‘Ten Thousand Stitches’ by Olivia Atwater (Regency Faerie Tales #2)

Euphemia (Effie) Reeves is an ideal housemaid. Though she is underpaid and overworked, she manages to channel her anger into her stitching and creates beautiful embroidery. However, she longs to be truly seen by the upper-class members of the household—in particular by the handsome Benedict Ashbrook, who shows a modicum more consideration for the servants than the rest of his self-centred family. 

So when Effie meets a faerie called Lord Blackthorn, despite everything she’s heard about the dangers of faerie bargains, she is drawn into a wager—he will make her into a lady and she will win Benedict’s heart. But although Lord Blackthorn is a very charming and well-intentioned faerie godfather, his attempts to help Effie have unintended and sometimes disastrous consequences. 

Regency magic is one of my favourite genres, but I love how Olivia Atwater brings something extra to her books as well—an awareness of social inequality. In ‘Half a Soul’ Dora is consumed by the plight of children in workhouses and is willing to use her own status to create awareness and offer practical help. And ‘Ten Thousand Stitches’ is a Cinderella story with a difference, as Effie is not content to improve her own circumstances but is concerned with the working conditions of all the servants in her own household, and everywhere else. One could argue that it is anachronistic to bring 21st Century sentiments into a Regency setting, but no more fantastical than introducing faeries. 

‘Ten Thousand Stitches’ is another charming and whimsical romance about finding yourself, channelling your anger and being kind to others—a perfect escapist read. I can’t wait to read the next Regency Faerie Tale.

‘Mexican Gothic’ by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a such a versatile writer, every book is written in a different genre, and yet she maintains the same rich character development, the same immersive scene-setting and the same lyrical storytelling. 

When Noemí Taboada receives a concerning letter from her recently married cousin, she sets off to find out what is going on.

“You must come for me, Noemí. You have to save me. I cannot save myself as much as I wish to, I am bound, threads like iron through my mind and my skin and it’s there. In the walls. It does not release its hold on me so I must ask you to spring me free, cut it from me, stop them now. For God’s sake…”

Catalina has always been a little dramatic but when Noemí arrives at the family home, High Place, she encounters a sinister and foreboding atmosphere, an oppressive patriarch (Catalina’s father-in-law) and her cousin reduced to a shadow of her former self.

Does Catalina need a psychiatrist or could there be some truth to the wild allegations she is making about her husband’s family and the nature of the house itself?

Shirley Jackson meets Jeff Vandermeer in this extremely sinister and disturbing gothic horror that will put you off eating mushrooms!

Favourite Children’s Books 2021

I’ve read nearly fifty children’s books this year (that’s just MG, not picture books or YA) so it was incredibly difficult to narrow this list down – particularly as there were so many brilliant books published. Here are my top twelve, in the order I read them (most recent first).

October, October by Katya Balen, illustrated by Angela Harding

This was published at the end of last year, but it is SO beautiful – I have to include it. October has always lived off-grid in the forest with her Dad. She doesn’t need anything or anyone else. But on the day that she turns eleven her Dad has a terrible accident and October is sent to live with the ‘woman who is her mother’ while he is in hospital. October is bewildered and frightened by the noise and chaos of the city and her new school, and she is furious that she has been taken away from her home. But even though her new home is strange and unsettling there are still stories to be found and beauty to discover. 

A beautifully written and powerfully emotive book. (And it could be a handbook for the Forest School movement.) Loved it.

When the Sky Falls by Phil Earle

While most other children are being evacuated, 12-year-old Joseph is sent to London to stay with the cold and pragmatic Mrs F because his grandmother can’t cope with his behaviour. But when he arrives Joseph discovers that Mrs F runs a zoo. While most of the animals have been put down or sent away, a fierce silverback gorilla named Adonis remains under her care. Joseph is an angry boy, who has been abandoned too many times, but Adonis finds a way through his defences. But whenever the bombs are falling, Mrs F must guard the gorilla enclosure with a rifle and be prepared to shoot Adonis if the bombing sets him free. 

This is an incredibly gripping and engaging story about two people (and a gorilla) who are broken and devastated by the war – but eventually manage to find comfort and solace in each other. A deftly written, heartbreaking read. I cried buckets! 

