friends, until their pasts catch up with them and they face a threat that could destroy them both.

I loved this book, an inventive, atmospheric story about two fascinating characters. Brilliantly done.

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Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

Queenie is a 25-year-old journalist, ‘on a break’ from her longterm boyfriend, Tom, and struggling to adjust to life without him. She’s not performing at work, she has a series of terrible dates with men who see her as an object not a person, her Jamaican grandparents don’t understand her, and she starts to feel like everything is falling apart.

Reading Queenie felt a lot like watching the first season of Fleabag: at first Queenie’s self-destructive behaviour is difficult to read and hard to comprehend, but the story is darker and more complex than it first appears. Queenie is definitely not Bridget Jones. A wonderfully fresh, honest story about family, friendship and mental health.

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The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

The Testaments is everything I hoped it would be. It answers the questions left hanging at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale but is another thrilling, brilliantly-plotted, and thought-provoking narrative in its own right. It’s one of those books that it is better to read without knowing too much about it in advance, but needless to say – highly recommended. I couldn’t put it down.

Having said that, this is a book for the fans – and in particular it is an alternative sequel for those who didn’t have a strong enough stomach for The Handmaid’s Tale TV series. (I couldn’t watch much beyond series 1.) Should it have won the Booker? Personally, I think Margaret Atwood deserves a prize for everything she writes, but in this case perhaps I would’ve given it Bernadine Evaristo alone…

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Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

And speaking of…
Bookended by the launch of a play at the National Theatre, Girl, Woman, Other tells the lives of twelve characters (primarily black British women), in twelve interconnected stories.

I loved this book. Each character is so vividly captured, in their own story and in the glimpses we catch of them though the other characters’ eyes – a thoroughly impressive feat of voice and characterisation. Girl, Woman, Other is technically brilliant, but is also an incredibly captivating and moving book.

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The Familiars by Stacey Halls

Set in 1612 and based on real historical characters, The Familiars deals with the Pendle Hill Witch Trials. Fleetwood Shuttleworth has had several miscarriages and fears that her latest pregnancy may end in her own death as well as her child, until she meets a midwife who promises to save her life and that of her unborn child. A power-hungry local magistrate, however, is on the hunt for witches, and in 1612 it only takes being a woman in the wrong place at the wrong time to be accused of witchcraft. Fleetwood must find a way to save her midwife Alice from being hanged without being accused herself.

I thoroughly enjoyed this gripping, evocative tale.

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The Wych Elm by Tana French

Toby has always felt lucky, until the day he is robbed and suffers a traumatic head injury that leaves him a broken shadow of the person he once was. Then his uncle gets cancer and the discovery of the body in the wych elm at the bottom of the garden makes him question everything he ever thought about his family and himself.

This wasn’t quite the page-turning thriller I was expecting, so it took a little while to get into it but definitely worth reading – a slow-burn literary mystery with lots of introspection and complicated family dynamics. It is not a cheerful or a comfortable read but it is beautifully written, complex and thought-provoking.

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Bone China by Laura Purcell

Hester Why hopes a new name and new job will be a fresh start and an end to her bad luck, but her new situation brings superstition, fear and lots of sinister bone china.

Another deliciously creepy, gothic page turner from Laura Purcell. I think The Corset is still my favourite of her books so far, but Bone China is a close second. (Side note: I’d never thought about why it’s called bone china. Eeeeuw!)

What to Read This Summer

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Here are twelve new books/series that I’ve read this year and can highly recommend for your holiday reading. I’ve arranged them loosely into categories but most of them don’t conform to just one genre.

CONTEMPORARY

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Daisy Jones & The Six
by Taylor Jenkins Reid
This book is quintessential summer reading—I’m predicting you’ll see a lot of it on Instagram holiday posts. Daisy Jones and the Six is a band-biopic-style story about the rise and fall of it-girl Daisy Jones and rock band The Six, set in seventies Los Angeles, told in the form of snippets from interviews with the band and those connected to them. It has a cast of characters so believable you’ll want to google them. There’s Daisy herself, a neglected child and drug addict, but also a brilliant songwriter exploited by male artists until she learns to stand up for herself. Billy Dunne, the lead singer, is arrogant, self-centred and locked in a love-hate relationship with Daisy. Camila, his wife, knows what she signed up for and is determined to stick with Billy despite everything. And Karen, the keyboardist, wants to be a professional musician but the men in her life can’t quite get their heads around the fact that she doesn’t want to get married and have children. Daisy Jones & The Six is a wonderfully atmospheric, nostalgic read that captures the fleeting nature of youth and fame, while also being optimistic about the resilience of love. I couldn’t put it down – a thoroughly enjoyable book.

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The Heavens
by Sandra Newman
Kate and Ben meet at a party in New York and at first it feel like a quintessential millennial meet-cute, a New York version of Normal People, but then we read that the Green Party is in power, there’s a female president, poverty is in decline and things are looking up for the planet—it seems that Kate and Ben live in a utopian alternate reality. But then we learn that Kate sometimes dreams she has been transported into the dreams of another woman. One day she wakes up in another time and discovers that her actions in the past can change the present, but they could also have disastrous consequences for the future. I love a genre-bending novel and The Heavens is a synthesis of beautiful prose, scalpel-sharp observation and a dreamlike sequence of events that put me in mind of Station Eleven, The Summer of Impossible Things, The Time Traveller’s Wife and Russian Doll. A disorientating and captivating novel.

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My Sister, the Serial Killer
by Oyinkan Braithwaite
Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize, this book will inspire anyone to appreciate their own annoying younger sisters. (Just testing to see if they read my blog posts.) Korede is the dutiful, responsible hard-working older sister. Ayoola is the beautiful but spoilt younger sister and favourite child. She is also a psychopath. Korede spends her time clearing up after her sister: helping her dispose of bodies, cover her tracks and hide evidence. Her work as a nurse and her blossoming friendship with an attractive doctor makes the hospital Korede’s oasis away from her demanding sister, but Korede’s loyalty to her sister is tested when Ayoola invades the hospital and sets her sights on the same doctor. I really enjoyed My Sister, the Serial Killer—a scalpel-sharp and darkly humorous portrait of sisterly love.

CRIME & THRILLER

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Into the Water
by Paula Hawkins
The Girl on the Train was the lauded as the new Gone Girl, became a bestseller and received the Hollywood treatment but I found Paula Hawkins’ next novel, Into the Water, a better written and much more interesting book. Jules ignores a phone call from her sister Nel, and now Nel is dead in an apparent suicide, and Jules must return to the town she escaped from and confront her past and her fears. At first glance this book is a thriller but there’s a lot more going on below the surface, from the wonderfully atmospheric setting of ‘The Drowning Pool’ and the complex relationships between Jules, her sister and her niece, to the theme of women being violently silenced by men. Highly recommended.

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Red Snow (Tuva Moodyson Mystery #2)
by Will Dean
Will Dean is a British author who writes Scandi-Noir inspired by the terrifying forest on the remote outskirts of Sweden where he lives with his family. (Read Dark Pines – Tuva Moodyson #1 first if you haven’t read it.) Tuva’s return did not disappoint, Will Dean maintains the sinister atmosphere that made the first book so chillingly enticing. Tuva is finishing up her last couple of weeks at the Gavrik Posten before moving south for a better-paid position in a larger town, but there’s a new murderer on the loose, nicknamed ‘The Ferryman’. Tuva digs for the inside scoop on the Ferryman, recklessly endangering herself in the process, while also taking on some freelance research work—interviewing the eccentric and ill-fated Grimberg family who own the local liquorice factory and employ most of the town. Another beautifully written, evocative, intriguing story—I may never feel warm again.

