Spark! Children’s Book Awards: Ages 4-7 Shortlist

Tags

, , , ,

The final category in the Spark Book Awards is Picture Books, and it was very difficult to judge between four books that vary so greatly in tone, style and content.

Clean Up by Nathan Bryon, illustrated by Dapo Adeola 

Rocket is very excited that she’s going on holiday to see her grandparents at their island Animal Sanctuary. But when she gets there, she discovers that the beach is full of plastic rubbish that is endangering the local wildlife. Can Rocket organise a beach clean up and save a baby turtle that has been tangled up in plastic?

Clean Up! is a bright, fun and inclusive story with an important environmental message.

The Last Tree by Emily Haworth-Booth 

When the people first discover the forest, it is an ideal place to live. But as they start cutting down the trees to build their homes and construct walls around their village, the people also create barriers in their hearts. When the children discover the last tree, it helps them to remember why the forest was so important in the first place.

The Last Tree is a beautiful and poignant environmental fable about our relationship to the natural world.

Who’s Your Real Mum by Bernadette Green, illustrated by Anna Zobel 

Elvi has two mums but her friend Nicholas is confused, “Which one’s your real mum?” he asks her. Elvi gives Nicholas lots of exciting and imaginative clues (she “can clip a dragon’s toenails while she’s standing on her head and eating a bowl of spaghetti.”) until he realises what she’s telling him—they’re both her real mums.

Who’s Your Real Mum is a humorous and heartfelt story about love and the true meaning of family.

Avocado Asks by Momoko Abe 

When Avocado overhears a child at the supermarket ask her mum whether he is a fruit or a vegetable, the foundation of his world is shaken! Suddenly he’s not sure where he fits in. Fortunately, Tomato is there to remind him, that even if he’s not quite like all the other fruit, he is simply amazing anyway.

Avocado Asks is an engaging and whimsical story about learning to love yourself—whether you’re a fruit or a vegetable, or anything else.

In my experience of reading picture books aloud in schools and libraries, the stories that connect the best with a group are inevitably the funny ones. Although all four are wonderfully written and beautifully illustrated, I’ll place my bets on the one that elicited the most laughs – the millennial fruit identity crisis…

Spark! Children’s Book Awards: Ages 7-9 Shortlist

Tags

, , , ,

This category of books is so vital in children’s reading development and yet often doesn’t receive the recognition it deserves. There’s such a sense of achievement in reading your first real chapter book by yourself. I remember my children devouring the Rainbow Magic and Beast Quest books in that thrilling early stage of independent reading. So hooray to Spark! for acknowledging this age group. It will, however, be a difficult category to judge as the books in this shortlist bridge the gap between chapter books and shorter ‘junior’ or ‘middle-grade’ fiction. Here are my reviews:

Too Small Tola by Atinuke, illustrated by Onyinye Iwu

This short chapter book is made up of three stories about Tola. Tola lives with her older sister Moji, her older brother Dapo, and her grandmother in a run-down block of flats in Lagos. Her brother and sister tease her about being short and call her ‘Too Small Tola’ but Tola proves that even though she is small…she is mighty.

In the first story Tola has to go to the market with her grandmother. She realises that her grandmother is also small but she is strong, and Tola can be strong too. In the second story Tola wakes to find the electricity and the water have gone off. She must collect water from the borehole before she can get ready for school, but when a bully gets in her way, she discovers that she’s not too small to stand up for herself. In the third book Easter and Eid happen to coincide and everyone in Tola’s block of flats is celebrating. Tola is excited about getting a new outfit for Easter, but when their tailor falls off his bike and breaks his leg, Tola steps in to help him fulfil all his orders.

Too Small Tola is a wonderfully uplifting collection of stories that simultaneous feel like folk tales and small portraits of contemporary Nigerian life. These stories create empathy by giving a window on a different way of life, while all children can relate to Tola’s family dynamics – being teased by your siblings, having to do chores around the house, and enjoying a holiday celebration.

Willow Wildthing and the Swamp Monster by Gill Lewis, illustrated by Rebecca Bagley

Willow and her family have moved to a new town to be closer to the hospital where her three-year-old brother is a patient. This means that her parents are often at the hospital, or busy working, or just too tired to spend time with Willow. On the first night in her new house, Willow hears an eerie howling from the Wilderness at the bottom of her garden. When she investigates the next day, she meets the Wild Things—a group of children with animal code names who explore the Wilderness together. But, as they warn Willow, strange things happen in the Wilderness—when you step across the boundary you are changed forever. Willow crosses the bridge and is swept up in an adventure including a missing person, killer plants, a witch and a terrifying swamp monster.