Look Both Ways by Jason Reynolds

Ten stories, ten blocks, ten journeys home from school. It’s a brilliant concept – that liminal space of the walk home, a moment of independence away from teachers and parents, when so many dramas are played out. Amongst the usual obstacles (terrifying neighbourhood dogs, bullies) lurk other threats: cancer, prison, rumours of a school bus that fell from the sky… 

I struggled a little with the first story (due to gratuitous bogeys) but from the second story onwards I was hooked: ‘The Low Cuts Strike Again’ is about a gang of four friends on a mission. They are all ‘free-lunchers’, known for pinching pennies (literally) but it’s actually a different circumstance that unites them in their quest. My other favourites were ‘Call of Duty’ in which a boy stands up for his friend who is a victim of homophobic bullying, ‘Ookabooka Land’ about a girl who wants to be a stand-up comic, and ‘The Broom Dog’ about a boy who experiences panic attacks after a traumatic experience. 

The kids mostly attend the same school and so the stories overlap and intertwine, the significance of a moment in one story is explained in another, and of course the origin of the school bus rumour is eventually revealed. Jason Reynolds perfectly captures the preoccupations, the awkwardness and the wonder of the early adolescent years. I absolutely LOVED these funny and incredibly moving stories.

Zombierella by Joseph Coelho, illustrated by Freya Hartas

When Cinderella falls down the stairs and dies, the Fairy of Death transforms her to a zombie so she can attend the Prince’s ball. But there’s something uncanny about the Prince as well.

Warning: this hilarious retelling of Cinderella is not for the faint of heart or the queasy of stomach…it is disgusting, illustrated in gruesome detail, full of bodily functions and death. And yet it still has a delightful fairytale ending.

There’s a long waiting list for this one in the school library!

Fledgling by Lucy Hope

In the year 1900, Cassie Engel lives in an unusual house perched precariously on top of a tall rock on the edge of the Bratvian Forest overlooking to town of Edenburg. She lives with her cold and aloof opera-singing mother, her enthusiastic but not particularly skilful taxidermist father, and her grandma who is gravely ill.

One night, during a violent storm, a cherub flies into Cassie’s room. But this is only the beginning of a series of mysterious happenings that will transform her life irrevocably. The cherub has arrived for a reason: the sturmfalken are gathering in the forest, Cassie’s parents are acting strangely, and something is happening to her best friend, Raphael. As the storm clouds gather, Cassie, Raphael and the cherub must solve the mystery of Raphael’s birth and protect themselves from the threat that is looming from the sky.

I loved Cassie’s weird house, full of innovative inventions like the ‘zip’—a steam-powered platform that acts a lift, and a mechanical roof that opens like the petals of a flower. The Bavarian setting gives the book a dark, Grimm’s Fairy Tale feel, while the sinister characters, dreamlike prose and uncanny owls imbue it with hint of Twin Peaks-style surrealism. 

Fledgling is a startlingly original and eerily atmospheric tale, perfect for fans of Frances Hardinge. I was thoroughly captivated, and utterly blindsided by the ending. Highly recommended.

Between Sea and Sky by Nicola Penfold

In Blackwater Bay, Nat and his Mum live strictly controlled lives in a compound on stilts close to the Edible Uplands farming complex. The threat of the prison ship hangs over them—home of those who commit even minor infractions against edicts issued by the Central District. Sisters, Pearl and Clover live a very different life on a floating oyster farm with their Dad—a small oasis from the one-child laws that condemn Clover’s very existence. When Nat’s Mum is sent to the Oyster farm to carry out some research, Nat brings with him a dangerous secret that could have far-reaching consequences for all of them. 

The exact details of the environmental crisis that led to the current state of this dystopian world are not explained, and the politics remain in soft focus in the background (though the peacekeepers and the prison ship are a very real and immediate threat). Instead, this is a story of friendship and discovery. Pearl is suspicious of Nat at first and antagonistic towards all ‘landlubbers’, but the children realise that, through cooperation, they may perhaps have a way to improve their lives and those around them. But the thrumming heart of this story is the environmental theme—and in particular the importance of pollinators. Perhaps through cooperation, we can still save them.

Between Sea and Sky is a lyrical, stirring adventure story with a compelling environmental message. Highly recommended.

Amari and the Night Brothers by BB Alston

Amari’s brilliant older brother, Quinton, is missing under strange circumstances. But when Amari receives an invitation to a Summer Programme at the mysterious Bureau where he worked, she takes the opportunity in order to find out what really happened to him. But when she arrives she discovers a world of magical creatures, concealed from humans, and finds out that she herself has a gift that could help her find her brother, but also alienates her from everyone else at the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs.