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Blood for Blood (Ziba MacKenzie #1)
Nothing to Lose (Ziba MacKenzie #2)
by Victoria Selman
Ziba Mackenzie is a profiler, still coming to terms with her husband’s sudden violent death two years earlier, when she is involved in a horrific rail accident. The same accident incites a notorious serial killer to start a new killing spree and Ziba is called in to profile him and track him down. In Nothing to Lose Ziba finds a lead in her husband’s unsolved murder case and starts to dig deeper into a case of corruption and cover-up that will put her life in danger, while also investigating a new serial killer on the loose whose victims look alarmingly similar to Ziba herself. I thoroughly enjoyed these unpredictably twisty thrillers and I’m looking forward to the next Ziba MacKenzie book.

HISTORICAL FICTION

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The Doll Factory
by Elizabeth Macneal
The Doll Factory is the story of Iris, a shop-girl who longs to be an artist, and Silas, a sinister taxidermist and collector. Their fateful meeting leads to Iris being asked to model for one of the Pre-Raphaelite artists, opening doors for her to learn to paint and pursue her own artistic dreams. At the same time Silas becomes obsessed with Iris and begins to plan a different future for her. The Doll Factory definitely falls into the ‘lush historical fiction’ category with books like The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, Victorian London is evoked in wonderfully visceral detail, but it is also a romance, an artistic coming-of-age story and a page-turning thriller. Brilliantly done.

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The Corset
by Laura Purcell
I loved Laura Purcell’s first book, The Silent Companions—a super-creepy ghost story, but The Corset is subtler, more sinister and reminded me a lot of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace. Dorothea Truelove uses her charitable visits to Oakgate Prison as a respectable cover to indulge her true passion, phrenology—the study of personality through the bumps on a human skull, popular in the Victorian era. When Ruth Butterham arrives at the prison Dorothea jumps at the chance to examine the skull of a real murderess to see what she can divine. Ruth confesses to Dorothea an outlandish belief that her stitching and embroidery has the power to kill people. The truth is beautifully unravelled as Ruth tells her tragic story and the final reveal is suitably satisfying. A fiendishly clever book – loved it!

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The Binding
by Bridget Collins
The blurb of The Binding made it sound quite similar to The Corset, and it has a similarly beautiful cover design, but though it has a historical feel—this book is set in an alternate past. Emmett Farmer is summoned from the fields of his family farm to become an apprentice to a Bookbinder, but in this world, bookbinding is something more magical and more sinister than the name implies. I don’t want to spoil the plot by giving too much away, suffice it to say this is a captivating adventure and love story, with a hint of magical-realism. Perfect for fans of The Miniaturist.

FANTASY

If you’re looking for your epic fantasy fix now Game of Thrones has finished, here are my suggestions:

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The Priory of the Orange Tree
by Samantha Shannon
I’ve had this one on my to-read list since I heard about it, particularly because of its evocative title. And The Priory of the Orange Treeis everything I hope it would be: a richly-detailed world with beautifully imagined histories, genealogies, mythologies and religions, plus complex characters and, of course, dragons. I’m glad I bought the hardback version (even though it’s a gigantic tome) as I frequently needed to flip back to the maps at the front to work out where the action was happening. (Kindle really need to work on a functionality solution for maps.) I particularly love the way Samantha Shannon uses a classic fantasy structure but turns the traditional tropes on their heads, like the conventions of monarchy, for example. (Why isn’t the word ‘Queendom’ used more often?) A thoroughly engrossing world.

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The City of Brass (The Daevabad Trilogy #1)
The Kingdom of Copper (The Daevabad Trilogy #2)
by S.A. Chakraborty
The City of Brass is an ambitious fantasy novel 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. Dara the Djinn takes her to Daevabad, the home of her ancestors, a city simmering with historical tensions between the Djinn and the half-human Shafit people and between the various Djinn tribes. The second narrator, Alizayd, is the second son of the King of Daevabad. A devout Muslim, Ali is concerned with the plight of the Shafit and is secretly funding a political group to aid them. When Nahri arrives in the city, Ali and Nahri are both caught up in the King’s machinations as he tries to maintain peace and hold on to his power in politically turbulent time. The author has created a richly detailed world, some layered, nuanced characters and an interesting plot. The second book, The Kingdom of Copper, is even better. Can’t wait for the final book.

Some of my favourite fantasy series came to an end in 2019, like Sarah J Maas’s epic, Tolkienesque Throne of Glass series. (Definitely worth a read if you’re a big fantasy fan—but warning, there are seven hefty books plus a prequel novella in the series.)

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The Winter of the Witch (Winternight Trilogy #3)
by Katherine Arden
The final book in Katherine Arden’s Winternight trilogy was also released this year. (Read The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower first.) The Winter of the Witch picks up exactly where the last book left off. Vasya has defeated the usurper but Moscow is in flames, still vulnerable to attack and its people are looking for a scapegoat. Can Vasya save herself as well as Moscow, and will she finally discover her own place in the world? The final book is everything I hoped it would be. Vasya continues to forge her own way and she defies anyone who attempts to constrain her—even her relationship with Morozko is defined on her terms, rather than his. The trilogy is set in medieval Russia at the moment of unification and it was fascinating to discover that many of the characters are based on real historical figures. Katherine Arden has created a beautifully seamless and lyrical blend of historical fiction and folklore. Unputdownable.

Nine Years, Nine Books

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9781912915057-e1557932493546I have always been a prolific reader, but I started writing fiction nine years ago. We had just moved to the UK, I had two small children and, inspired by the literary atmosphere of London, I enrolled in a BA Creative Writing at Birkbeck.

They say everyone has a book in them, but not everyone has what it takes to make a career out of writing. You need thick skin to cope with a lot of rejection, the confidence to pursue your own creative vision and the humility to accept guidance in shaping your writing. And, like any other career, it takes time to establish yourself. A lot of time.

People often ask me when my book’s getting published and I shrug and try to explain that publication is an extremely long, slow process. It’s easy to feel that I haven’t achieved much in nine years, I call myself a ‘writer’, but until I have a proper book deal, I don’t feel that I can call myself an ‘author’.

But this week I received my copies of Dragons of the Prime, an anthology of children’s dinosaur poetry edited by Richard O’Brien and published by The Emma Press. And I realised, even though I don’t have that elusive book deal just yet, I do have nine physical books on my bookshelf that I have contributed to or edited, and numerous other online publications. Nine books in nine years is not bad, really.

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What to Read this Summer

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It’s that time of year again—here’s a list of 14 books I’ve read recently and can highly recommend for your holiday reading.

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Circe
by Madeline Miller 

This is my favourite book of the year so far, from the author of the beautiful Song of Achilles. Circe is the daughter of a titan and a nymph – she is immortal but lacks the power of her father and the beauty of her mother. But there are other ways to have power. When Circe discovers a talent for witchcraft she transforms a rival into a terrible monster – as a result she is banished to the island of Aiaia. Despite her isolation she encounters some legendary characters of Greek mythology: Daedalus and Icharus, the Minotaur, Jason and the Golden Fleece, and of course, Odysseus. Madeline Miller weaves a wonderfully engrossing, epic tale that has many familiar elements but is also strikingly new – a story of a goddess finding her voice. Brilliant!

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I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death
by Maggie O’Farrell

An exquisitely written account of seventeen true ‘brushes with death’. I don’t want to give anything away about the trajectory of the book, except to say that the intention of the stories is not to shock or to horrify, but to affirm life and the joy of living in the face of our (eventual) inevitable death. Powerful and poignant.

 

 

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The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle
by Stuart Turton

I’m trying to imagine the incredibly complicated planning document the author must have created to work out the plot of this book. It has a solid foundation of an Agatha Christie-style closed-house murder mystery that is a clever puzzle in itself – the death of Evelyn Hardcastle, daughter of the house, on the anniversary of her brother’s murder twenty years earlier. But there is so much more layered on top of this – I don’t want to give anything away but imagine a David Lynch story – but with an actual solution. Fiendishly clever and brilliantly imagined.

