Favourite Children’s Books 2021

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

October, October by Katya Balen, illustrated by Angela Harding

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

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

When the Sky Falls by Phil Earle

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

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

Look Both Ways by Jason Reynolds

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

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

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

Zombierella by Joseph Coelho, illustrated by Freya Hartas

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

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

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

Fledgling by Lucy Hope

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

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

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

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

Between Sea and Sky by Nicola Penfold

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

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

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

Amari and the Night Brothers by BB Alston

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

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

The Weather Weaver by Tamsin Mori

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

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

Llama Out Loud! by Annabelle Sami, illustrated by Allen Fatimaharan

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

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

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

When Life Gives You Mangoes by Kereen Getten

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

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

The Shark Caller by Zillah Bethell

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

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

The Queen’s Fool by Ally Sherrick

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

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

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

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

Favourite Books 2021

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

The Lighthouse Witches by CJ Cooke

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

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

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

The Christie Affair by Nina de Gramont

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

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

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

A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske

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

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

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

Meet Me in Another Life by Catriona Silvey

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

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

The City We Became by NK Jemisin

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

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

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

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

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

Girl in the Walls by AJ Gnuse

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

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

She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

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

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

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

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

Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

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

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

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

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

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

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

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

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

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

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

A Net for Small Fishes by Lucy Jago

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

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

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

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

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

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

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

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

The Lollies (Age 9-13 Shortlist)

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

The Super Miraculous Journey of Freddie Yates by Jenny Pearson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Books – Spring 2020

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

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

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Humankind
by Rutger Bregman

Rutger Bregman sets out to debunk the ‘veneer theory’, the idea that humans have a thin facade of civilisation that easily cracks under pressure to reveal the evil creature within all of us, as depicted in William Golding’s classic novel, The Lord of the Flies. Some of the examples Bregman investigates are fascinating, from the Christmas truce in the trenches of World War I, to the history of Easter Island, to the psychological thought experiments that supposedly proved how evil we are: the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram Shock Machine experiment.

This is not a blindly, naively optimistic book. Bregman addresses the evils that humans perpetrate, but he is also clear on the role that newspapers and social media play in creating clickbait content that incites fear and prejudice and doesn’t in fact accurately reflect how most of us live. Humankind is, however, a book with a purpose—to raise our expectations of humanity and to inspire us to hope that we can create a better society. It is a thoroughly inspiring book as well as being very readable and engaging.

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A Thousand Ships
by Natalie Haynes

A Thousand Ships is the story of the women of the Trojan War: from Queen Hecabe and her daughters, prisoners of the Greeks after the fall of Troy, to Clytemnestra plotting revenge on her husband Agamemnon, and capricious goddesses fighting over who is the most beautiful, callously setting in motion the events that lead to the war. One of my favourite strands was Penelope’s caustic and sarcastic letters to Odysseus as she hears tales of his vainglorious exploits, long after he should have returned from the Trojan War.

This book will inevitably be compared to Pat Barker’s devastating The Silence of the Girls—though The Silence of the Girlssees the story of the Trojan woman through a twenty-first century lens, while Natalie Haynes tells her stories in a style more faithful to the original tales—an accretion of small cuts rather than the horrific gaping wound of Pat Barker’s novel. This brevity makes the book less emotionally engaging to start with, but it weaves a tapestry of woman’s voices that create an impressively epic narrative that encompasses vast distances and many years.

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The Dutch House
by Ann Patchett

Tom Hanks was the perfect narrator for Ann Patchett’s family drama centred around the relationship between Danny Conroy, his sister Maeve and their childhood home—the ‘Dutch House’. The story flits backwards and forwards in time from their father’s sudden windfall and the initial acquisition of the Dutch House, to Danny and Maeve’s banishment from the house, their adult relationships and the arrival of the next generation of Conroy children. Eventually the story comes full circle with the resolution of family relationships long steeped in bitterness and resentment. Danny is the self-centred, and sometimes obtuse narrator but his older sister Maeve is the fierce heart of the book and the subject of the painting on the cover—which I believe the author had specially commissioned.

There is something immersive about listening to an audio book, perhaps because it forces you to slow down—I spent days with Danny and Maeve in the Dutch House, rather than hours. An incredibly insightful, warm and engaging story.

