Uplifting Reads for Dystopian Times

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.

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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.

 

 

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Becoming
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.

 

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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!)

 

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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?

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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!

 

 

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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.

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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.’

 

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Wild
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!)

 

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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…

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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.

 

 

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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.

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Sylvester
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.

Best Children’s Books 2019

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:

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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Deeplight
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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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…

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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

Favourite Books 2019

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

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Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

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

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

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Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver

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

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

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To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers

Could Becky Chambers write anything I wouldn’t love? Not likely. I was excited to hear she had a new book coming out, less so to hear it was just a novella, but To Be Taught, If Fortunate is such a perfectly polished gem of a book that I can’t criticise it for its length. It it encapsulates the spirit of space exploration but also muses on the ethics of space exploration – a fascinating thought in light of the damage that colonialism has done to earth. And that is what I love most about Becky Chamber’s fiction – in her universe the future is a hopeful place where, though we have suffered the consequences of our own self-destructive tendencies, we have also actually learned something from our mistakes. Imagine that?

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The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker

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

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

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Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

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

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

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The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

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

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

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Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

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

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

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The Familiars by Stacey Halls

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

I thoroughly enjoyed this gripping, evocative tale.

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The Wych Elm by Tana French

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

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

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Bone China by Laura Purcell

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

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

What to Read This Summer

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

CONTEMPORARY

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

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

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

CRIME & THRILLER

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

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

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

HISTORICAL FICTION

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

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

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

FANTASY

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

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

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The City of Brass (The Daevabad Trilogy #1)
The Kingdom of Copper (The Daevabad Trilogy #2)
by S.A. Chakraborty
The City of Brass is an ambitious fantasy novel set in the magical world of the Djinn. Nahri is a fortune teller and thief living off her wits and her magical healing abilities in Cairo until the day she accidentally summons a Djinn and is swept away (on a magic carpet of course) into a world she knows nothing about. Dara the Djinn takes her to Daevabad, the home of her ancestors, a city simmering with historical tensions between the Djinn and the half-human Shafit people and between the various Djinn tribes. The second narrator, Alizayd, is the second son of the King of Daevabad. A devout Muslim, Ali is concerned with the plight of the Shafit and is secretly funding a political group to aid them. When Nahri arrives in the city, Ali and Nahri are both caught up in the King’s machinations as he tries to maintain peace and hold on to his power in politically turbulent time. The author has created a richly detailed world, some layered, nuanced characters and an interesting plot. The second book, The Kingdom of Copper, is even better. Can’t wait for the final book.

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

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

What to Read this Summer

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

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Circe
by Madeline Miller 

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

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

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

 

 

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The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle
by Stuart Turton

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

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Annihilation (Southern Reach #1)
by Jeff VanderMeer 

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

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Less
by Andrew Sean Greer

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

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Homegoing
by Yaa Gyasi

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

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I Still Dream
by James Smythe

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

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Rules of Civility
by Amor Towles

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

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The Heart’s Invisible Furies
by John Boyne 

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

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The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock
by Imogen Hermes Gowar

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

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

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

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The Surface Breaks
by Louise O’Neill

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

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A Skinful of Shadows
by Frances Hardinge

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

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Home Fire
by Kamila Shamsie

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

17 Best Books of 2017

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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The Hate U Give
by Angie Thomas

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

 

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The Underground Railroad
by Colson Whitehead

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

 

 

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People of the Book
by Geraldine Brooks

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

 

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
by Gail Honeyman

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

 

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The One Memory of Flora Banks
by Emily Barr

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

 

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

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

 

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Longbourn
by Jo Baker

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

 

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

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

 

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Days Without End
by Sebastian Barry

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

 

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Turtles All the Way Down
by John Green

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

 

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The Haunting of Hill House
by Shirley Jackson

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

 

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

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

 

 

 

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Alias Grace
by Margaret Atwood

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

 

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Gnomon
by Nick Harkaway

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

 

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Home Fire
by Kamila Shamsie

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

Ten Beautiful Books to Give as Christmas Gifts

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

Alias Grace
Alias Grace
by Margaret Atwood

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

 

Baking with Kafka
Baking with Kafka
by Tom Gauld

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

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

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

 

Gentleman-in-moscow
A Gentleman in Moscow
by Amor Towles 

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

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

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

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

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

A Skinful of Shadows
A Skinful of Shadows
by Frances Hardinge

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

 

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

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

 

13 Great Summer Reads 2017

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

 