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Annihilation (Southern Reach #1)
by Jeff VanderMeer 

You might recognise this one from the recent Netflix film of the same name starring Natalie Portman. An unnamed biologist joins a surveyor, an anthropologist and a psychologist on the twelfth expedition into a mysterious wasteland called Area X. The previous eleven expeditions have all ended in disaster, including the most recent one that the biologist’s husband was a part of. It took me a while to get into this, the narration is quite frustrating to start with as it weirdly stilted and seems to conceal more than it reveals but as the biologist explores the mysteries of Area X, more of the mysteries of who she is, are revealed. An intensely unsettling and bewildering reading experience but brilliantly imagined, and I enjoyed the other two books in the series as well. The film veers from the plot of the book quite significantly but maintains the same eeriness and vibrant sense of menace, so it is worth watching, after you’ve read the book of course.

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Less
by Andrew Sean Greer

Less is the kind of book that grows on you, as did the main character, American author – Arthur Less. At first, he seems rather pathetic. He’s not been successful professionally: the critics called him a ‘magniloquent spoony’, his books have never become bestsellers and his publishers have just declined his latest novel. His long-time boyfriend is about to marry someone else so, to avoid having to go to the wedding, he accepts a series of random invitations and embarks on a round-the-world trip. It’s a slapstick setup, but as Less travels and we learn more about the history of his relationships, it transforms into a poignant tale, and Less himself becomes something of a romantic hero. A funny, moving and uplifting love story.

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Homegoing
by Yaa Gyasi

The story of two sisters living on the Gold Coast of Africa whose lives follow very different routes. Esi is sold into slavery and shipped to America in horrific conditions, her descendants must slowly claw their way out of captivity and poverty to freedom. ‘Effia the Beauty’ marries a slave trader and her descendants are inescapably complicit in the slave trade. It’s an incredibly epic and ambitious story and you only get one chapter from each character as the book tracks the generations that follow the two sisters. But somehow, even in one chapter, the author creates characters that feel real and authentic, and each story is engaging and deeply moving. A powerful and compelling book.

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I Still Dream
by James Smythe

1997: 17-year-old Laura Bow develops a basic artificial intelligence that she uses to talk to about her life. She calls it Organon. From then the story checks in with Laura every decade as the world changes and Organon develops. Laura protects Organon and her own privacy fiercely but when society is threatened by other artificial intelligences, not as responsibly and sensitively nurtured, Laura must decide whether to release Organon to the world. Without spoiling it, I loved the cyclical nature of the ending and found it incredibly moving. A brilliant and thought-provoking book.

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Rules of Civility
by Amor Towles

I loved this even more than A Gentleman in Moscow. New York, New Year’s Eve 1937: Katey Kontent and her friend Evelyn are in a jazz bar when they meet Tinker Grey, a chance encounter that will have dramatic repercussions for all of them. The story follows Katey, in particular, for the next few years as she negotiates her career, friendships and relationships. Katey is an endlessly fascinating narrator she’s intelligent, independent, self-aware, ambitious but also pragmatic. Despite the limitations of her own working-class background and other circumstances working against her, she claims her own agency and her right to self-determination over and over again. It’s a book about feminism, class and privilege – wrapped a beautifully stylish tribute to jazz-age New York City. Utterly captivating.

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The Heart’s Invisible Furies
by John Boyne 

Ireland, 1945: sixteen-year-old Catherine Goggin is denounced as a whore, thrown out by her family and cast out of her village by the local priest when they discover she’s pregnant. She escapes to Dublin and, when she gives birth, a ‘little hunchbacked Redemptorist nun’ arranges for her son to be adopted by a couple who can’t have children of their own. Cyril’s adoptive parents, Maude and Charles, treat him more like a tenant than a son and make it clear to him that he is not a ‘real’ Avery. When Cyril is seven years old he meets Julian Woodbead, his best friend and first love. Thus begins the misadventures of Cyril Avery. Against a backdrop of tumultuous Irish history, including IRA kidnappings and bombings in the 50s and 60s, right up until the marriage equality referendum of 2015, Cyril comes to terms with who he is and manages to find love and family, despite unlikely circumstances and some tragic twists of fate. An epic, angry, hilarious and heart-breaking book – I couldn’t put it down.

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The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock
by Imogen Hermes Gowar

Following in the footsteps of ‘The Miniaturist’ and ‘The Essex Serpent’, ‘The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock’ sits firmly in the category of lush historical fiction. (I did buy the hardback as the cover design is stunning.) The story is set in Georgian London but explores the lives of characters that are not usually in the spotlight – courtesans, immigrants, people of mixed-race, merchants, and of course, mermaids. Jonah Hancock is a comfortably-established merchant and widower who lives under the thumb of his elder sister until the unexpected arrival of a mermaid disrupts his existence, thrusts him in a world he knew little about and sets up a fateful encounter with Angelica Neal, a high-class courtesan, in search of a new benefactor. An evocative, beautifully-written piece of historical fiction with just a hint of magical realism.

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A Closed and Common Orbit (Wayfarers #2)
by Becky Chambers

A Closed and Common Orbit follows directly after the events of The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet but focuses on two different characters – Pepper, who we met briefly in the first book, and the rebooted version of the Wayfarer’s AI, Lovelace, now called ‘Sidra’, in her new illegal body, or ‘kit’ as she refers to it. The chapters alternate between Sidra’s experience adapting to life in a body, and flashbacks to Pepper’s traumatic childhood as a genetically engineered human slave and the story of her escape from her home planet. Becky Chambers, once again, creates a fascinating, richly-detailed universe populated with authentic, believable, diverse characters that you can’t help but fall in love with. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. (And Book 3 is out shortly!)

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The Surface Breaks
by Louise O’Neill

Finally, the feminist retelling of ‘The Little Mermaid’ we’ve all been waiting for. I grew up reading the Hans Christian Andersen version of the story which is much darker than the saccharine Disney tale, and The Surface Breaks is based the original but filtered through a contemporary feminist lens – there’s even a sneaky Donald Trump reference in there. It’s a harrowing story, filled with pain and desperation, but the final paragraphs are fiercely triumphant. Brilliantly done. I was torn about whether to let my 11-year-old read it, there are so many important themes but the content is very dark. Of course, after I told her it might be too traumatic for her, she read it immediately and loved it.

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A Skinful of Shadows
by Frances Hardinge

I am extremely jealous of Frances Hardinge’s imagination. Makepeace lives with her mother and her mother’s Puritan relatives in the time leading up to the English Civil War. Makepeace is aware that she is different to other people in that she can see and hear ghosts but her mother trains her to drive them away and protect herself from ever being possessed by them. But when tragedy strikes Makepeace is sent to stay with her father’s sinister relatives and in a moment of weakness she allows herself to be possessed by a wild and brutish spirit. But when Makepeace discovers the awful secret her father’s family are hiding then the ghost is the one who protects her and gives her the strength to escape them. A thrilling, wildly imaginative tale and another fascinating protagonist from Frances Hardinge. (And the 11-year-old couldn’t put it down either.) Brilliant!

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Home Fire
by Kamila Shamsie

This was already on my list of 17 Best Books of 2017 but I thought I’d give it another mention in light of the fact that it has recently won the Women’s Prize for Fiction and that Kamila Shamsie has proved prescient in her unlikely prediction of a Tory Muslim Home Secretary. Home Fire is a timely, topical and beautifully-written retelling of the Greek myth of Antigone. Fortunately, I didn’t remember the details of the story, so it didn’t ruin the ending for me, though I should have realised, knowing Greek mythology, that (spoiler alert!) it wasn’t going to end well.

The Bantham Swoosh – 14 July 2018

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I’ve never been able to look at a body of water—pool, river, lake, sea—without wanting to get in it. As a child this was easy to achieve, I would simply pretend to fall in. As an adult I am more inhibited. Fortunately, the intrepid souls at the Outdoor Swimming Society are pioneers in finding good spots to swim and asserting the rights of swimmers to enjoy wild water in the UK. There are very real dangers associated with swimming wild and a warm summer inevitably brings tragic headlines, but organised events, like the Bantham Swoosh, are a brilliant way for swimmers to experience wild swimming under safe, well-monitored conditions.