I loved this. A thrilling, immersive new magical world, for fans of Nevermoor and Harry Potter, with a diverse cast of characters. Can’t wait for book 2!

The Weather Weaver by Tamsin Mori

Stella is looking forward to going home to the Shetland Islands for the summer, but she is not excited about being left alone there with her grieving grandfather while her parents work. But when she meets the mysterious Tamar and manages to summon her own personal cloud, Stella discovers that she’s a Weather Weaver.

This is a captivating adventure, grounded in folklore and the storm-swept landscape of the Shetland Islands, and illuminated by a fascinatingly inventive magic system.

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. 

When Life Gives You Mangoes by Kereen Getten

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 stunning conclusion. 

The Shark Caller by Zillah Bethell

A lyrical and deceptively simple story set in Papua New Guinea. Blue Wing’s adoptive father is the Shark Caller of their village and all Blue Wing wants is to learn to call the sharks as well so she can avenge her parents’ deaths – but he refuses to teach her. When an American father and daughter move to the village, Blue Wing is forced to spend time with the daughter, Maple, and although they can’t stand each other at first, they bond over their love of swimming and their shared grief. But the real reason Maple’s Dad has come to island is a mystery the girls are determined to solve. 

Now I know why everyone is talking about this book. Wow! An incredibly poignant and beautiful story of friendship and grief. I was utterly blindsided by the ending. Absolutely brilliant!

The Queen’s Fool by Ally Sherrick

When 11-year-old Cat Sparrow’s older sister Meg is snatched away from their convent home by a sinister man on a black horse, Cat decides to follow them to London and get her sister back. Cat meets a young French actor, Jacques, who helps her to get to Greenwich Palace—where Queen Katherine takes Cat under her wing and employs her as her ‘Fool’. But their adventure is just beginning. Cat and Jacques travel to France for the historic meeting of Henry VIII and François I on the Field of Cloth of Gold. Cat is still desperate to find Meg, and Jacques has vowed to avenge his father’s murder, but there is more at stake than either of them realise and they uncover a plot that could have far-reaching consequences for both of their countries. What is the man on the black horse planning, and can they stop him before it is too late? 

Ally Sherrick has meticulously researched the Tudor era in order to create her characters and their historical context. The story is inspired by two paintings on display at Hampton Court Palace: one portraying the ‘Field of Cloth of Gold’ and another featuring a historical character called ‘Jane the Fool’ who inspired the character of Cat Sparrow. While people with learning disabilities were often reviled and feared in Tudor times, some saw them as ‘innocents’—lacking worldly wisdom but valued for their capacity to see the world differently and to speak the truth to those in power when others would be afraid to. 

For anyone who aspires to write children’s fiction, The Queen’s Fool is masterclass in that elusive quality—voice. Cat Sparrow’s language is powerfully unique and immersive, from her emotive descriptions, “Holy Mother Sharp-Tongue’s eyes go black and pointy and her mouth pulls pinchy-tight,” to her charming malapropisms: The Duke of Buckingham is “Lord Bucket”, Mistress Bristol is “Mistress Bristles”, and my favourite—she calls Cardinal Wolsey “Candle Woolly”.

The Queen’s Fool is a gripping adventure, a beautifully crafted historical mystery, as well as a wonderfully empathetic character study of a girl who sees and experiences the world a little differently to those around her. Highly recommended.

Favourite Books 2021

I seem to have read mostly children’s books this year, but I’ve still read a few fantastic adult books that I would highly recommend. Here are twelve of my favourites:

The Lighthouse Witches by CJ Cooke

1998: When Liv is commissioned to paint a mural inside an old lighthouse, she packs up her three daughters and drives to the remote Scottish Island to start work. But when they arrive, they discover that the lighthouse has a sinister history and that the locals believe the island was cursed by witches. At first Liv doesn’t pay attention to the superstitions, but when strange things begin to happen she realises that they are all in terrible danger. 

In the present day, Luna has been searching for her mother and sisters for two decades when she gets a phone call that her sister has been found. But her sister is still the same age as when she went missing twenty-two years earlier. 