34200289Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – by Gail Honeyman

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

 

32511982Midwinter – by Fiona Melrose

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

 

32595029Little Deaths – by Emma Flint

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

 

 

31195557The Power – by Naomi Alderman

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

 

29584452The Underground Railroad – by Colson Whitehead

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

 

 

33590076How to Stop Time – by Matt Haig

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

 

34372486The Ice – by Laline Paull

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

34108705The Hate U Give – by Angie Thomas

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

 

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

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

 

28116830Mooncop – by Tom Gauld

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

 

16 Best Books of 2016

Writing a post like this on the 15th of December makes me anxious—there are still 16 days left of 2016 in which I could read an incredible book, but you have to draw the line somewhere. Or perhaps I should read only terrible books for the next two weeks. (Any recommendations?) 16 books for 2016 seemed like an appropriate number—according to Goodreads I have read 154 books (so far) this year so this is roughly my top 10%.

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The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

This is my book of the year—I’m so glad Waterstones agrees with me and that this novel is finally getting some of the recognition it deserves. When Cora Seaborne’s husband dies she retreats from London to Essex with her son Francis where they begin to hear rumours that the mythical Essex Serpent has returned to the coastal parish of Aldwinter. Somewhere in between AS Byatt and Tracy Chevalier, The Essex Serpent is jam-packed with fascinating characters, atmospheric prose and intriguing plotting. It’s a brilliant book about love and friendship, science and faith. I read it on Kindle but I couldn’t resist buying the stunning blue Waterstones exclusive edition hardback as well.

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The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla

I have emigrated several times (from England to South Africa as a child and vice-versa as an adult) but as a white, English-speaking immigrant you get to blend in a lot more easily in the UK. Your ‘otherness’ is not so clearly signposted on your face. I like to think of myself as an open-minded, empathetic person—curious about other people’s lives, but these essays opened the door to a world I know very little about. This is an important book. It’s not perfect and it’s not exhaustive, but these fifteen essays give a fascinating glimpse into the British black, Asian and minority ethnic experience of living in the UK, storytelling that is essential in creating a diverse and inclusive society—an ideal that seems increasingly under threat.

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Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Olive Kitteridge is structured as a series of short stories based on characters living in a small town in Maine but most, if not all, of the stories feature the titular character, Olive Kitteridge, in some way and we’re able to follow the main events of her life through the book. Many of the stories are about marriage, relationships and loneliness—and there is a sense of melancholy that pervades the book. But there are also occasional glimpses of hope and redemption to make it bearable. It’s a poignant and moving book. My Name is Lucy Barton is Elizabeth Strout’s most recent book, and was on several literary award shortlists this year, but I personally enjoyed Olive Kitteridge more.

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The Power by Naomi Alderman

In the Atwood-esque world of The Power, young girls, and later all women, develop the ability to produce electric shocks with their hands. At first their ability leads to liberation and justice for enslaved women and victims of abuse—but of course, power corrupts, the pendulum swings wildly in the opposite direction and suddenly men are the abused and enslaved ones in this scenario. A brilliantly though-provoking, if thoroughly uncomfortable, read.

 

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The Sellout by Paul Beatty

Whatever you think about cultural appropriation, Lionel Shriver could NOT have written this book. A laugh-out-loud funny and wincingly satirical look at race in ‘post-racial’ America. When his hometown ‘Dickens’, a dodgy neighbourhood on the outskirts of Los Angeles, is literally taken off the map of California, the narrator reinstates racial segregation as a way of putting Dickens back on the map. A brilliantly clever and challenging book.

 

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Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

A strange and eerily beautiful story about family relationships and grief in a style that is part poetry, part stream-of-consciousness and part fable. The crow that arrives, like a profane version of Nanny McPhee, to help this bereaved father and his sons, is sometimes wise and maternally protective, sometimes vulgar and belligerent. Yet somehow the crow is the perfect catalyst to allow the family to move on with their lives. A short book, but a profoundly moving one. The whimsical cousin of Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk.

 

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You Took the Last Bus Home by Brian Bilston

Brian Bilston (the Poet Laureate of Twitter) is a master of pithy wordplay and the supreme commander of the pun (my personal favourite is ‘Robert Frost’s Netflix Choice’). Many of the poems made me laugh out loud. He has much to say on the perils contemporary life: autocorrect, procrastinating on Twitter, holiday cottages with no wifi, delivery charges for internet shopping, Black Friday and the unreasonableness of someone wanting to borrow your mobile phone charger. The poems are sometimes Excel spreadsheets, flow charts and scrabble boards. Bilson’s loathing for The Daily Mail and Jeremy Clarkson is a frequent theme. He also has some poignant observations: like ‘At the Intersection’ a moving venn diagram poem on the ways we misunderstand each other, and ‘Chore Play’ – the awkward juxtaposition of seduction with the boring minutiae of married life. Brian Bilson’s poetry is witty, wise and always enjoyable.