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The 6km route along the Avon River in Devon, from Aveton Gifford to Bantham Beach

This is my second Swoosh with my swim buddy, Rebekah. Our first, however, was an evening swim so we face the horrible realisation that, despite driving down to Devon on Friday night, we need to leave our Exeter Premier Inn at 5am to get to Aveton Gifford in time for the start. At least there is a beautiful sunrise to make the early wake-up call a little more palatable. The previous year was unremittingly grey so the bright blue sky is a welcome change. We park in a field and catch one of the cheerful retro Tally Ho buses to the start.

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As two swims have been condensed into one there are double the number of swimmers this year, 800 instead of 400. It does feel crowded at the start and there is a long queue for the portaloos, but after that the process proceeds smoothly in the relaxed manner I’ve come to associate with the OSS. We change into our wetsuits and stand around in a field chatting to some of the other swimmers while we wait for the safety briefing. I battle with chafing on my neck and Body Glide wasn’t up to the job last year, so I slather my neck in Vaseline instead. Rebekah suffers from the cold, so she contemplates various additional layers. Her stylish, ear-warming swim bonnet is a given but she’s vacillating about whether to wear booties as well. Why wouldn’t you wear them? Another swimmer asks. Decision made. When we’ve been briefed we chuck our bags in a van and shuffle towards the start.

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The water is a balmy 16 degrees, we hear, in comparison to the 14 degrees it was last year. It still feels cold as we edge in, but the sunshine makes a big difference. My luminous yellow swim hat looked a little loud when it arrived in the post, but in the river, they are cheerful beacons, bobbing along.

Doing an event for the second time allows to you to relax and enjoy it more. The water is beautifully clear, though there is a lot of debris, and we stop frequently to look around us and appreciate the scenery. It’s been a busy time, so I haven’t made it to the pool in the last few weeks, but my arms feel fine. The official ‘swoosh’ is marked by a pink shepherd’s hut, but we stop swimming earlier this year because the current is so strong we don’t actually need to swim. We spend the last ten minutes floating on our backs, enjoying the sun on our faces and the sensation of being swept along by the tide. Before we’re ready, the safety crews are guiding us into the beach for the finish. We’ve been in the water just over an hour and a half.

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The most tiring aspect of the day is the trudge back over the sandy dunes, but a mug of hot chocolate at the finish goes down well and helps to get rid of the taste of salt in my mouth. We can’t face a pint of ale at 9am so we eat our pasties with a can of coke instead. This year’s swag is a yellow Hammam towel which will be a lot more useful than a medal. After we’ve eaten and got dressed behind a van in the parking lot, we head back over the dunes to watch the Kids Mini Swoosh—from the finish they are towed around the corner on jet skis and then dropped off to swoosh back to the start. It looks like a lot of fun.

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It turns out that Vaseline does work better than the Body Glide to prevent chafing on my neck, but it’s a lot harder to wash out of my hair.

A brilliant swim and another outstandingly-organised event from the Outdoor Swimming Society.

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The Mslexia Novel Competition

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I started writing my first novel in January 2014 for the final dissertation of my BA Creative Writing at Birkbeck. As you might expect, it was a thinly-disguised autobiographical coming-of-age story set in the twilight years of apartheid South Africa and saturated with eighties nostalgia. (There had been another unfinished novel before that—a story told from the POV of four narrators living in a dystopian society that forced you to…wait for it…change your name every three years. There was a complicated excel spreadsheet just for me to remember which character was which. But the less said about that the better.) The first three chapters of this novel got me a first for my degree, so I thought it would be worth finishing. So, I finished it. By the time I had finished it, however, I’d thoroughly lost interest and was dying to start writing something else. But since I had finished it I thought it would be a waste if I didn’t at least try and get it published.

So in April 2016 I started sending the finished novel out to agents. I didn’t want to be one of these people who gave up too easily and I hoped that if I found someone who really liked my book then they would be able to talk me into liking it again. I sent it out to about thirty agents over the next six months. I got four requests for the full manuscript, but nothing further ever came of it.

I had several other novel ideas while I waited for the flood of agent offers—there was one about a cult, one about mermaids, one about eugenics. (Coming up with book concepts has never been my problem, persevering with the actual writing bit is the difficult bit.)

On 16 June 2016 I wrote in my journal:

Brother and sister live in a lighthouse. Alone.

And Ash and Ellyn walked into my head, fully formed, in a way the friends-and-family-members-with-their-names-changed never did in my first novel. I started to think about why Ash and Ellyn were in the lighthouse alone, where were their parents, what was going on the rest of the world? I let their world marinade in my mind until it began to take shape.

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I knew that this time I needed a solid plot, I didn’t want my characters just hanging around chatting—they needed to actually do something. I used a kind of pick n’ mix blend of novel planning tools from several online resources.

I made sure that I had a foundation based on the first four pillars of C.S. Lakin’s 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction. (Still don’t know what the other pillars are, I’m sure they’re good, but these four seemed a good place to start.)

I based the plot on a simplified version of Aristotle’s Three-Act Structure (‘three disasters plus an ending’) that I found in this article on The Snowflake Method.

And I did at least the first four steps of Planning a Novel in Ten Steps.

In January 2017, when I knew roughly where it was all going, I started writing. And I tried to have fun doing it. I wrote about things that I thought were interesting. Lighthouses! Secret Passageways! Sentient Robots! Fibonacci Spirals! I wrote a piece of music with two different codes embedded into it. I wrote a fairy tale with a secret coded message in it. I drew sketches of symbols and hand signals.

I thought about researching current advances in robotic technology. I considered reading all the classic robot sci-fi. I decided instead that I would just make it up. My sentient robots aren’t supposed to be a realistic reflection of technology, I told myself, they’re a metaphor for the other – strangers, immigrants, aliens. They could be whatever I wanted them to be. But, as a nod to the genre, I included Asimov’s Laws of Robotics. And I named some of my robots after my favourite sci-fi authors.

At Easter I took my kids to the Isle of Wight to visit the Needles and the lighthouse that I’d used as a basis for my setting. You can’t actually visit the lighthouse itself, but we took a boat out to look at it from the sea and climbed up to the old battery on top of the cliffs to look at it from above. I wrote Ash and Ellyn’s names on a pebble and left it on the beach. It seemed an authorly thing to do. I set another part of the book in a National Trust-owned castle I’d visited with the kids the previous summer.

When I was in a writing phase I tried to write at least 1000 words a day, I would do this for a week or so and then stop and not write anything for weeks. When I was stuck I skipped the descriptions, the actions, the punctuation, and just wrote freeform dialogue until I was back with the characters in the heart of the scene. And then I would go back and fill in all the other details.

Mid-September I decided, at the last minute, to enter the Mslexia Novel Competition. I wasn’t going to enter. Philippa Gregory was the main judge—I wasn’t convinced that dystopian YA fiction about robots would be at the top of her to-read list. The previous winners all seemed to have submitted highbrow literary fiction. And technically my book wasn’t finished. I was about halfway through. But I figured it would take them ages to judge the first stage anyway, so I sent it off. A few weeks later I got an email saying that I had been longlisted and needed to post a hardcopy of the final manuscript in the next two weeks.

What followed was a marathon writing spree. It was half-term holidays, of course, so the kids were at home. But it’s amazing what a deadline and some momentum will do. I wrote 30,000 words in two weeks and finished the book with a day or two to spare for editing. I printed it, posted it off and received confirmation that it had arrived bang on deadline day. In December I heard, to my surprise, that I’d been shortlisted. January took longer than January has ever taken in the history of the world. Then, on Wednesday the 23rd of January I was writing my CV (and reflecting that writing a novel is easy compared with writing a CV) when I received a phone call from the Editor of Mslexia, Debbie Taylor, telling me I had won the Mslexia Novel Competition.

