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Lockdown Libraries

I had the sudden realisation the other day that due to the *gestures vaguely* everything of everything, this is the longest I’ve ever been without going to the library. Eighty-two days. Or, as the internet has helpfully informed me, eighty two days is the equivalent of over 22 % of this entire year.

Libraries matter a lot in my life, and the absence of them has been a strange and tender bruise. When I was looking for somewhere to rent, I would look for somewhere near the library. When I moved somewhere new, I would go and sign up at the library. I have worked in them, I have laughed in them, and I love them because they symbolise so much of what we can be.

This period has seen my approach to reading change, not only because of the absence of library visits but also because of the (forgive me for gesturing vaguely again) everything. The first few weeks saw a frantic tidy up of bookish things, a purposeful addressing of the TBR pile – a pile more ambition than stability – and then I threw things away. A reaction to it all, I suspect, but also one of those long needed jobs. There were certain rules of course (I’m not a monster). Anything that’s a tentative throw and is still in print can be thrown. Anything that I’ve not looked at for a long time and can be replaced can go. The Elsie Oxenhams must be placed in a bag to go and then they must return for they have a peculiar and quite lovely staying power.

I packed up six bags of books. And the books stayed in the bags.

They didn’t come back out again. I didn’t have that moment of doubt. I didn’t tearily smuggle something back upstairs at midnight promising never to leave it ever again (not that I’ve, errr, ever done that). The books stayed in the bag and even though they still haven’t gone (circumstances!), they are going. And I don’t really remember what’s in there, but they’ve already left my little library.

And nothing has yet replaced them. No library books, no secondhand hauls (I am aching to head back into my favourite cobwebby auction rooms let me tell you that), no charity book shop bonanza. Just that light and tender bruise, the space on the table that looks fine but – if you touch it, if you recognise what isn’t there, if you see it – then it hurts.

Eighty-two days. It’s weird, right? The moments where you realise just how strange this process is. The moments where you think – this is embarrassing. I should have more than three books on my account but three is all I have. It means that I’m going to be spending the first weeks of a pandemic with a biography about a Nun, an emotional look at the cultural life of American immigrants, and Elton John’s autobiography.

And inevitably I read them all in minutes and thought – what now? what now?

(Of course in the scale of things, all of this is small. So small. I do not want my library back – or indeed any library – to return to public service until it is safe, feasible and realistic for them to do so. I especially want the needs of library staff made paramount during this process and I recognise that many of you will have been working wonders through this entire period through online services and support and distanced working. I will go another eighty days, another hundred, if it means that library staff remain safe and healthy and able to do their jobs without fear. It also goes without saying that I wish you well if you are a member of library staff, and that you have my utmost support and love and respect at this time.)

A tender and most peculiar bruise this whole thing, but the thing about bruises is this: they heal. And the books shall wait, and the reading shall come back, and I shall comb the secondhand bookshops once more.

This is only how we live now.

And now is not forever.


Two quick updates: this blog shall no longer be covering Harry Potter nor any of the related media. It has been a while since I have covered any and it has never been a particular focus, but this is how things shall lie from this point on. It is also worthwhile reaffirming that I welcome authors from diverse backgrounds and under-represented cultures getting in touch if they think my work – both here and on BookRiot, where I write a weekly newsletter of new children’s book releases and also co-host a fortnightly literary fiction podcast – may be a good fit for their book. I want to know you. Here’s my contact form or you can reach out to me on Twitter. Thank you.

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The Other Americans by Laila Lalami

The Other Americans by Laila Lalami

The Other Americans by Laila Lalami

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


A lyrical exploration of tragedy, The Other Americans is an incredibly poised and eloquent novel. One night Driss Guerraoui crosses the road and is killed by a speeding car; the novel follows what happens next, spiralling through a series of chapters told by different voices in and out of the neighbourhood. These are the people impacted by Driss’s death – his wife, his daughters, but also the neighbours, the police, and the community at large. It’s a powerful read, and one that works with a lot of subtlety and control to figure out issues of identity, representation and otherness. What is America? Who is America?

Reading this as an outsider to America is a fascinating exercise and a rewarding one; stylistically Lalami is incredible here, working her way through a tightly structured polyphonic text – albeit one where certain voices and characters work better than others – and delivering a restrained and somewhat elegiac examination of identity. I would have welcomed much more about certain characters but I also recognise that there’s a balance to be formed here, and certain things will always remain underplayed or unresolved. There’s only so much we see and, in a way, this reflects much of the journey of grief itself. We see flashes in others, fragments of truth spilling to the surface, but our journey remains our own however much we may wish that it doesn’t.

In trying to characterise this narrative, trying to recognise the texture and feel of it, I keep coming back to the notion of a scalpel. The Other Americans is slender, sharp and so precise in its reach. It cuts so specifically to the heart of the matter, and the truth unfolds so precisely, so slowly, and with such control. It is a powerful, impressive book.