It was the gorgeous cover design that drew me to this story but once I’d started, I couldn’t put down this dark and twisted magical thriller. The Scottish-island setting is wonderfully atmospheric and sinister, the plot is clever and satisfying, and the relationships between mother, daughters and sisters is wonderfully warm and moving. Definitely one of my books of the year!

The Christie Affair by Nina de Gramont

In 1926, after the death of her mother and shock of her husband asking for a divorce, Agatha Christie crashed her car and vanished for 11 days without ever giving an account of those missing days. The author begins with the facts surrounding the mystery writer’s unexplained disappearance and creates an alternative history to explain the circumstances.

The story is told from the perspective of a fictional version of the ‘other woman’, Nan O’Dea, and the plot itself is a wonderfully Christie-esque puzzle with elements of Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express amongst others. 

I absolutely loved The Christie Affair – a brilliantly crafted combination of historical fiction, romance and mystery as well as a wonderful homage to Agatha Christie. 

A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske

Perfect for fans of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and Sorcerer to the Crown, A Marvellous Light is a historical fantasy and queer romance set in Edwardian England.

Robin Blythe starts his new job as a civil servant to discover he has been appointed as a parliamentary liaison to a magical world he didn’t know existed. But before he can find his feet in this dazzling new reality, he is cursed by rogue magicians searching for a magical artefact hidden by his predecessor. His magical counterpart, Edwin Courcey, is his only hope to remove the curse before it kills him – unfortunately Robin and Edwin are very different people and don’t exactly hit it off.

I was thoroughly charmed by this story – an intriguing magical mystery with a Bridgerton level of romance.

Meet Me in Another Life by Catriona Silvey

When Thora and Santi meet for the first time a ruined clock tower in Cologne, they recognise in each other a restless yearning for something bigger. Their relationship is cut short by a tragic accident, but this is not the end. Thora and Santi meet over and over again in various lives as lovers, enemies, siblings, parent and child, teacher and student—always living in the same town and cursed to remember all of their past lives while attempting to live the current one. Santi is philosophical and hopeful—he looks for meaning and trusts in a higher power. Thora is cynical and struggles with a sense of futility. But neither of them have any idea why they are trapped, living different versions of their lives over and over again.

For most of the book I wasn’t entirely sure where this magical-realist time loop/parallel worlds story was going. The sense of doom and inevitability reminded me of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and the Netflix series, Russian Doll. But the reason for their multiple lives, when it is finally revealed, is brilliant and devastating—I was entirely blindsided. A wonderfully complex, ambitious story, that is also full of heart and humour. Loved it.

The City We Became by NK Jemisin

I loved the Broken Earth trilogy, set in a futuristic world completely removed from our reality, but this book might be even stranger and more alien, despite the familiar geography, and it took me a while to find my feet. 

NK Jemisin takes that quintessential book review trope, that New York city is a character in the book, and turns it into a weird and wonderful piece of fantasy in which New York City is a literal character, alongside the five boroughs: Manhattan, Brooklyn, The Bronx, Queens and Staten Island—with personalities corresponding to the collective disposition of that neighbourhood. (If I lived in Staten Island I might be slightly offended at this point.)

In this world, when a city reaches a certain stage, it goes through a process of birth and the city is embodied in one living person. But if that process is interrupted then the city will die, and millions of lives will be lost in the process. When the five boroughs of New York realise that they have become living embodiments of the city, they must find each other and work together to locate the city Avatar and defend themselves against an evil force trying to destroy the city before it is born.

I particularly love the way that NK Jemisin uses Lovecraftian references and imagery in a book that joyfully celebrates and embraces the cultural diversity of New York—a authorial middle finger to Lovecraft’s white supremacism. I’ve never been to New York, but I feel like I’ve learned a lot more about it from this book than anything else I’ve read. 

The City We Became is a thrilling, wildly inventive urban fantasy, and the start of another epic series from a hugely talented author. Highly recommended.

Girl in the Walls by AJ Gnuse

The title and the cover encapsulate this sinister, Southern Gothic tale perfectly. Eleven-year-old Elise has been living in the walls of her old house for nearly a year. She knows exactly which floorboards creak and she can move around in the crawl spaces, the attic and inside the walls while the new family are home, and when they are out she has the house to herself once again. But the younger son Eddie senses that someone else is there…

The story is told mainly from Elise’s perspective as she is haunted by the new family who have moved into her house. You would think this would make the story less creepy, as we know exactly who it is who sneaks through the walls. And yet this is a nail-bitingly tense read, as Elise ekes out her existence just out of view. Brilliantly done – a thrilling, atmospheric and heartbreaking read.