17 Best Books of 2017

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I’m not going to be able to follow this pattern forever, but I’m going to run with it for a few more years at least. I read 173 books this year, it’s always tough to make a decision but these were my favourites:

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A Conjuring of Light (Shades of Magic #3)
by V.E. Schwab

The third and final instalment in V.E. Schwab’s fantasy adventure is set in not just one London—but four different parallel dimensions of London. Expect fantastic world-building, action, suspense and vivid characters: Kell, a realm-travelling magician from Red London and Lila, a resilient and resourceful pickpocket from Grey London whose sole ambition in life is to be a pirate. Victoria Schwab is one of my favourite fantasy authors and A Conjuring of Light is a perfect ending to a brilliant series.

 

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Strange the Dreamer (Strange the Dreamer #1)
by Laini Taylor

Definitely worth the wait, Laini’s Taylor new epic fantasy adventure is everything I’d hoped it would be. Lazlo Strange is an abandoned orphan refugee, rescued by monks, who becomes a librarian obsessed with the mystery of the lost city of Weep on the other side of an impassable desert. Until one day an emissary party arrives from the lost city and ‘Strange the Dreamer’ decides that he will do anything he can to join them on their return journey and see the Unseen City for himself. Lazlo is a wonderful character, the story is definitely a tribute to the ‘fools who dream’ and it’s lovely to have a protagonist/saviour who’s not an amazing warrior, but instead is a researcher and storyteller. And of course, there is romance, magic and mystery and everything else you would expect from Laini Taylor. A wonderful escapist adventure.

 

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The Hate U Give
by Angie Thomas

Starr is a sixteen-year-old girl who lives two, deliberately separate lives. At her exclusive school in a wealthy area she is one of the only three black kids in the school and has assigned herself strict rules of behaviour in an attempt to fit in, if not blend in. After school, she goes home to her other life in Garden Heights—a life of poverty, crime, drugs and gangs, but also warmth, family and community support. When her unarmed friend is shot by a white police officer while she is in the car, her worlds collide and she has to decide how to reconcile the two different parts of herself. Read this book. It is not only timely, topical and important but also gripping and engaging and should be required reading in secondary schools.

 

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The Underground Railroad
by Colson Whitehead

The story of Cora, a slave on a Georgia plantation, and her escape via the Underground Railroad, in this case imagined as a literal Underground Railroad, is interspersed with real notices about runaway slaves. Somehow this blending of fact and fiction, the historical reality of slavery with a slightly surreal version of the railroad only makes the horrors more vivid and shocking. A heart-breaking read.

 

 

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People of the Book
by Geraldine Brooks

I loved this, historical fiction with a real literary mystery at its heart, the history of the Sarajevo Haggadah—an illustrated 15th century Jewish prayer book. In Geraldine Brooks’s version the book is rescued from destruction by a Muslim librarian during the Bosnian War and then restored by Hannah Heath, an Australian book conservator, who makes several discoveries in the binding that gives clues to the provenance of the manuscript. While Hannah investigates these traces in the present, we follow the path the Haggadah has taken, geographically and historically. A fascinating insight into the world of book conservation as well as the role books and illustrations have played through history. Brilliantly researched and imagined.

 

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
by Gail Honeyman

Everything in Eleanor Oliphant’s life is scheduled and predictable, she’s entirely self-sufficient and she’s completely fine, until an accident forces her to allow some other people into her tightly-controlled life and everything begins to unravel. Eleanor is a strangely detached and pedantic narrator, so much so that I had to go back and check how old she is because she sounds 50 years older than she actually is. But when you get beyond this facade, this is wonderfully poignant and devastating story.

 

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The One Memory of Flora Banks
by Emily Barr

Flora Banks has anterograde amnesia and has been unable to make new memories since she had a brain tumour removed when she was ten. Her life is limited to the few familiar people and places she knew before her operation and the notes she writes to remind of herself of what has happened each day. Until one day, when she is seventeen, she kisses a boy on a Cornish beach and the memory sticks. Convinced that this boy is the key to her recovery Flora tracks him down to Svalbard and embarks on an adventure that will uncover more than Flora’s lost memories. The narrative throws us right into Flora’s disorientating reality in a way that is thoroughly immersive and utterly compelling. Brilliantly written.

 

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The Bear and the Nightingale (Winternight Trilogy #1)
by Katherine Arden

Winter is coming… Vasya lives in a small village in the woods in northern Russia. She has grown up hearing stories of the ‘Winter King’, a Russian equivalent of Jack Frost: ‘Frost-demons have no interest in mortal girls wed to mortal men. In the stories, they only come for the wild maiden.’ In addition to her wild wandering in the woods, Vasya has special gifts—she alone can see the household spirits that protect their home and she can talk to horses. When a young, fervent Christian priest arrives in their village and turns people against the old gods and superstitions, he upsets the balance of nature and unwittingly prepares the way for one much more dangerous than the Winter King. Vasya must remain free of societal constraints in order to protect her family and her village from this threat. This story reads like a beautifully woven Russian folk tale—thrillingly atmospheric, lyrical and otherworldly. (I have just started reading the second book in the series, The Girl in the Tower.)

 

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Longbourn
by Jo Baker

‘If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats,’ Sarah thought, ‘she would be more careful not to tramp through muddy fields.’ A Downton-style P&P spinoff, Longbourn supplements the original story with a masterfully-woven web of under-stairs action. The story of Mrs Hill the housekeeper, Mr Hill the butler, Sarah and Polly the maids and a mysterious footman (only referred to once in the original) is beautifully imagined with several love stories as unlikely as Elizabeth and Darcy’s and the addition of some horrifically visceral scenes from the British army’s battles in Portugal and Spain. Brilliantly done!

 

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The Empty Grave (Lockwood & Co. #5)
by Jonathan Stroud

I discovered the Lockwood & Co. ghost-hunting series through a Twitter recommendation and flew though all five books. The Empty Grave is the final book and is brilliant ending to a pitch-perfect series, it is just as funny, terrifying and exciting as the other books with a heart-stopping climax that winds the series up beautifully. These books are equally entertaining for children and adults—I loved them, a hugely talented author.

 

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Days Without End
by Sebastian Barry

I was put off reading this book by the title—’Days Without End’ implies interminable boredom, but fortunately this was not the case and I was so glad I finally read it. The story is narrated by Thomas McNulty, an Irish immigrant who signs up for the US army with his friend John Cole in the 1850s. They fight in the Indian Wars and the Civil War and somehow in the midst of hardship and trauma, find a way to create a family with each other and find peace. It’s an incredibly moving story.

 

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Turtles All the Way Down
by John Green

This is a more serious book than John Green’s other novels and darker than I expected. It’s written from the perspective of Aza, a teenager who suffers from a severe anxiety disorder. When a corrupt billionaire goes missing Asa’s best friend convinces her, for the sake of the hundred-thousand-dollar reward money, to reconnect with the millionaire’s son, Davis, whom Asa used to know. But the mystery disappearance, a potential romantic relationship with Davis, and her friendship with Daisy are all subordinate to the ever-tightening spiral of Aza’s thoughts and fears. It’s a claustrophobic perspective but very convincingly and authentically done. There seem to be a lot of contemporary YA books these days that use mental illness as a quirky plot device, Turtles All the Way Down delves into the reality of living with mental illness without romanticising it or offering glib solutions. Of course, all this is incorporated into an entertaining story with John Green’s usual warmth and humour.

 

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The Haunting of Hill House
by Shirley Jackson

The quintessential haunted house story: four people, with an interest in the supernatural, undertake to stay in a supposedly haunted house, to observe and document the phenomena. Dr. Montague is in charge of the investigation, Theodora is an artist with supposed psychic powers, Luke Sanderson is heir to the haunted house, but the character who becomes the centre of the story is Eleanor Vance, a repressed young woman who has spent all her life caring for an invalid mother. The four characters all begin to experience strange noises and visions, but the phenomena become increasingly focused on Eleanor herself as she becomes in thrall to the house. Shirley Jackson is brilliant at atmosphere—it is an addictively terrifying read and the house itself is the most sinister and ambiguous character of all of them.