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Glass Town by Isabel Greenberg

Glass Town cover by Isabel Greenberg

Glass Town: The Imaginary World of the Brontës by Isabel Greenberg

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I am increasingly conscious that I am moving closer to the world of the Brontës, falling in love with it, and not being remotely mad about this, not at all. I would have fought against this a few years ago, I think, reading them as something distant from what they are. Something dull, something ‘bonnety’, something related to distant schooldays and the memories of tearing a text from limb to limb and leaving little to nothing left there to love, to lose onself in. But I have learnt how to read since then, and by ‘read’, I mean to read for myself. This isn’t about literacy nor the understanding of shapes and comprehension of words, it’s about reading. Selfishly, wholly. Completely. Reading not for the reaction of others but for the reaction of myself. And to trust in that. It’s something I took a while to figure out: my reading has validity. And also, that it doesn’t matter what route I take to get to a text. It just matters that I take it.

My route to the Brontës began with Emily and Wuthering Heights, and the slow realisation that I could not ignore storytelling as fierce as this. And so I worked my way into their world, reading books about them and books by them and books like Glass Town by Isabel Greenberg, books that are something so magical and wild and weird and delicious that they spill out of simple classifications and into something else entirely. Technically this is a graphic novel, a blend of fact and fiction, a story of the Brontë juvenilia and the stories held within, and it is that. But it’s something else entirely, and I think that something is magic.

Magic. We read it as one thing, but it’s so often another. Opening your eyes. Picking up a pen. Pulling a rabbit out of a hat. All magic, magic things but infinitely different. The act of conjuring. The act of making. The act of faith. A thousand different things in this world are magic and they are intoxicating, teasing, all-enveloping. Writing was the Brontës magic, a way to slide from one world into another, and the moors were their magic, a way to stand on the edge of the sky, and each other were their magic, these small potatoes in their cellar, these sisters.

I think that’s what happens here in Isabel Greenberg’s book, magic. Worlds slide into worlds, lives fold into each other, stories map landscapes, oceans are formed, stars are made, stories are told. Greenberg’s art borders on a spectral edge, capturing the tense edge of life on the edge of the moor, a life fighting against everything that happened, another world haunting the skies above Haworth, a castle in the sky built by words and stories and dreams.

The other great part of this book is Charlotte’s story. There are moments here that are intensely saddening, handled with a great and subtle restraint, and it is remarkable. I loved it. A lesson in dreams, a lesson in heartbreak, a lesson in imagination. A lesson in heartbreak, a lesson in love, a lesson in life. This book really is a stunning achievement.



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The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman

The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman

The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman

My rating: 1 of 5 stars


Here’s the thing: I admire what Pullman can do; I admire the way he can articulate things; I admire the worlds he has creates with all of their wild wonder and glory; but I do not admire this book. It is overlong, overwrought and often – frankly – dull.

I wanted to like it a lot. I’d waited for it for a long time, due to a reservation queue of thousands, and I was excited to get my hands on it. But that excitement faded, it faded so swiftly, for this is not the best of his work. Pullman is a good writer but this is something like fifteen books packed into one, and all of them begging for an edit in a way that I have not witnessed for a long time. There is a story here. There is always a story with Pullman, often a powerful and wonderful one, but here it’s drowned in noise. Theory. Metaphor. Commentary. Politics. And all of this is fine, providing it’s managed. Providing at some point it stops – simply, briefly – to let the book breathe.

But it doesn’t. We have characters stopping to info-dump with each other for three hundred pages before wandering off and never being heard of ever again. Important Things Being Discussed In Impenetrable Manners Between Important People With Increasingly Incomprehensible Symbolic Fashion. Tired tropes of sexual violence being used to little to no effect. Messy subplots. Fifteen page arguments about theory. And then there’s the characters who swim in and out every ten chapters so that you can never quite grasp who and what they are or even, really care.

This feels like a book that has been told that it’s important and begun to believe it.

And oh, I did not care about it. I cared at first because I loved the story of Lyra (oh that past tense, that past tense). I have sat on her and Will’s bench in Oxford, I have trod in her steps, but now I do not care. I just don’t, and that saddens me so much. She is one of the biggest, wildest characters to take part in the literary world and yet here, she’s neutered. Every single step, every single breath. And I know (hope) that this is the stutter before the step of her journey, the moment where the world beats her down before she rises, but I do not care any more. I am done with these, I think, and so there we are. I am tired of this series and I am done.



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Animal Farm : The Graphic Novel by Odyr

Animal Farm graphic novel cover by Odyr

Animal Farm: The Graphic Novel by Odyr

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


There’s a part of me that can never quite cope with Animal Farm, having read it as a pony-loving child and immediately bonding with Boxer. For those of you who know the story, you’ll know now why I can’t quite cope with this book that promises one thing on the surface and gives you something quite different instead. It’s a lot to handle at an impressionable age. It’s a lot to handle at any age, I think, this book. It is rather, endlessly, brilliant.