She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

An unnamed peasant girl is already close to starvation when her family is attacked by bandits, but she alone has the will to survive. She claims not only her brother’s identity but also his foretold fate. 

China is occupied by the Mongol armies. A small rebel force called the Red Turbans have gathered together to attempt to oust the invaders. But little do they imagine that they will be led down their road to victory by a small, effeminate monk.

Inspired by the life of Zhu Yuanzhang, founding Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, this story is meticulously researched and vividly brought to life. I wasn’t sure what to expect. This is not an era I am at all familiar with and I’m not a particular fan of war strategy stories, but the events of Zhu’s rise to power are incredibly compelling and exciting. Zhu is a wonderful character with a fierce, ruthless determination, not only to survive but to claim the Mandate of Heaven and achieve the glorious destiny once promised to her brother. She will do whatever it takes, no matter the cost.

An epic, breathtaking and dazzling tale – I thoroughly enjoyed it and can’t wait to find out what happens to Zhu, Ma and Ouyang in the next book. 

Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

I loved Sorcerer to the Crown and its sequel, so I was very keen to read Zen Cho’s new book, though it has a very different setting.

Jessamyn has graduated from Harvard, but after her father has a cancer-scare, her parents move home to Malaysia and Jess moves with them, unsure what she wants to do next. Jess’s girlfriend wants her to look for a job in Singapore where she will be living, but Jess is not out to her parents and feels an obligation to stay with them. To make matters even more complicated, Jess has started hearing a voice in her head and realises she is being haunted by the ghost of her estranged dead grandmother. Ostensibly, Ah Ma wants to prevent the destruction of a small local temple but there is more to the story than Jess realises, and soon she is enmeshed in the machinations of a vengeful goddess called Black Water Sister. 

I absolutely loved this Neil-Gaimanesque mashup of ancient gods and contemporary Malaysian settings. Zen Cho superimposes a supernatural realm onto a concrete setting in such a way that this bizarre juxtaposition of worlds seems perfectly natural. Similarly, she overlays some horrific trauma with mischievous humour in a way that does justice to both. I’m not sure if I can call this a coming-of-age story as the protagonist is in her early twenties, but it definitely has that feel as Jess attempts to assert herself as an independent adult to her overbearing relatives—both alive and dead—and the ending is incredibly moving. A vivid, enthralling and funny fantasy world with an endearing, beleaguered protagonist.

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Klara is an AF, an Artificial Friend, designed to be a companion to a teenager. Until she is purchased, her perception of the world is limited to the view out of the store window but Klara is incredibly observant and learns everything she can based on the human interactions she sees, and the trajectory of the sun. When Klara is purchased as a companion for Josie, a girl with a chronic illness, she gets to observe the vast complexity of human relationships up close.

This book reminded me a lot of Never Let Me Go, in narrative style, concept and vaguely dystopian undertones, but it is a more mature and subtle story. As an AI, Klara’s character is rendered in precise and painstaking detail and her developing understanding is beautifully controlled. All of the obvious ethical questions about AI are in there, but so seamlessly integrated that you feel them rather than think about them and the ending left me in pieces. A brilliant, heartbreaking, profound story.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

If, like me, you were worried that this was going to be an aimless story of a guy rambling philosophically through a surreal world, fear not. There is in fact a plot, a mystery, and even a villain. 

This is a whimsical, hypnotic book, and the first few chapters do include a lot of philosophical rambling. The house where is Piranesi lives is comprised of a seemingly endless procession of vast classical halls full of statues. There are three levels but the basement level is flooded and the top level is in the clouds, so Piranesi is mainly confined to the middle level. There is one other person there with Piranesi, who he calls the Other, but for as long as he can remember it has just been the two of them. Until Piranesi finds a strange message in chalk and the Other begins to warn him about someone new, coming to disrupt the harmony of their world. I can’t say much more than that without spoilers, but the gradual reveal of the mystery of Piranesi’s life is incredibly compelling and poignant. 

Piranesi is a completely different book to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell but the mundane and the magical are similarly blended. The inside of Susanna Clarke’s head must be an equally magical and dreamlike place…

A Net for Small Fishes by Lucy Jago

Based on a true story, A Net for Small Fishes is a meticulously researched and thoughtfully imagined account of the friendship between Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset, and Anne Turner, and the circumstances that led to a shocking murder in the Jacobean Court.