 

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This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor
by Adam Kay

This book made me laugh until I cried—a hilarious and terrifying account of a Junior Doctor that I have recommended to everyone I know, and has cemented my conviction that I could never EVER have been a doctor.

 

 

 

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Alias Grace
by Margaret Atwood

For the box set binge-watcher, if you were captivated by The Handmaid’s Tale, another of Margaret Atwood’s novels, Alias Grace, has been adapted for TV and is now available on Netflix. But of course, you should read the book first. A masterclass in the unreliable narrator, Margaret Atwood recreates the story of ‘Murderess’ Grace Marks through the testimony of others, both real and imagined, and through the story she tells Dr Jordan—a young psychiatrist with a professional interest in her case. Is she a calculating killer, or an innocent victim trapped by unfortunate circumstances, or a madwoman who had no control over her own actions? A wonderfully subtle and sly dissection of a sensational true crime story.

 

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Gnomon
by Nick Harkaway

A hugely ambitious, mind-bending and bewildering novel, Gnomon is set in the near-future under a surveillance society controlled by ‘The System’. Under some circumstances, the surveillance goes even beyond the barrier of skin to extract thoughts and memories from inside the minds of its citizens. Mielikki Neith is investigating the death of a woman called Diana Hunter under one such thought-extraction interrogation. When she replays the extracted information though, she finds the memories of several people within Diana Hunter’s mind—a banker, an alchemist, an artist, and a mysterious character called Gnomon. Neith must unravel the meaning behind all these stories to find the truth of Diana Hunter’s life. At the beginning the story felt a little like Cloud Atlas with its nested narratives, but then it turned into a much wilder, more complex ride—every time I thought I’d figured out what was going on I hit another u-turn. It’s not an easy read (my book club may never forgive me) but it’s worthwhile persevering for the brilliantly devastating conclusion. The issues the author raises about privacy, surveillance and democracy lingered a long time in my mind after the book was finished.

 

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Home Fire
by Kamila Shamsie

A timely and topical retelling of the Greek myth of Antigone, updated to include ISIS recruitment, airport interrogations, and social media in place of the Greek Chorus. Fortunately, I didn’t remember the details of the story so it didn’t ruin the ending for me, though I should have realised, knowing Greek mythology, that it wasn’t going to end well. If you want to read up on the original myth I would also recommend Ali Smith’s The Story of Antigone published as part of the Pushkin Children’s Books Save the Story Series—beautifully illustrated by Laura Paoletti.

Ten Beautiful Books to Give as Christmas Gifts

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The advent of the eReader did not, after all, signify the end of the book. Sales of physical books are up and, to meet the demand, publishers are increasingly issuing beautifully designed and illustrated editions you’ll love to look at as much as you love to read. And, these beautiful books are perfect gifts. Here are ten that are on my Christmas list…

As Kingfishers Catch Fire
As Kingfishers Catch Fire: Birds & Books
by Alex Preston, illustrated by Neil Gower

For the birdwatcher in your life, As Kingfishers Catch Fire is a gorgeously illustrated meditation on the endless grace and variety of birds. Tom Holland calls it, ‘A magical book: an inimitable fusion of ornithology, literary anthology and autobiography.’

 

 

Making Winter
Making Winter: A Creative Guide for Surviving the Winter Months
by Emma Mitchell

I was fortunate enough to attend one of Emma’s Silver Clay workshops in Cambridgeshire last year and so can confidently testify that she embodies the Danish philosophy of Hygge. Her Instagram feed is a delight to the eyes. Making Winter is a book full of her wonderful images and inspiring ideas for nature-orientated crafts.

 

Alias Grace
Alias Grace
by Margaret Atwood

For the box set binge-watcher, if you were captivated by The Handmaid’s Tale, another of Margaret Atwood’s novels has been adapted for TV and is now available on Netflix. Alias Grace is based on a true story, explored and unravelled with all of Margaret Atwood’s trademark subtlety and ambiguity. But, of course, you should read the book first, and it’s available in this stunning hardback edition.

 

Baking with Kafka
Baking with Kafka
by Tom Gauld

Tom Gauld is a regular cartoonist for The New Yorker, The New York Times, New Scientist and The Guardian, amongst others, and I love his signature wry, fatalistic humour. In Baking with Kafka, he explores important questions like: How do you get published during a skeleton apocalypse? What was the secret of Kafka’s lemon drizzle cake? And, What plot possibilities does the exploding e-cigarette offer modern mystery writers?

The Lost words
The Lost Words
by Robert Macfarlane, illustrated by Jackie Morris

We’ve heard that terms relating to the natural world are disappearing from the dictionary as they fall out of use: words like dandelion, otter, bramble and acorn. The Lost Words is a collection of acrostic spell-poems, exquisitely illustrated by Jackie Morris, created with the intention of reclaiming these words and ‘re-wilding the language of children’. (It’s also a gigantic book – two feet high!)

 

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A Gentleman in Moscow
by Amor Towles 

On 21 June 1922 Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced to house arrest in the Hotel Metropol, his life is only spared because he once wrote a socialist-sympathising poem. Over the next forty years the Count makes a life within the confines of the hotel against the backdrop of a politically tumultuous period in Russian history. The first half is quite anecdotal, but if you persevere the main impetus of the narrative becomes clear in the second half and the final chapters are sublime. A Gentleman in Moscow is available in this stunning black and gold hardback edition.

The Bear and the Nightingale
The Bear and the Nightingale (The Winternight Trilogy #1)
by Katherine Arden

For lovers of fantasy, Vasya lives in a small village in the woods in northern Russia. She has grown up hearing stories of the ‘Winter King’, a Russian equivalent of Jack Frost: ‘Frost-demons have no interest in mortal girls wed to mortal men. In the stories, they only come for the wild maiden.’ In addition to her wild wandering in the woods, Vasya has special gifts – she alone can see the household spirits that protect their home and she can talk to horses. When a young, fervent Christian priest arrives in their village and turns people against the old gods and superstitions, he upsets the balance of nature and unwittingly prepares the way for one much more dangerous than the Winter King. Vasya must remain free of societal constraints to protect her family and her village from this threat. This story reads like a beautifully woven Russian folk tale – thrillingly atmospheric, lyrical and otherworldly.

The Language of Thorns
The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic
by Leigh Bardugo, illustrated by Sara Kipin 

For your teenager, whether they are familiar with the world of Leigh Bardugo’s ‘Grishaverse’ or not, they will enjoy the lavish illustrations and beguiling tales of ‘dark bargains struck by moonlight, of haunted towns and hungry woods, of talking beasts and gingerbread golems, where a young mermaid’s voice can summon deadly storms and where a river might do a love-struck boy’s bidding but only for a terrible price.’

A Skinful of Shadows
A Skinful of Shadows
by Frances Hardinge

My go-to book for children’s birthday presents last year was Frances Hardinge’s superb novel, The Lie Tree. Her new book is out and available in a striking hardback edition. A Skinful of Shadows is the story of twelve-year-old Makepeace, a ‘bear-hearted girl’ who becomes possessed by a spirit which gives her strength when she is sent away to live with rich and powerful relatives and faces the possibility of civil war. But it’s not just for the kids, Hardinge is a mesmerising storyteller and I’ll definitely be reading this one too.

 

Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls
Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls
by Elena Favilli, Francesca Cavallo

A great empowering feminist read for your daughter, Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls is the result of a viral crowdfunding campaign to highlight strong female role models in books. It is vibrantly illustrated by sixty female artists from all over the world, and introduces us to one hundred remarkable women and their inspirational lives, including Ada Lovelace, Malala, Amelia Earhart and Michelle Obama.

 

13 Great Summer Reads 2017

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13 books, published since last summer, that I have read and can highly recommend.