(I also remember being marked down in a test about Animal Farm. We were asked how we knew Snowball was a pig – a reading comprehension passage – and I put “because I’ve read it”. And I got told off! The injustice! I suspect Orwell would have found it rather amusing though…)

But this isn’t the book, it’s a graphic novel adaptation of it and as such, there’s an almost separate story being told. It might be easier to refer to it as a translation, because that’s what you have to do. You have to find the heart of the story, those beats that echo, and you have to relocate them. Find space for them. Make them talk to art and make art that talks back and, in that conversation, deliver that indefinable thing that makes a graphic novel work. It is a dance, a spell, magic. And I am so in favour of people doing that with classic texts, because it does not matter how you find a story or what version of it you read. It matters that you find it. That’s it, that’s all.

And this is such a finding; Odyr’s work here is boundless, rich and there’s no frames throughout which is such clever work. Frames stop something. They capture it within a moment. They hold it. And this is a story that doesn’t need that – in fact, works actively against it. Moments bleed into moments, the message falls off the page, and – when it gets to those darker moments – there’s nothing to save you from them. Lines are powerful things, but the omission of them is equally so: a purge occurs and the pages are split with red, the moments fall off the page and into the world. Odyr’s loose, rich, emotional art seeks for the edge of that world and finds it. I found evocations here of JMW Turner, and that intrigued me. That pastoral edge turned dark. The ever-England turned black. The darkness in the light. Fascinating, powerful work.

I still couldn’t quite deal with what happens to Boxer.



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An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

An American Marriage

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’d waited a while to read An American Marriage, forced by a long reservation queue (always a good sign), and I was not disappointed. It’s a novel that I went into a little blind, conscious of the noise about it and the fact that it had hit a lot of big lists, and in a way I’m glad I kept that distance. And so I shall try to keep it here, conscious of the way this book shifts and slides under your feet until you are not quite sure what’s happening other than to know that it hurts. It hurts, and it’s also – somehow – inevitable. It’s painful and sad and it hurts. Oh how it hurts.

Roy and Celestial are newlyweds, until circumstances rip them apart. This is the journey of that moment, a lifetime together and apart, emotions trying to mend themselves after the impossible, people trying to continue, people trying to live. Jones is an impressive writer here, suffusing every word with a kind of indefinable sadness. This isn’t a life lived by Roy and Celestial, this is the two of them fighting to survive in a situation that neither of them made nor remotely chose. And so they make choices, good and bad, happy and said, painful and magical, and life flows about them until – well, I shan’t say.

This is a novel that you think has ended, and then realise that it hasn’t, and then realise again that it really hasn’t and this ache – this desperate, painful, raw ache of life is endless. It is a powerful book. It’s also one that I had to put aside halfway through and step aside from, partially because of that powr but also because of the sweeping inevitability of it. There’s a movement here towards a resolution – I couldn’t figure out what, or for who, or how or why – but I knew it was coming. That it couldn’t be sidestepped. That it couldn’t be escaped.

It’s been described as a great American novel this, and I don’t think that’s far wrong. It draws on some palpable traditions within American literature and some stylistics that felt familiar (evoking a memory of Alice Walker’s work in particular, though I’d be struggling to pin down the precisions of that). I twist, slightly, at referring to it as the great American Novel as it’s a text that bucks under such a label. It feels historic, for me, rather than achingly present (and prescient) and perhaps I’d describe this as Life Literature (lifelit? is that a thing?). A life lived. A life that hurts, that’s taken from you, that’s found where you least expect it, that is, that is, that is.

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The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

The Testaments (The Handmaid's Tale, #2)

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


I have had complicated feelings about The Testaments ever since it was announced, ever since it was nominated for the Booker, ever since it shared the prize with Girl, Woman, Other, ever since all of this and more. It is not that I disliked it, nor that I did not want it, but rather I felt uncomfortable about the position it was coming to occupy in the world. I wondered if we were looking towards this to answer questions and to resolve issues in a way that we would not ask many other books to do and if, perhaps, we were reading more the cultural discourse about this book rather than the book itself. Messy thoughts, I know, but present and vital to acknowledge in my understanding of this book.

I came late to The Handmaid’s Tale, reading it after I had watched and loved the series itself. I am sometimes dazzled by visuals and the high art of the adaptation hit home for me in a way that the book never quite did. The Testaments feels like a book that would not have existed without the series, and it feels filmic and big and global in a way that the tight, claustrophic horror of The Handmaid’s Tale did not.