In their connection to the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury, history paints these two women as scheming, murderous criminals, but Lucy Jago creates two colourful and nuanced characters—real women forced to navigate their world within the confines of their sex.

When we meet them, the narrator Anne Turner is a doctor’s wife of no rank, but she has patented a type of yellow starch for collars and cuffs and is in demand as a fashion consultant in Court. Anne advises Frances Howard how to dress in order to gain the attention of her husband, and in doing so empowers the younger woman, and despite the difference in rank and age, they become friends. 

At the time English women in general were perceived as becoming too masculine and self-sufficient. Frances Howard’s desire to be liberated from her abusive and impotent husband marks her out as an unnaturally independent woman, while Anne’s aspirations to rise above her station lead to her being vilified as: ‘a whore, a bawd, a sorcerer, a witch, a papist, a felon and a murderer’. The title, A Net for Small Fishes, refers to fact that those of lower rank, like Anne Turner, often took the fall for those of higher rank like her friend, Frances. But while society pits them against each other, their friendship is the heart of this book. They are definitely not paragons—Anne Turner’s ambition makes her proud and mercenary, while Frances Howard’s privilege makes her selfish and thoughtless—but the strength of their attachment is genuine.

A Net for Small Fishes is fascinating account of a Jacobean scandal as well as a poignant portrayal of female friendship. Brilliantly done.

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

My first read of 2021, this was the oddest and most intriguing book I’d read in a while. It feels like historical fiction but it’s not…it’s more like a historical parallel world. The main action concerns a voyage on a ship from Batavia (Jakarta) to Amsterdam in 1634. But the story creates a fictional world that encompasses decades and continents. The world’s greatest detective and his bodyguard (Homes & Watson-style characters) are on board but the detective has been arrested and imprisoned on suspicion of a crime. When mysterious symbols begin to appear and the ship is rumoured to be cursed by a devil, the sidekick, Arent, must investigate in partnership with the governor’s wife, Sara.

This inventive, brilliantly-constructed story kept me guessing till the last chapter, but thankfully had a suitable satisfying conclusion.

The Lollies (Age 9-13 Shortlist)

Voting is now open for The Laugh Out Loud Book Awards 2022, celebrating the funniest children’s books in the UK and Ireland. Here are my reviews of the Age 9-13 Shortlist:

The Super Miraculous Journey of Freddie Yates by Jenny Pearson

When something sad happens at the beginning of Freddie’s summer holiday he makes a plan to go on a quest with his friends to find his biological dad…but they hadn’t planned 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?

This laugh-out-loud hilarious, madcap romp has a surprisingly warm heart. I loved it.

Zombierella (Fairy Tales Gone Bad) by Joseph Coelho, illustrated by Freya Hartas

When Cinderella falls down the stairs and dies, the Fairy of Death transforms her to a zombie so she can attend the Prince’s ball. But there’s something uncanny about the Prince as well.

Warning: this hilarious retelling of Cinderella is not for the faint of heart or the queasy of stomach…it is disgusting, illustrated in gruesome detail, full of bodily functions and death. And yet it still has a delightful fairytale ending.  

Little Badman and the Invasion of the Killer Aunties by Humza Arshad and Henry White, illustrated by Aleksei Bitskoff

Humza Khan is destined to be a big star—he’s always known it. But when his teachers start to disappear mysteriously and be replaced by Aunties, Humza and his friends Umer and Wendy, must find out what’s going on before the Aunties take over once and for all!

This is a hilariously funny, bizarrely inventive story with a madcap cast of characters and a heartfelt message. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Kay’s Anatomy by Adam Kay, illustrated by Henry Paker

It is difficult to judge this alongside the other books as it is non-fiction—a book that you would dip into rather than read cover-to-cover—but it’s definitely funny. In the tradition of Horrible Histories, Adam Kay makes learning fun as he comprehensively explores the human body, making the most of the disgusting bits.

Humour aside, Kay also explains a lot of complicated things in a clear and helpful way—an entertaining and useful resource with an excellent pun for a title. 

All of these books are brilliant and hilarious, but Zombierella is the hottest property in the school library this term and gets my vote for its startlingly original and toe-curlingly funny take on the classic story.

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

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

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

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

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.

Best Children’s Books of the Year

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.