 

34200289Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – by Gail Honeyman

The runaway hit of the summer. Everything in Eleanor Oliphant’s life is scheduled and predictable, she’s entirely self-sufficient and she’s completely fine, until an accident forces her to allow some other people into her tightly-controlled life and everything begins to unravel. Eleanor is a strangely detached and pedantic narrator, so much so that I had to go back and check how old she is because she sounds 50 years older than she is. But when you get beyond this facade, this is a wonderfully warm, uplifting and heart-breaking story.

 

32511982Midwinter – by Fiona Melrose

Midwinter is about two Suffolk farmers, father and son, Landyn and Vale Midwinter. Vale’s mother was violently murdered in Zambia ten years earlier but since their return to England father and son have never really spoken about what happened or made peace with each other. A boat accident is the catalyst that sparks the beginning of the novel and finally tears open the old wound between father and son. I am deeply envious of Fiona’s beautiful way with words—powerful prose and a moving story.

 

32595029Little Deaths – by Emma Flint

Inspired by a true story, Little Deaths is about the kidnapping and murder of two children in New York in the sixties. Ruth Malone is a single mother who, because of the way she dresses and the male attention she receives, becomes the main suspect in the horrific murder of her own children. This is a very well-written, evocative book but the way Ruth is treated makes for a painful read.

 

 

31195557The Power – by Naomi Alderman

If you haven’t yet read this book, you should, particularly if you’ve been watching the new adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The Power imagines a world where young girls, and later all women, develop the ability to produce electric shocks with their hands. At first their ability leads to liberation and justice for enslaved women and victims of abuse—but of course, power corrupts, the pendulum swings wildly in the opposite direction and suddenly men are the abused and enslaved ones in this scenario. There are so many great role-reversal moments in this book, right from the introductory notes when a female editor praises the male ‘author’ for including lots of good, strong male characters. Naomi Alderman also does not shy away from some truly disturbing scenes of rape and torture as men become the weaker sex. Despite this The Power is an important story because the horrors that some woman face, even today, are made fresh when you flip the gender switch—we should feel outrage and disgust, because the way things are should not be the norm. A brilliantly though-provoking, if thoroughly uncomfortable, read.

 

29584452The Underground Railroad – by Colson Whitehead

The story of Cora, a slave on a Georgia plantation, and her escape via the Underground Railroad, in this case imagined as a literal Underground Railroad, is interspersed with real notices about runaway slaves. Somehow this blending of fact and fiction, the historical reality of slavery with a slightly surreal version of the railroad only makes the horrors more vivid and shocking. A heart-breaking read.

 

 

33590076How to Stop Time – by Matt Haig

How to Stop Time is a Benjamin Buttonesque novel about a man with a strange medical condition that extends his lifespan to several centuries. Tom Hazard (great name) teaches history at an inner city secondary school in London, a suitable occupation for one who has in fact met William Shakespeare, F. Scott Fitzgerald and various other historical characters. A shadowy organisation called the Albatross club has been protecting people like Tom for many years—from being burnt as a witch in the 17th century to being experimented on by scientists in the 21st century. Their most important rule, however, is don’t fall in love. But how do you find meaning in your life when you’ll outlive all those around you? Matt Haig has a gift for writing profoundly and movingly about vast subjects like life, love and time, without being reductive or cheesy. A thoroughly enjoyable story.

 

34372486The Ice – by Laline Paull

If you loved The Bees, just to let you know up front that Laline Paull’s second book is nothing like The Bees. But the fact that the author can write two such different books is testament to her vast and flexible talent. The Ice is a thriller about business, politics and development in the Arctic Circle and reminded me of a John Le Carre novel. Sean Cawson and Tom Harding meet as students and bond over a shared passion for arctic exploration, but while Sean focuses on becoming a successful businessman, Tom is an environmentalist and their conflicting values put pressure on their friendship until Tom disappears in a terrible accident. When Tom’s body reappears, the inquest begins to uncover layers of deception in their shared business venture and, possibly, a motive for murder. It is set in the future but hardly—with its calving glaciers and melting ice caps it feels very contemporary. The one thing it does have in common with The Bees is an environmental message. It took me a little while to get into the story but once I was in she had me hooked till the end.

 

29486766Strange the Dreamer (Strange the Dreamer #1) – by Laini Taylor

Definitely worth the wait, Laini Taylor’s new epic fantasy novel is everything I’d hoped it would be. Lazlo Strange is an abandoned orphan refugee, rescued by monks, who becomes a librarian obsessed with the mystery of the lost city of Weep on the other side of an impassable desert. Until one day an emissary party arrives from the lost city and ‘Strange the Dreamer’ decides that he will do anything he can to join them on their return journey and see the Unseen City for himself. Lazlo is a great character, the story is a tribute to the ‘fools who dream’ and it’s lovely to have a protagonist/saviour who’s not an amazing warrior, but instead is a researcher and storyteller. And of course there is romance, magic and mystery and everything else you would expect from Laini Taylor. A wonderful escapist adventure.

 

33837269A Conjuring of Light (Shades of Magic #3) – by V.E. Schwab

The third and final instalment in V.E. Schwab’s fantasy adventure is set in not just one London—but four different parallel dimensions of London. Expect fantastic world-building, action, suspense and vivid characters: Kell, a realm-travelling magician from Red London and Lila, a resilient and resourceful pickpocket from Grey London whose sole ambition in life is to be a pirate. Victoria Schwab is one of my favourite fantasy authors and A Conjuring of Light is a perfect ending to an epic series.

 

35158816Our Dark Duet (Monsters of Verity #2) – by Victoria Schwab

The only author to make two appearances on my list, (because she’s prolific and brilliant), Our Dark Duet is the second and final book in the Monsters of Verity series. ‘This Savage Song’ introduced us to a brand new, brilliantly weird universe. It sounds a bit Romeo and Juliet (the Baz Luhrmann version) – the city of Verity is split down the middle and ruled by two families with opposing philosophies, the Harkers and the Flynns. In the first book their children, Kate Harker and August Flynn, start out spying on each other and end up going on the run together. But of course, there are monsters and this is no simpering romance. In the sequel, Kate Harker is hunting monsters in Prosperity to atone for her sins until something darker than she’s ever faced before leads her back to Verity. August Flynn has stepped into his brother Leo’s shoes and is slowly losing touch with the part of himself that longed to be human. It’s only when Kate and August reunite and work together that they can rediscover the good in themselves and take on the horrific ‘Chaos Eater’. ‘For never was a story of more woe…’ this one is a heartbreaker. The world Victoria Schwab has created in this series is dark, richly layered and wildly imaginative, as in the Shades of Magic Series. I thoroughly enjoyed these two books.

 

34108705The Hate U Give – by Angie Thomas

Starr is a sixteen-year-old girl who lives two, deliberately separate lives. At her exclusive school in a wealthy area she is one of the only three black kids in the school and has assigned herself strict rules of behaviour to fit in, if not blend in. After school, she goes home to her other life in Garden Heights—a life of poverty, crime, drugs and gangs, but also warmth, family and community support. When her unarmed friend is shot by a white police officer while she is in the car, her worlds collide and she has to decide how to reconcile the two different parts of herself. Read this book. It is not only timely, topical and important but also gripping and engaging and should be required reading in secondary schools.

 

34931507One Of Us Is Lying – by Karen M. McManus

Five students arrive in detention on a Monday afternoon at Bayview High: the brain, the beauty, the criminal, the athlete and the outcast. By the end of detention one of them is dead and, by process of elimination, one of them must be a murderer. ‘The Breakfast Club plus Gossip Girl murder mystery’ is a great elevator pitch and this book sucked me in straight away. I did guess the ending but it was well plotted and skilfully unspooled for the reader—an enjoyable read.

 

28116830Mooncop – by Tom Gauld

I am big fan of Tom Gauld’s comics so I couldn’t resist this, and, like the rest of his work, Mooncop is beautifully drawn, poignant, wry and meditative. Just lovely!