Is one of them then better than the other? I’m not sure, nor do I think that’s a useful rubric to apply. They are simply different and, I think in the case of the Testaments in particular, one could reach so far as to say that it is good but not particularly great. Parts of it feel rushed, parts of it feel strange, and the motivations of one of the big leads in it are difficult to manage or, at the least, understand.

Did I like it? I did, I think. It was alright. It was satisfying, though I do not think it was revelatory. And the ending felt too quick, too clearly obvious for the world that it lived in.

Like I said, I have complicated feelings about it.



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It’s a No-Money Day by Kate Milner

It's a no-money day

It’s a no-money day by Kate Milner

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


It’s difficult to tell you how important this gentle, soft book is and so I hope you will forgive me if I jump straight to the punchline: It’s A No-Money Day by Kate Milner should be on your shelves. And if you run a library or you are in a school or if you are anywhere that has shelves that are accessed publically, this book should be there twice over. We live in complex times that are often brutal for those living in precarious circumstances, and one of the duties of any librarian or educator is to work to understand and support those in such a situation. To allow their stories to be heard, supported and understood. To allow the children living within such situations to be heard, to be seen. And having books like this on the shelf is important. It just needs to be there. It should be there.

We often work to privilege the adult within children’s literature, to make ourselves feel better and be able to remember those times when the most important thing was what we’re going to have for tea. Those times when nothing mattered but finding the perfect stick, or simply standing and staring for hours at the bright bright blue of the sky. And books like this challenge that sense of comfort – they challenge the notion that everything should be kittens and rainbows because they represent something else. A childhood that is experienced by a whole world of children every day, right now. The truth of an uncomfortable and sometimes quite horrific world. This isn’t a book that channels Rousseau and puts the children in some unattainable Garden of Eden; this is a book that has curled wallpaper on the walls and mum silently crying in the background because she does not like going to the food bank.

I have such time for what Kate Milner does. My Name Is Not Refugee is a remarkable thing, deftly handled and sensitive and kind. It’s A No-Money Day is similarly remarkable; Milner balances the hard truth of this story with some wonderfully intimate moments of kindness. This is a family on the edge but they are still a family full of love and heart for each other. They are human, and I think that’s Milner’s great gift. She finds the humanity in these painful, big stories and makes them accessible and real for very small people. And, I think, for big people too. There is something to be said here for the lessons that this book can give us all. It is important, it is awful, it is necessary. Milner is doing immense things here.


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Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise by Katherine Rundell

Why You Should Read Children's Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise

Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise by Katherine Rundell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


My stance is clear, I think, and has been so for a while: children’s literature is important and to assign a value judgement upon it, indeed to assign a value judgement upon any form of literature is an exercise full of redundancy and wasted effort. Books are important, and no genre or age-group or vaguely ambitious grouping thought up by somebody with too much time on their hands should impinge upon your reading of whoever and whatever you want. And yet children’s literature is undoubtedly marginalised; we adopt, as Katherine Rundell recognises in this potent volume, an attitude that takes us away from such things. We read one way, not the other; we reach for increasingly complex and challenging things when, I suspect, a night reading a picture book would be of much more benefit.

It is this at this point that the slender sized and lengthily titled Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though Are So Old and Wise places itself; it seeks to question that movement of “readerly progression” from and away from children’s literature and to remind readers of just what is that they’re giving up and the somewhat misguided rationales that may be driving such. Katherine Rundell is a beautiful writer and this is a book that burns not only with grace, passion but also with knowledge – it quotes everybody from Martin Amis through to John Donne without pausing for breath.

It’s because of this that Why You Should… felt like something of a tease to me; it is a book that left me wanting more. Rundell is a brilliant, brilliant writer and critical thinker, and I would love to hear more about why she moves more towards “children’s fiction” than “children’s literature”, for example, or what she actually thinks about the influence of adults upon children’s literature – a debate that is very present within academia but somewhat delicately stepped back from here. There is a bright and burning and fiercely eloquent core to this text, and it shows itself fleetingly – but when it does, it is so very worth holding onto. I think that I just wanted a little bit more of that edge.





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Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman

Ducks, Newburyport

Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The fact that it’s a book consisting of an internal monologue of a housewife, the fact that it’s juxtaposed against the story of a lioness in the wild, the fact that ‘the fact that’ reappears so much in the first few pages that you almost recoil in horror at the thought of reading this for the next three million pages, the fact that this is not a slender book, the fact that it’s enormous and makes the TBR pile at the side of your bed swell to twice its size, the fact that ‘the fact that’ starts to disappear within moments, the fact that you think you might hate it but then realise you love it, the fact that this reads like Oulipo meets Sarah Kane meets GBBO, the fact that it’s a stream of consciousness, a stream of feminine domestic noise in a way that just doesn’t exist in literature, the fact that the first time this is broken by something more formally punctuated and structured that you almost feel it in your gut, the fact that for pages this can spin into something avant-garde and borderline ridiculous before spinning right back into the world and making all your senses come alive, the fact that the thought of editing this makes me terrified in a way I cannot begin to articulate, the fact that I would have edited this, just a tad, if I had that thankless job, the fact that this book is, despite that, stylistically remarkable, the fact that it is still rather marvellous and terrifying and brilliant all at once even with its flaws, the fact that it is all of this and so much more besides.