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A Girl Made of Air
by Nydia Hetherington (September 2020)

You’ll have to wait a few months for this one, it will be published in September 2020, but it is currently available to pre-order. An unnamed tightrope walker relates the story of her childhood in a post-war English circus and her rise to fame in New York. While the headliner of this tale is the ‘Greatest Funambulist Who Ever Lived’, ‘A Girl Made of Air’ is the story of several women: the Funambulist herself, her mother Marina, her mentor Serendipity Wilson, and Serendipity’s daughter, Bunny. At first, the narrator strives to become the greatest funambulist who ever lived, but this ambition is overtaken by a more solemn quest—to find a missing child and make amends.

The story is told in fragments: diary entries, taped interviews, letters and Serendipity Wilson’s Manx folk tales. This may sound disjointed, but these aspects intertwine to create a rich tapestry of family history, myth, trauma, love and loss, and the narrator’s quest provides a momentum that blends the disparate pieces into an engaging story. There is an element of magical realism, but this is grounded by the circus setting: the visceral odours, the clamour of the crowds, the glitz and the grubbiness of this itinerant life. Though she narrates her own story, the sense that the funambulist herself and all her achievements are as evanescent as air, adds a melancholic and wistful quality to this tale. Thankfully, there is an appropriately serendipitous ending to leave a lingering glow as the stage lights dim. I thoroughly enjoyed this vivid, lyrical and poignant novel.

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Hamnet
by Maggie O’Farrell

Few historical details are known about William Shakespeare’s life, but Maggie O’Farrell has taken two scraps of information: the death of Shakespeare’s son Hamnet at eleven, and four years later, the production of his play Hamlet, and spun them into an incredibly powerful and moving novel about love and grief. It is beautifully structured, flitting from Hamnet’s desperate search for help when his twin sister Judith falls ill, back to the moment Shakespeare first sees his wife Agnes, and onwards. Shakespeare himself is mostly absent in the story—referred to only in reference to the other characters: the oldest son, the husband, the father. Instead the story belongs to Agnes (Anne Hathaway) a woman traditionally pitied and scorned by history as Shakespeare’s older, spurned wife—left to moulder in Stratford while Shakespeare found fame in London. And I think that is what I love the most about this book, that it gives Agnes agency and a voice in her own life, and in Shakespeare’s. Hamnet’s death is, of course, heart-breaking, but the final scenes of the book are particularly stunning and devastating. Absolutely brilliant, this might be my book of the year.

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The Mirror & the Light
(Thomas Cromwell Trilogy #3) by Hilary Mantel

I read this book very slowly through the first few weeks of the Coronavirus lockdown, which made it quite an intense and emotional experience. I found it quieter and more contemplative than the first two books—Anne Boleyn’s execution is such a dramatic moment that this book was bound to feel a bit like one long denouement. But it is as brilliantly written and as immersive as the other two, with an additional undercurrent of impending doom (which was exacerbated by the current circumstances).

One of my favourite moments was when Cromwell is astonished and delighted to meet a daughter he never knew existed (she is a fictional character but real historical accounts do suggest he could have had an illegitimate daughter). One of the most poignant aspects of Hilary Mantel’s portrayal of Cromwell is the contrast of his humour, his loyalty and his compassion, with the way his actions are interpreted as cold-hearted, ambitious scheming, by many of the other characters—and by history. The final betrayal that leads to his downfall is just as heart-breaking as I was anticipating. 

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Daughters of Night
by Laura Shepherd-Robinson (June 2020)

I thoroughly enjoyed this atmospheric and meticulously plotted mystery, set in the dark underbelly of Georgian London. Caroline Corsham escapes the crowds at Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens for a clandestine meeting, but instead discovers the body of a murdered woman. When the authorities dismiss the investigation because the woman was a prostitute, Caro cannot let it go and engages thieftaker Peregrine Child to help her investigate the tangled web of events that led to the woman’s death. Caro finds herself not only disillusioned at the vice, corruption and hypocrisy of the Beau Monde, but also in mortal danger as she unearths secrets that threaten to embarrass some of the most prominent and powerful citizens in the land.

