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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.