Willow Wildthing and the Swamp Monster is also a chapter book and the first in a series. It’s a wonderfully accessible story, filled with mystery and excitement, that perfectly encapsulates the magic of childhood.  

The Long-Lost Secret Diary of the World’s Worst Samurai by Tim Collins, illustrated by Isobel Lundie

Suki Akiyama is definitely not the world’s worst samurai, though she is not the best either. (The title of this book confused me until realised it was part of a Secret Diary of the World’s Worst… series.) Suki is smart, ambitious and convinced it is her destiny to be a samurai like her father and her brother, despite the fact that she is a girl. She is also over-confident about her own abilities, lacking in discipline and, after she makes some silly mistakes, she gets sent home from samurai school in disgrace. When her father and brother leave to fight in a battle, their village is left unprotected, and some opportunistic bandits scope them out. Suki must rally the women and children to defend their homes from the bandits and prove that she is worthy to be a samurai.

It’s an interesting series concept. The fictional main character gives children an entertaining and relatable insight into living in a particular period, while the ‘Get Real’ inserts present historical facts to add depth to the story. The book was lots of fun, though perhaps not quite as funny as I was hoping for, the samurai facts were fascinating—particularly about female samurai warriors in history, and Suki was an inspiring protagonist. 

Llama Out Loud by Annabelle Sami, illustrated by Allen Fatimaharan

It’s Yasmin’s tenth birthday but no one is her family ever listens to her or asks her what she wants, and she’s given up trying to make herself heard. When her birthday dinner ends in disaster and Yasmin gets blamed for her brothers’ prank, she begs the universe: I wish I could stand up for myself. Little does she realise that her wish is about to be granted in the form of a cockney llama plush toy called Levi.

Levi, the small annoying llama, is not what Yasmin was hoping for. Only Yasmin can see and hear Levi, but his ‘helpful’ interventions have real consequences and Yasmin keeps getting blamed. It seems like Levi is only making things worse. When Levi sabotages the one good thing in Yasmin’s life, the checkers tournament at the Octogenarians’ London Daycentre (O.L.D.), Yasmin has had enough. But will she speak up at last? 

Llama Out Loud is a hilarious story, full of wonderfully vivid characters, about finding your voice and learning to stand up for yourself. I thoroughly enjoyed it. 

Once again, a difficult choice as I enjoyed all of these books. I can’t wait to see which one the children vote for but I suspect, like me, they might be won over by a small, raucous and incredibly annoying llama.

Spark! Children’s Book Awards: Ages 9-11 Shortlist

Tags

, , , ,

I was excited to hear about the inaugural Spark! Kingston and Richmond Children’s Book Awards, especially when three of the four shortlisted books in the 9-11 category were already on my to read pile. Here are my reviews:

A Clock of Stars by Francesca Gibbons

I went for the biggest book first, and the one I’ve been looking forward to reading the most.

Imogen and her little sister Marie follow a silver moth through a door in a tree to a different realm. There they meet Miro, a lonely prince, in a world of monsters. They must confront the king of the monsters in order to find their way home, but perhaps they can also help restore peace to the City of Yaroslav and the surrounding Kolsaney forest.

A Clock of Stars is full of charmingly quirky and authentic characters, is beautifully illustrated by Chris Riddell, and alight with magic and wonder. A pitch-perfect portal fantasy from a gifted storyteller. I adored it.

The Super Miraculous Journey of Freddie Yates by Jenny Pearson

I don’t read a lot of funny books, so this was a complete change of pace but the author made me laugh out loud almost immediately (at something tragic that you wouldn’t laugh at ordinarily), so it was off to a great start.

When something sad happens at the beginning of Freddie’s summer holiday he makes a plan to go on a quest with his friends…but they hadn’t prepared for an onion-eating competition, losing their clothes, being chased by criminals or being mistaken for superheroes. Freddie doesn’t believe in miracles, but will his super-miraculous journey change his mind?

I loved this laugh-out-loud hilarious, madcap romp with a surprisingly warm heart. A book that makes you laugh and cry is always a winner.

When Life Gives You Mangoes by Kereen Getten

I’d already bought this book after the virtual SCBWI Mass Book Launch last year, so I was looking forward to reading it.

Clara lives in the small village of Sycamore in Jamaica where nothing ever happens. But that’s not entirely true – something happened last summer but Clara doesn’t remember it. All she knows is that her best friend Gaynah doesn’t believe her amnesia is real. But then a new girl arrives on the island from England and, as Clara shows her around, they delve into old family secrets and grudges and Clara’s memories start to come back. 