 

The Bantham Swoosh

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Rebekah and I at the finish of the Dart 10K in 2015.

We leave Kingston at 11:30am on Saturday the 24th of June to drive down to Devon for the Bantham Swoosh, a 6km swim down the River Avon estuary, culminating in a final ‘swoosh’ up to Bantham Beach as river becomes sea. Rebekah and I have done several swimming events together, including the Dart 10k in 2015, but this is our first swim together this year.

There is already a queue for the parking at Bantham Beach when we arrive at 4:30pm. We have a walk down to the beach to see the finish. It’s a grey day, but at least it’s not raining. Despite the weather, the prospect from Bantham Beach is spectacular: the rugged hills of Bigbury on the opposite bank, Burgh Island and its iconic art deco hotel where Agatha Christie wrote two of her novels, and of course the estuary itself—a deep blue stretch of choppy water, surging and foaming on the shore.

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We walk over the headland for the view downriver, the final stretch of the swim where the estuary widens, the boats are moored and the river edge is lined with boathouses. The walking route is marked out with flags, bunting and cheerful retro signage.

IMG_1702Back in the parking lot we change into our costumes, take an obligatory unflattering selfie in our wetsuits and swimming hats, and make our way to the swimmers’ pen. We have our briefing and then pile on to the buses—a surreal sight: a procession of retro-style ‘Tally Ho’ buses, full of adults sitting in pairs in wetsuits. It is an image in keeping with the friendly and charmingly-whimsical ethos of the Outdoor Swimming Society, which prizes the joy of swimming above any physical fitness challenge. Rebekah and I agree to stay together and take it easy and enjoy it. It’s a swim, not a race, after all.

We drive to the start at Aveton Gifford and unload.

“Does anyone want a banana?” A marshal waves a single, solitary banana in the air. Why is it all alone, what’s wrong with it? We wonder.

“The start is over there,” another marshal waves us in the direction of the water.

It’s about 7pm when we crack each other’s glow sticks, not a euphemism, and wade down a boat ramp into the river. The water is cold but not heart-stoppingly cold. Just finger-chillingly, toe-numbingly cold. We politely breaststroke across the river with some ooh and aahs to signal that it’s a bit nippy. I gently lower my face in the water and then hurriedly retract it as I swim into a large snarl of seaweed. I do the seaweed-clearing breaststroke for a few strokes, but then since it doesn’t look like it’s going to get better, I put my head down and start doing a seaweed-clearing front crawl instead. The scratchy fronds drape over my head and frame my goggles like a witch’s wig. I do a little duck dive to try and dislodge the river flora. The water is extremely salty.

It’s busy but not excessively so, there are just over 400 swimmers registered for the dusk swim, much fewer than the 1600 swimmers who swam the Dart 10k the day we did in 2015. It’s relatively easy for us to swim together. I keep an eye on Rebekah, she has less natural insulation than I do and she battles with the cold. Today she looks extremely pale, although I am looking at her through my blue-tinted goggles so that might have something to do with it.

I’m feeling good. I was worried that I haven’t been able to get to the pool for the last three weeks, but it seems the hours I put in before that crawling up and down at Hampton Pool, while not doing much for my cold-water acclimatisation, has accustomed my shoulders to the long haul (and given me a lovely bottom tan.) I fall into an easy rhythm and I am also breathing bilaterally without having to think about it too much.

In the briefing we were told we would be able to see the bottom of the estuary while we were swimming. This seems unlikely at the beginning, it is murky and full of seaweed. But at some point I look down and I can see the sandy riverbed below me.

“I can see the bottom.” I tell Rebekah.

“Where?” She asks.

“Down there,” I point. I try to work out how far down it is, as though this would help her to find it. The cold water has clearly gone to both of our brains at this point.

From about halfway I can feel the wetsuit chafing the back of my neck. I have slathered it in Body Glide, which has served me well in several other long-haul open water swims. (It has also caused a teenaged shop assistant to snort at me when I asked for it in Sports Direct—helpful tip: order it online.) But it’s not doing the trick today. I wonder if the salt water is dissolving the Body Glide faster than fresh water. Because it’s salty I realise how much water I habitually swallow when I swim. The inside of my mouth has puckered up like a bashful snail retreating into its shell.

I zone out a bit and I start thinking about a character in my novel—a robot who likes to swim. To start with she would have to be well-sealed. I think about the mechanics of a robot swimming. It would depend on what materials she was made of. Plastic or rubber would float but a solid metal robot would sink like a stone doing the front crawl. She would have to develop a specialised swimming stroke. I imagine my robot curled in a ball on her back, like the hull of a boat, flapping her feet extremely fast like some sort of motorised engine. Or perhaps sculling on her back like an upended turtle. I enjoy the thought of my upside-down turtle-sculling robot.

By this stage, the water is a lot clearer and we can see the bottom easily—no confusion about where it is. It’s also quite shallow, as evidenced by lots of swimmers standing up in the water.

“Why is everyone standing up?” We ask each other. Rebekah and I stand up too, just to see what the attraction is.

“Ooh it’s all slimy,” Rebekah says, lying down again.

“It’s great, isn’t it?” says a man standing near us, grinning manically.

“Are you walking?” Rebekah asks me.

I realise that I have started walking downriver. She has a point, this is supposed to be a swim. I lie down again and carry on swimming.

At this point I spot a crab scuttling over the sand I was quite recently walking on. I see a crab burrowing in a billow of sand, and then another one. My toes shiver and curl up on themselves.

“Crabs!” I tell Rebekah, “lots of crabs,” just to warn her in case she feels like having a walk too.

She dips her head down, “Large crabs!” she confirms.

There will be no more walking for us.

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Our route, courtesy of Rebekah’s swimming watch…

Then we start to see boats and the river opens. We must be nearly at the end. I start looking for the pink boathouse that signals the start of the swoosh, but I can’t remember which side of the river it’s supposed to be on. We swim through the middle of the boats and I narrowly avoid several buoys.

When we get past the boats the current picks up and suddenly we’re getting pulled along. I put my face in the water and do a few strokes. It’s like when you walk on the travellator at the airport.

“I feel like Michael Phelps!” I tell Rebekah.

“But does Michael Phelps feel like he’s swimming fast, or does it just feel normal to him?” asks Rebekah, helpfully. She has clearly acclimatised to the cold water by now.

We finally spot the pink boathouse and prepare ourselves to be swooshed. I try to lie on my back with my feet in front of me like an otter, as the woman at registration told us to, but the waves are quite big and it’s tricky to float over waves feet-first. I resort to bobbing upright like a cork instead, turning to look at Rebekah and the other swimmers enjoying this moment as we’re swept along. There are big smiles all around and couple of whoops. Too soon we see the beach and the cheerful volunteers waving us in. Reluctantly, I swim for the shore. It’s still light, not even nine o’clock yet. We’ve been in the water just over ninety minutes.

The marshals and spectators welcome us up the beach, over the line and usher us towards the steps up the hill. At the top of the steps we’re handed something really useful—a beautiful dark blue ‘Swoosh’ towel. (I like a medal but there’s a limit to how many days after a sporting event a 36-year-old woman can wear her medal before people start to give her the side-eye.) A towel is a fantastic medal-substitute and it keeps us warm as we walk over the dunes and back to the Bantham Beach parking lot. The sandy pathway is lit by twinkling strings of bulbs, a magical gauntlet, and ends with the Swoosh sign and hot chocolate.

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IMG_1699We retrieve our bags and go straight for the pasties and pints. There are no tables or chairs left so we collapse on the grass, our wetsuits peeled to our waists and set about answering that age-old question—can a pasty ever taste better than it does after a 6km swim in cold, salty water? The answer is no, of course.

At home I observe that my neck has chafed in a pleasingly symmetrical manner, which proves I was swimming straight and consistently doing bilateral breathing. Result.

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The merch: a good haul.