Caro is a wonderfully brave and stubborn character as she seeks justice for voiceless women, while weighed down by her own devastating secret and increasingly aware of her tenuous position—even though she is wealthy, she is still subject to the authority of her family and her absent husband. (I didn’t realise till the end that Caro Corsham and Peregrine Child also featured in the author’s previous novel, Blood & Sugar, which I haven’t read, but it worked perfectly well as a standalone novel.) Daughters of Night skilfully combines evocative, immersive historical detail with a gripping, page-turning plot that will keep you guessing till the last page. Brilliantly done.

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The Mercies
by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

The Mercies is based on true events—in 1617 on a remote Norwegian island of Vardo there was a terrible storm that took the lives of nearly all the men in the village and this is the starting point for the book. Maren loses her father, her brother and her fiance all at once. But the women of the village do not have time to grieve, life must go on and in order to survive the women take on the men’s responsibilities of fishing, herding and butchering reindeer. But there are bigger issues that will come to bear on this small community. The King of Norway is determined to bring God’s word to all his citizens, and in particular to stamp out the traditional religious practices of the Sami people. Enter Absalom Cornet, a Scottish witch hunter sent to subdue the women of Vardo. A lyrical and captivating story, I couldn’t put it down.

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The Five
by Hallie Rubenhold

Jack the Ripper’s victims are often dismissed as ‘just prostitutes’ as though the killer had done society a favour by disposing of them. But the first four victims, were not prostitutes at all, just destitute, homeless women with sad life stories, who were murdered while they were sleeping rough. The fifth woman had worked as a prostitute, but does that mean she deserved what she got? The mystery and mythology surrounding Jack the Ripper has made him into an increasingly heroic figure, while reducing the women he murdered into disposable objects of shame. In The Five, Hallie Rubenhold tells their stories in an attempt to reclaim the narrative.

This is a devastating read—firstly for the incredibly difficult lives these women led in Victorian London, where poverty was considered a moral failing, but even more so for the victim-blaming narrative perpetuated by the newspapers and still prevalent today in the media, in courtrooms and government, that suggests that sexual violence against a woman is somehow invited by the way she dresses, the places she goes, or how much she’s had to drink. An important book.

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The Confession
by Jessie Burton

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

Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange

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

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

Book: Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange

Genre: Historical Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deeplight by Frances Hardinge

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

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

Book: Deeplight by Frances Hardinge

Genre: Fantasy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Favourite Books 2019

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!)

The Darkest Minds by Alexandra Bracken

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

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

Book: The Darkest Minds by Alexandra Bracken

Genre: Dystopian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Deathless Girls by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

43453718._SY475_For the first meeting of The Book Fanatics (Mwah Ha Ha Ha Ha) Year 8 Book Club we decided to read The Deathless Girls by Kiran Millwood Hargrave.

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

Book: The Deathless Girls by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Genre: Fantasy, horror, feminist, adventure, LGBTQ+

Describe this book in three words:
Ermentrude: descriptive, feminist, long
Gloria: weird, confusing, vampirey
Karen: death, vampires, travel
Oggy: feminist, interesting, modern

If this book was an animal, what kind of animal would it be?
A bear or a lion

If this book was a colour, what colour would it be?
Brown, crimson, red and black

Main character/characters & their Hogwarts Houses:
Kizzy – Gryffindor
Lil – Ravenclaw or Hufflepuff

Which character would you most like to be friends with?
Ermentrude: Kizzy
Gloria: Albu the bear
Karen: Albu and the twins
Mudge: Albu the bear
Oggy: Mira

What decision would you have made differently from the main character
Ermentrude would’ve kept her head down and avoided associating with people. Gloria would’ve gone on the run with the bear. Karen, Mudge and Oggy wouldn’t have turned, and Oggy wouldn’t have left Mira.

Who would you cast in a movie version of this book?
Ermentrude would have cast herself in a one-woman show. Karen would’ve cast Zendaya as the twins. Oggy suggested Nina Dobrev for Lil, Victoria Justice for Kizzy and Troian Bellisario for Mira.

What did you enjoy the most about this book?
Ermentrude enjoyed the non-dead peeps, Gloria liked the evil lady, Karen liked the adventure and the unexpected twists, and Oggy liked how feminist and modern it was.

Have you read any other books you could recommend to someone who likes this book:
The Surface Breaks by Louise O’Neill and A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge

Give the book a star rating out of five:
An average of 4 stars.

 

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!