This book sucked me right in. You’re immediately immersed in the tension between Clara and Gaynah and compelled to read on to find out out what catastrophe was that led to Clara’s memory loss. When Life Gives You Mangoes is a wonderfully atmospheric, voice-driven narrative, with a clever plot and a stunning conclusion.

Voyage of the Sparrowhawk by Natasha Farrant

The final book has a real nostalgic look (it reminded me of the cover of The Skylarks War), which I suspect may appeal to adults more than children.

In the aftermath of World War One, Lotti’s horrible aunt and uncle want to send her away to boarding school, and the police won’t let Ben stay alone in his narrowboat when his older brother is declared missing in France, presumed dead. Lotti and Ben hatch an ambitious plan to sail the Sparrowhawk across the Channel to France to find his brother. Along the way they have to contend with bad weather, suspicious lock keepers, quite a lot of dogs, and a determined police officer, tracking them every step of the way.

Voyage of the Sparrowhawk is an exciting and heartwarming Enid-Blyton style adventure about friendship and family.

All four of the shortlisted books are excellent and it’s incredibly difficult to pick a favourite. I’m really looking forward to finding out which one the children go for. If I had to choose a winner, I think I’d go for the Mangoes – mainly for that gasp-inducing ending! But best of luck to all of the shortlisted authors.

2021 WriteMentor Summer Programme

Tags

, , ,

This year I am one of the Mentors for the WriteMentor Summer Programme. This is the first time I have been involved in WriteMentor, but I know several people who have benefitted from their mentoring partnerships, and I would love to help another writer to improve their craft and get the best out of their writing. If you’re thinking about applying to be a mentee, here is some more information about me, my taste in fiction and what you can expect from me as an editor and mentor.

I’m currently writing MG fantasy fiction and I am represented by Julia Churchill at AM Heath. I have a BA Creative Writing and I was the Managing Editor of a literary website for four years, which involved a lot of reading and editing submissions. I have also been involved at an editorial level in several anthologies of short fiction. I am part of a children’s writing group through SCBWI, in which we regularly critique each other’s work. I review books for Netgalley, Armadillo Magazine, and my personal blog, and I read 258 books last year—which gives me a good idea where your book might fit in the context of the publishing market. I am also a primary school librarian, which means I have first-hand experience of what children like to read. 

However skilful a writer you are, it is impossible to see your own blind spots—another pair of eyes is an invaluable tool in your writing process. As an editor, I will give you my honest opinion on the big picture, the foundation blocks of your story—characters, setting, plot, style—as well as the finer details. Though we all have our own individual writing style and narrative voice, as an editor I will look for the gaps and the bumps—the bits that stand out and don’t flow with the rest. 

I love to read fantasy and sci-fi. Some of my favourite authors include Becky Chambers, Holly Black, Cassandra Clare, Leigh Bardugo, Sarah J. Maas, Laini Taylor, VE Schwab, Katherine Arden and Samantha Shannon. (I have read the Hunger Games trilogy and Lord of the Rings at least five times each.)

When it comes to children’s fiction, I particularly love Frances Hardinge, Jonathan Stroud, Dominique Valente, Vashti Hardy, Rick Riordan, Jessica Townsend and Sophie Anderson. The best children’s book I’ve read lately is The Shark Caller by Zillah Bethell. 

I’d love to hear from you if you think I might be able to help with your WIP. Full details of the WriteMentor Summer Programme are available on the WriteMentor website and applications are open 15 – 16 April 2021.

The Polar Bear Challenge Gets More Challenging

Tags

, , , ,

The Polar Bear Challenge became even more challenging in December. On the morning I was supposed to be heading out for my first swim of the month, one of the children woke up with a mild fever and we ended up at a walk-in test centre instead. The test was positive. The virus had come home from school and within a few days all four of us had tested positive for Covid-19.

I spent a week in bed and was more ill than I’ve been in a long time, the loss of my sense of taste was particularly depressing, but I know I got off lightly. For me, the worst bit was the fear of the unknown. We know that Covid-19 is particularly dangerous for elderly people and people with weakened immune systems, but youth and health are no guarantee and little is known about the long-term effects of Covid-19 on the body.

17 December – Freedom

I went back to the river on my first day out of quarantine. I still had a slight cough, but I was otherwise symptom-free and itching to get back in the water. But leaving the house felt strange and unsettling. Even though I knew I was not contagious, I still felt contaminated. I also had no idea how my body would react to the cold water. My last swim had been on the 30th of November, theoretically two weeks wasn’t enough to lose acclimatisation, but I didn’t know. I went with my regular swim buddy, Rebekah, and we opted for a short swoosh in Kingston—close to home. It felt wonderful to be back in the water—an exhilerating release after being stuck at home for two weeks. 