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Julian Is A Mermaid by Jessica Love

Julian Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love front cover

Julian Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s difficult to articulate feelings about a book that made you cry with its simple, quiet majesty, a book that now, every time you glance at it on your desk, makes you remember just how powerful story can be. Picture books are, I think, one of those spaces of the literary world where sometimes magic can be made in a way you do not quite understand but are so very grateful for it. Julian is a Mermaid is a dream, packed with magic in every achingly soft line and every gentle, soft note of love being acceptance and acceptance being love. Love. It’s maybe there that this book shines; Julian sees a mermaid at the pool, he wishes to be one, and I shall not spoil the payoff but I shall say that it is a payoff to hold to yourself like gold for a brief, beautiful moment, before sharing it with everybody that you know.

Julian Is A Mermaid is so quiet, so soft, so subtle, and yet so immense. It is a book about love. Julian is with his Nana; a woman built of curves and shape and lovely, lovely heart. The mermaids are three women he sees on the train. He wants to look as wonderful as they do. And, as the book progresses, he figures out how to do that.

This is a book about bodies so rarely depicted within picture books. We have this pearl-clutching fear, sometimes, that we must protect the children from something strange and indefinable without quite realising that we adults are the source of such fear. Children see the world in a particular way, and a good picture book embraces that. The world is strange, all of it, but it is also wonderful. Perfect. And bodies, sometimes, form part of that dialogue, shaped by gatekeepers more than the story, but Julian Is A Mermaid differs here. This book sings with bodies; beautiful, rich, wild bodies, all of them presented with this glorious sense of stillness and truth. They are what they are; they are so very wonderfully people living life in a culture of acceptability and love. The text is spare, beautiful, and the images are something rather wonderful: otherworldly, magical, and yet always within the grasp of a tiny child trying to realise his place in the world.

This is perfect, perfect stuff.



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New Class At Malory Towers

Malory Towers: New Class at Malory Towers by Rebecca Westcott, Patrice Lawrence, Narinder Dhami and Lucy Mangan, front cover.

Malory Towers: New Class at Malory Towers: Four brand-new Malory Towers by Enid Blyton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Malory Towers is having a moment. The past couple of years have seen theatre adaptations, news of the rights being sold to the BBC, and the publication of this: four new Malory Towers stories from Patrice Lawrence, Narinder Dhami, Rebecca Westcott and Lucy Mangan. It’s worthwhile pointing out now that I come to these stories from a very particular place. I have written about Malory Towers academically. I’m working on an article about it now. I’m not really, I think, the target age group for this volume. That honour goes to new readers, fresh to the series, looking for a way in. It’s very much for the new reader. Not the old one who goes ‘does this volume edit out Darrell lamping everyone in sight or does it keep it in’.

For my tastes, this volume could have done with a little more curation. A little foreword before each story would have been nice; something just to set the scene and tell the reader where they are. The Malory Towers saga is big – and that’s even when you just consider the original texts. If you consider the bind-ups, Pamela Cox’s sequels, the general mythologies about the series, let alone the mythology about Blyton herself, you have a lot to deal with. And I can feel where these stories are going; they want readers to find their space at Malory Towers. They want readers to be part of that, and I love it, but I’d have liked a little more curation.

Having said that, however, some of the stories are excellent. They’re all very good, because I don’t think you get away with not being good in a volume when there are only four authors to begin with. There’s nowhere to hide, and all of the authors set out their stall delightfully. Lucy Mangan is very on brand with her bookish tale, and I very much want Patrice Lawrence to write something longer. Her opener about new girl Marietta strains at the edges of its word count; there’s the promise of something rather brilliant here and I’d love Lawrence to come back to the school story genre at some point. I also had a lot of time for Narinder Dhami’s funny and lively story of new girl Sunita Sharma and Gwendoline’s mistaken identity. Talking of Gwendoline, Rebecca Westcott is unusual and welcome in how she seeks to give Gwen some depth as opposed to making her the punchline. There’s a lot in Westcott’s story to love, though the conclusion didn’t quite work for me.

I think the ‘new girl’ premise stumbles a little the more you go through this volume, though each author is strong enough to make it work for themselves. There is, however, a little note of repetition to certain elements and a slight sense of everybody hitting the same beats. It’s important to note however that Blyton loved this sort of thing and embraced it at every chance she got. It’s also important to note that the school story genre adores these sort of rhythms and so this is very much on point. Now, if I can have that Patrice Lawrence boarding school story?



