Best Books – Autumn 2020


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

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

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

Here Is the Beehive by Sarah Crossan

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

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

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

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

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

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

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

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

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

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

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

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

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

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

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

The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex (March 2021)

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

Wild Swimming


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

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

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

The Downside of Wild Swimming:

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

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

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

The Upside of Wild Swimming:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Books – Spring 2020


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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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. 

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.

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.

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.

The Confession
by Jessie Burton

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

Uplifting Reads for Dystopian Times


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

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

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



by Michelle Obama

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


The Giver of Stars
by Jojo Moyes

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


To Be Taught, If Fortunate
by Becky Chambers

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

The Portable Veblen
by Elizabeth Mckenzie

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



Where’d You Go, Bernadette
by Maria Semple

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

The Humans
by Matt Haig

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


by Cheryl Strayed

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


Good Omens
by Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman

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


And to finish—some classic reads…

Cold Comfort Farm
by Stella Gibbons

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



Catharine and Other Writings
by Jane Austen

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

by Georgette Heyer

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

Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange


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

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

Book: Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange

Genre: Historical Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Children’s Books 2019


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

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

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

Roller Girl
by Victoria Jamieson

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

The Star Outside my Window
by Onjali Q. Rauf

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

The Girl Who Speaks Bear
by Sophie Anderson

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

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

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

Can You See Me?
by Libby Scott, Rebecca Westcott

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

Not My Fault
by Cath Howe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Frances Hardinge

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


Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus

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

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

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

Jemima Small Versus the Universe
by Tamsin Winter

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

The Gifted, the Talented and Me
by William Sutcliffe

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

The Deathless Girls
by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

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


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

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

On the Come Up
by Angie Thomas

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

Best Fantasy 2019


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

Darkdawn (The Nevernight Chronicle #3) by Jay Kristoff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bloodchild (The Godblind Trilogy #3) by Anna Stephens

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

Ninth House (Alex Stern #1) by Leigh Bardugo

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

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

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

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

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

The Bone Houses by Emily Lloyd-Jones

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

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

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

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

Deeplight by Frances Hardinge


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

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

Book: Deeplight by Frances Hardinge

Genre: Fantasy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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…

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!

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!)

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?

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.

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.

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…

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.

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.


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.

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!)

The Darkest Minds by Alexandra Bracken


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41W2E5tmYZL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_For the second meeting of The Book Fanatics (Mwah Ha Ha Ha Ha) Year 8 Book Club the group voted to re-read a book most of them had already read and enjoyed, The Darkest Minds by Alexandra Bracken. (Which suggests that, while publishers may be tired of dystopian fiction, teenagers clearly aren’t.)

What follows are the lyrical waxings of Ernest, Ermentrude, Garfield, Gloria, Karen, Mudge and Oggy. (Real Year 8 pupils, not their real names.)

Book: The Darkest Minds by Alexandra Bracken

Genre: Dystopian

Describe this book in three words:
Ernest: heart-racing, adventurous, dystopian
Ermentrude: longer than DeathlessGirls
Garfield: adventurous, irritating, dystopian
Gloria: torturing children! cool!
Karen: colourful, children, death
Mudge: children, powers, colours
Oggy: fun, dystopian, thriller

If this book was an animal, what kind of animal would it be?
A jaguar, a rainbow unicorn, a raven, a peacock, a black panther

If this book was a colour, what colour would it be?
Orange of course, black, red

Main character/characters & their Hogwarts Houses:
Ruby: Gryffindor
Liam: Hufflepuff
Chubs: Ravenclaw
Zu: Hufflepuff
Clancy: Slytherin

Which character would you most like to be friends with?
Ernest: Liam
Ermentrude: Chubs
Garfield: Liam
Gloria: Zu
Karen: Zu, Ruby, Liam or Chubs
Mudge: Zu
Oggy: Zu and Chubs

What decision would you have made differently from the main character?
Ernest and Karen would’ve told their friends they were orange, Ermentrude would’ve kept her head low or avoided being born at all, Garfield and Oggy would’ve kissed Liam and not made him forget, Gloria would’ve run.

Who would you cast in a movie version of this book?
Ermentrude would’ve once again cast herself as all the characters in a one-woman-show.

What did you enjoy the most about this book?
Ermentrude liked Chubs the best, Garfield liked the dystopian theme, Gloria liked it when Sam’s mind got wiped, Karen enjoyed all the detail, Mudge liked the characters, and Oggy liked the friendships and the adventure.

Have you read any other books you could recommend to someone who likes this book:
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Legend by Marie Lu, Divergent by Veronica Roth, Never Fade and In the Afterlightby Alexandra Bracken.

Give the book a star rating out of five:
An average of 5 stars.