19 December – Christmas Swim

Two days later, we did our first official Polar Bear swim of December—a Christmas-themed event at The Haven. The lake was colder than the river, as I got in the shock took my breath away for a moment and I felt the fear, but the sun soon swept it away. We managed a jolly 450m loop of the lake—17 minutes at 7°C—with our festive hats on. 

21 December & 29 December

We did two more Polar Bear Swims in the Thames at Shepperton in December: a Winter Solstice swim on the 21st of December—500m in 18 mins at 8°C. And a chillier swim on the 29th—300m in 10 minutes at just over 5°C. We were finally approaching the temperature of an official ice swim (less than 5°C). I watched a documentary called The Merthyr Mermaid about ice swimmer Cath Pendleton and her record-breaking ice mile in Antarctica. It was inspiring and terrifying. The kids told me not to get any ideas. I was intrigued by the idea of training for an ice mile, but I’m not quite ready for the sitting-in-a-chest-freezer-in-the-shed level of cold-water acclimatisation.

2 January

At the beginning of January, the country was divided into separate tiers with different levels of lockdown, and you weren’t supposed to cross the boundaries. Our New Year’s Day swim at Shepperton Lake was sadly cancelled. The Haven, fortunately, was in the same tier as us, although the parking lot was extremely busy, and we had to queue for a while to get a spot. The temperature was holding steady at 5.2°C for our first swim of the new year and this time we just did the small loop—300m in 10 minutes.

8 January – First Ice Swim

A week later, all the lakes had been closed and we were in full-scale lockdown again. Fortunately, we were still allowed to exercise with one other person, so I didn’t lose my swim buddy. (I wouldn’t swim alone in the river in winter.) Our first ice swim took place on a miserable day at Hurst Park in front of a crowd of incredulous bystanders. We swooshed for about 500m at 4.5°C. It was extremely cold and there was a lot of huffing, shivering and stamping around afterwards to warm up. 

22 January – Sunshine

Though the cold water has its own benefit, we found that sunshine always makes a winter swim so much more enjoyable. I didn’t think that I would be able to swim through winter without the incentive of the Polar Bear Challenge. It was a surprise to discover that we did so many swims in addition to the ones documented here, purely for the irrepressible joy of it.

25 January – Snow Swim

I spent the rare snow day on Sunday 24 January, throwing snowballs in Home Park with the kids, but the snow hadn’t melted the following day, so we had an opportunity for a bucket-list snow swim. The water was 4°C, but the sky was blue, and the snow was sparkling white in the sun at Hurst Park. It was such a magical day for a swim, that I went twice! 

5 February – The Flood

The beginning of February brought incessant rain and flooding to the Thames and it would’ve been too dangerous to swim in the river. Even our safe swimming spot, a creek out of the main flow, looked scarily unfamiliar in the sprawling floodwaters. We came, looked at it, and left once, but the second time we braved the swollen creek for our first Polar Bear swim of February. We managed a cautious 350m in 12 minutes at 5°C. But it was lovely to be back in the water. 

12 February – Coldest Swim

It looked like a lovely sunny, day but when we got out of our cars, we realised there was a fierce wind blowing that gave the air a wind-chill factor of about -6°C. The water was 2°C. We swam into the wind—waves breaking in our faces. I lost a swim shoe, but I didn’t even notice. It was thrillingly, terrifyingly cold. I had to cuddle the cat for a long time afterwards to warm up again.

19 February

We swam our second Polar Bear swim for February in the creek at Shepperton. The water level was still high but much lower than the last time we’d been here. We managed 350m in 12 minutes at about 7°C—a lot warmer than our last swim. 

24 February – Spring is in the Air

The last week of February seemed unseasonably warm by comparison and the river temperature was on the up. It felt like spring. It was amazing to realise how much we had acclimatised: at the beginning of October, 11°C had seemed unbearable, but four months later, 10 minutes at 8°C felt pleasantly manageable. We didn’t even have a shiver afterwards. 

Despite the additional hurdles of lake-closures, lockdown restrictions, floods, catching Covid, and the coldest January in a decade, we managed to do all the required Polar Bear swims. With only two more March swims to complete the challenge, it’s a downstream swoosh to the finish line.

Best Children’s Books of the Year

Tags

, ,

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

Tags

, ,

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

Tags

, ,

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

Tags

, ,

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

Tags

, , , , , , , , , ,

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.)

50725990._SY475_
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.

43307084._SY475_
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.

45722889._SY475_
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.

52344866._SY475_
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.

43890641._SY475_
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.

29564789._SY475_
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. 

50707360._SY475_
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.

39793796
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.

40554109._SY475_
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.

44439342._SY475_
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.