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The Key To Flambards by Linda Newbery

The Key to Flambards by Linda Newbery front cover

The Key to Flambards by Linda Newbery

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I have a lot of time for the work of Linda Newbery, and KM Peyton is something of a legend for me, and so the thought of them coming together on this project was something special. The Key To Flambards is ‘Flambards in the present day’; a novel written by Linda Newbery which ties intimately into the remarkable original books by KM Peyton. I have always enjoyed both writers intensely. Newbery has this gift of strangeness to her work, the everyday made unusual, and nobody can write love quite like KM Peyton. Messy, truthful, painful, perfect love. Newbery working with Peyton’s themes and world should have been perfect.

I wonder if that ‘should have’ has given away where I am going with this review. I suspect it has, but let’s carry on for a moment here. Return To Flambards is a sequel, of sorts, to an iconic series. And sequels are hard. They are also incredibly prevelent in contemporary children’s literature; I could name a dozen or more titles in the recent years that have attempted to respin a classic into the contemporary world and remake it for today’s readers. It’s a hard thing to do and sometimes, I think, more indicative of an adults need to shape and make children’s stories than ever thinking about what children may like, want or need. One of the few titles that worked, I think, was the powerful Five Children On The Western Front by Kate Saunders, and it worked because Saunders was not afraid of her text. I think sometimes that loving a story can make you afraid of it. It might not be a conscious fear, or even one that keeps you awake at night, but it is still a fear and it is still there. You do not want to touch that which you love. You do not wish to break the spell. You do not wish to challenge the beauty of something held so intimately inside yourself.

And so, sequels – reimaginings – continuations – whatever you call them, do they work? Sometimes, yes, but I think you must be fearless with them. You must try to respond, to echo, but not to continue. You must try to write something that feels – so perfectly – of that which you love, but that could stand without it. An in-joke, perhaps, that still works for people who don’t pick up on the nuance. And as much I wanted it to, I do do not think that The Key To Flambards quite does it. There is the kernel of something potent here but there is also a lot of heavy lifting – and the first few chapters are hard, hard work. There is the threads of something magical but also a lot of laboured exposition. It is well done stuff, well told and well structured, but it’s just a little – flat. A little too neat. A little too straightforward. And if the world of Flambards was anything, it was not that.

It’s important to recognise that even though it takes a while to get there, The Key To Flambards is written well; beautifully at points, and there is a definite power at the heart of this book. Newbery shines when writing of the natural world, and she finds magic so easily in this space. The problem comes in the turn away from this, and the look towards one of the central themes in the book: family history. It’s at this point that the story becomes less about metaphorically finding yourself in the world and adopts a baldly literal tone. Grace – our protagonist – is suffering a crisis of identity. Learning about her family connections will help resolve that. And it does, but it does so at the expense of all of Newbery’s immense skill and all that Flambards kind of is – was – forever will be. Family history is important. I’m not sure it makes for a good book. It is an odd, bald step.





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Meat Market by Juno Dawson

Meat Market

Meat Market by Juno Dawson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Juno Dawson is an excellent writer. She’s fearless, too, touching on issues that would dwarf many other writers, and managing to turn them into vital narratives of empowerment and self-discovery. Her great gift is that she doesn’t make these narratives easy. Life isn’t. As much as we’d wish it to be, particularly for those we love, it isn’t. Dawson gets that, and she lets her characters live life. Messy. Painful. Honest. True. She is very, very good.

Meat Market
sees Dawson turn towards the fashion industry. It’s a precisely, tightly plotted affair with knowledge that speaks from careful research and a healthy awareness of pop culture. Jana has been scouted by a fashion agency, and this is the story of her experience of the fashion world. I need to pause and recognise that fabulous cover; Dawson is never sold short by cover design, and this is no exception. It’s the first hint of a bold, unsparing book that twists into something quite addictive. I was walking around the house with this in one hand. Dishes with the other. Stirring the pan with the other. That sort of ‘can’t quite put down’ problem that comes when reading incredibly vivid, well told stories.

Touching on some potent, complex, and challenging issues, Meat Market is one for upper YA readers. The publishers pitch it on the back of the book for 14+, and while age-ratings are a difficult subject in their own rate, I think they’re bang on with this one. It’s important for me to emphasise that I say that not for the content that is represented which, incidentally, I think is very well handled, but rather for understanding the nuances of its representation. Dawson recognises the glamour of the fashion industry but also the pressures of it and the power dynamics that can come into play in such horrific situations. There’s some clever, bold writing here which challenges and questions those dynamics, and the final movement of the story is an incredibly empowering affair. It’s not often you see agency being actively located within those who are denied it, and Dawson does that with every breath she takes. Meat Market is excellent. It’s borderline anthemic.