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Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

I’ve read many YA fantasy series this year but if I had to pick one it would be Leigh Bardugo’s outstanding Six of Crows duology, Crooked Kingdom is the second book. This is an epic, rollercoaster of a story with a cast of brilliantly flawed and fascinating characters, and also a satisfying end to the duology. It was also great to see some of the characters from the Grisha trilogy pop up in here as well.

 

 

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Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

I have never read anything by this author before as he primarily writes non-fiction, so I had no idea what to expect. 1746: a mysterious young Englishman, Mr Smith, arrives in the then small town of New York with a bill of credit for £1000 but won’t tell anyone where he got the money from or what he intends to do with it. Golden Hill has a sense of authenticity that suggests a lot of research but it is also completely immersive, tightly-plotted and entertaining. It reminded me a little of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

26115947
The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah

Memory is a black Zimbabwean woman with albinism, on death row for the murder of a white man, Lloyd Hendricks. We don’t know how or why or even if she actually killed him and the details are spun out through the book, from her earliest memories of her childhood with her parents and two sisters, to her life with Lloyd and then later her time in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare and a final heartbreaking revelation. There is a particularly beautiful quote at the end which sums up the book perfectly: ‘To accept that there are no villains in my life, just broken people, trying to heal, stumbling in darkness and breaking each other, to find a way to forgive my father and mother, to forgive Lloyd, to find a path to my own forgiveness.’ Highly recommended – poignant, lyrical and intensely moving.

Portable Veblen
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. Elizabeth McKenzie is like a gentler, more whimsical version of AM Holmes. 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!

 

25396250
The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North

How well can you truly know another person? This book tells the story of Sophie Stark, an indie filmmaker, from the perspective of those people who supposedly knew her best. The result is a collection of stories and reminiscences that build a fragmented, abstract image of an artist, like one of Sophie’s own experimental films. Anna North is a wonderful storyteller and in that her writing did remind me of Jennifer Egan’s. It’s a beautifully written, thought-provoking read. 

 

25201920
The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

The Wayfarer is a tunnelling ship that creates wormhole-type shortcuts through the fabric of space and we meet the mixed-species crew on the day that a new human member, Rosemary, is introduced for the first time. Short afterwards they’re offered their most ambitious job yet – to travel to a distant planet inhabited by a particularly belligerent species and create a tunnel home. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is proper, hardcore sci-fi complete with space travel, weird looking aliens and shedloads of impenetrable sci-fi jargon, but it is also brilliantly inventive, thought-provoking and moving. I couldn’t put it down.

23592175
The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

Fourteen-year-old Faith Sunderly is a budding natural scientist. She possesses a passionate curiosity that gets her into trouble but also serves her well as she investigates a suspicious death and explores the properties of the mysterious Lie Tree—a tree that thrives on human lies and yet bears fruit that illuminates truth. It’s rare to find a book with such a good message that is not at all moralistic or preachy. The Lie Tree is a thoroughly researched and beautifully written piece of historical fiction, woven together with dark and mystical elements and a strong feminist sensibility.

22890350
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Just brilliant: vivid, compelling and honest. I’ve never read anything by this author that I didn’t like, but I found the themes of cultural identity, assimilation and the immigrant experience particularly resonant in this book.

 

 

 

The Vegetarian
The Vegetarian by Han Kang
(translated by Deborah Smith)

Plagued by terrible nightmares, a once dutiful and submissive wife, Yeong-hye, decides to become a vegetarian, seek a more ‘plant-like’ existence and ultimately aspires to become a tree. Dark and disturbing but also hauntingly beautiful and intensely moving. The Vegetarian was also the winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2016.

 

 

29424969
Bonus Book: Swing Time by Zadie Smith
I’m a third of the way through this so I don’t have a conclusive opinion yet. Of course, it’s crammed full of Zadie Smith’s typical wit, insight, and beautiful prose. Damn it! And so far I’m enjoying it more than NW.

 

That’s all folks, working on the ‘Best Bookcovers of 2016’ for my next post.