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To Kill A Mockingbird by Haper Lee, adapted and illustrated by Fred Fordham

To Kill a Mockingbird: A Graphic Novel by Fred Fordham front cover

To Kill a Mockingbird: A Graphic Novel by Fred Fordham

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s kind of terrifying to adapt something because you’re not just adapting the thing in question. You’re trying to adapt the aura of it; some books have this indefinable something about them that you can’t ever pin down in words, but you know it’s there. And even little white girls growing up in rural North Yorkshire knew that there was a something about To Kill A Mockingbird. I cannot speak for the text itself, nor for its nuanced problems and challenges which better voices than I have elaborated on, nor for its cultural status, but I can speak for this adaptation itself. The care of it, the craft of it, and the curious way that it is neither graphic novel nor book but rather something in between.

I would call it more of an illustrated novel, rather than a graphic novel. The difference is fine, I know, and probably something I’d struggle to describe to you were I pushed, but it’s there. The lettering uses the same font throughout for example, a calm steady consistent font that doesn’t vary by character or panel. It gives the book a great sense of intimacy but also adds this strangely intriguing sense of remove. We see what we’re told to see, read what we’re told to read, and the text itself? Well, that felt distant – even now, even despite the great embedded cultural weight that To Kill A Mockingbird holds within the world. I find that intriguing; that a story so well known can still hide away, just a little, just enough.

This is a beautifully produced book and Fordham’s aesthetics here are wonderful. He draws a lot from the film (particularly, I thought, with his interpretation of Atticus), and situates him within a town full of quiet, soft colours. I rather loved his use of frames; a vast amount of his panels are un-edged, merging softly with the book itself and giving the whole page a sense of timelessness. Those that are framed are rare but potent, introducing a note of dynamism and sudden focus. It’s a quality piece of work. It is, however, a clear adaptation. It’s not a repurposing, nor a retelling, nor a questioning. It’s adapted. Deliberately. Carefully. Perhaps a little too carefully at points but again, understandably so.

It’s also important to note that stylistically I felt that it reached down towards the younger end of secondary but the text itself retains the use of the n- word and the themes located therein. It’s perhaps something then to read in company with the text itself, or rather with the facility to discuss and challenge and think about some of the content.

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El Deafo by Cece Bell

El Deafo by Cece Bell front cover

El Deafo by Cece Bell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sometimes, due to library reservation queues and the like, it takes me a long time to get to a book. And that’s a good thing, because it tells me that it’s being talked about, that it’s being passed from hand to hand fever-quick and passion-bright, and sometimes it makes me nervous. I wonder whether these books that have had such buzz about them can live up to that noise; I ask myself if they can be all that I want them; I wonder whether they’re worth the wait. But every now and then I forget all of that because I’ve got an alert about a book that I put it on hold a long time ago, and now it’s finally here. And that moment will never not feel like Christmas.

And oh my friends, El Deafo is everything. It’s a treat; a fictionalised autobiography, drawing on the childhood experiences of Cece Bell herself, but allowing moments to merge together, and conversations and characters to be reshaped and remade for the story. It’s rendered in a softly beautiful palette of sun-soaked colour and rich, rounded lines that allow this story of childhood to almost fall off the page and into your heart. God, I sound like some hideous advert you have on channel 339402 but forgive me because it’s true. This is richness here, heartfelt and lovely and warm and honest storytelling. It is the story of Cece’s deafness, caused by an illness at age four, and it is so beautifully personal, funny and honest, that it’s difficult not to fall in love with it.

But I fell in love with it a little more once I read Bell’s potent afterword. She is, as she writes, “an expert on no ones deafness but my own” and provides some context on “what a deaf person might choose to do with his or her hearing loss”. It’s eloquent, calmly told truth, and something that underlines the great depth of El Deafo. This is a story of layers and texture, driven by Bell’s personal experience but also her recognition that “our differences are our superpowers.” A potent message for any age, but when it’s teamed with art this adorable and a story with this much heart, it’s almost irresistible.


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I Was Born For This by Alice Oseman

I Was Born for This

I Was Born for This by Alice Oseman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been meaning to read Alice Oseman’s work for a long while. It’s always a good sign when her books fly in and out of the library, quicker than swifts in summer, because that means they’re being read. Fiercely, voraciously, passionately. Always, always good things. And so when I saw I Was Born For This, I picked it up without hesitation and realised that the signs were true. Oseman writes a lovely, rich, heart-felt slice of humanity; and it’s beautiful. I am looking more and more for writers who value what it is to be human, and to look for this in their work, and she does this with absolute bells on.

I Was Born For This is a week in the life of a fandom. Angel is a fan of The Ark, a band on the cusp of phenomenal success, and Jimmy’s the lead-singer. They come together in the most challenging and complicated of circumstances and, in the process, figure out who they are and what they’re going to be in the world. It’s perhaps a traditional premise in the world of YA; meet-cute, inevitable romance, challenging circumstances separate the couple before Inevitable Things bring them back together at the end. But that’s not this book and to read it as such is to lose the massive heart at the centre of it. Oseman is interested in people, in the brutal messy truth that people are and can be, and she lets her characters live. Absolutely live. There’s no easy answers, no neatly compartmentalized ending, and it’s all the more richer for that.

I’m conscious for many people that sort of an ending might not work. It didn’t for me, at first, because I’m a greedy reader. When a book is as deliciously truthful as this, and stuffed to the brim with richness, I want more of it. But this is life, and things don’t always work the way I want them to. Acknowledging that, however, is important. I wanted this to end somewhere else than it did. But then, it’s not my story. It’s Angel’s and Jimmy’s and Lister’s and Juliet’s…

Oseman’s delivered something rich and wonderful here, and I’m so pleased to have more of her books yet to discover.

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Until We Win by Linda Newbery

Until We Win

Until We Win by Linda Newbery

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Until We Win by Linda Newbery is a slender, accessible novella touching upon a key point in suffragette history. It’s framed through the perspective of Lizzy, an everygirl who comes across the work of the suffragettes and becomes a passionate supporter of the cause. Believing in Deeds Not Words, she undertakes action until she – like her sisters – is imprisoned. The backdrop to all of this is the build up to World War One, and there’s a little introduction and prologue delivered retrospectively by Lizzy where she looks back and talks abut the Summer that was and the years that followed.

Barrington Stoke deliver, in their words, ‘super readable’ texts and this is a worthy addition to their list. It’s deeply accessible, both through format and style, and there’s a lot to give somebody here. It’s perfectly pitched for those who may feel unable or intimidate by thicker, heavier books and could work as a nice lead-in and confidence booster. I also enjoyed the note from Stewart Easton which explained his reasoning behind the cover design. This sort of thing is so important because it tells you who’s ‘behind’ the book, as it were, but also encourages readers to question and think about the book as a whole. It’s never just about the words on the page.

I was impressed at how much Newbery packs into this. I have such a lot of time for her as a writer, and love what she does. I found some of the beats she touches here a little familiar and thus not as startling as they could be, but if you’re new to the topic then that may slide you by. I’m also going to take this moment to suggest that you head towards Newbery’s kind of remarkable back catalogue. Here’s a few I’ve reviewed.




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Circe by Madeline Miller

(A brief note from the editor; this is a blog concerned with children’s and young adult literature. Circe is arguably neither. Yet it is remarkable and this blog will always find a home for the remarkable story. This is something to give to those readers breaching the edge of young adult and looking for something else , something remarkable. We often forget about those readers. We should not.)

Circe

Circe by Madeline Miller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Lyrical, poignant, powerful and ferociously unashamed of what it is and the story it has to tell, Circe by Madeline Miller is something else. As I do with many of the ‘big’ books, the ones that win the awards and are talked about at length by everyone I know, I began it with fear. I stray carefully into books that are out of my specialisms, because I don’t want to read bad things. I don’t have time for that. Nobody does. Reading is a brief, beautiful marriage and to have one that doesn’t work out? That’s the worst of things, the worst of times.

Circe works out. And it is the best, the best of times.

It is the first book by Madeline Miller that I’ve read, but it will not be the last. Miller’s eloquent and lyrical prose seeks out the roundness of Circe’s story and presents it with such utter truth. It is a remarkable book, evocative of those epic poems that tell stories of long lost and distant heroes; Circe, however, is as present as the keyboard that I type this on. You feel her, you know her, and you live her every breath. There’s something rather remarkable happening here; a story of a woman being told in an intimate, powerful, believable manner – the story of her survival, her loves, her losses, and her rampant, raw bravery.

A powerful, graceful and eloquent story, told with truth, honesty and love. I read this in a handful of days. I would go back to the start of those days all over.


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Stories For Boys Who Dare To Be Different – Ben Brooks

Stories for Boys Who Dare to be DifferentStories for Boys Who Dare to be Different by Ben Brooks

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have promised to be, above all things, honest in the reviews that I write and so it’s for that reason that I must confess that I wanted to dislike this a lot more than I did. These books at the moments for rebel girls and boys who dare to be different conceptually bother me; they speak to ideas of gender in children’s literature, for this is what this is, really, and they speak to the state of those ideas being in a somewhat complicated and, perhaps, quite a troubled space. And, because I am somebody rooted in the classics of British children’s literature, it seems to all stem from the mid-twentieth century and the notions we have of girls and of boys in the books of that second golden age that still so heavily comes to influence the state of children’s literature today.

And yet, and yet –

That strapline bothered me. Boys who changed the world without killing dragons? It’s so specific, so madly, utterly, wilfully specific in tone that by perpetuating said tone, that surely it perpetuates a myth of masculinity that the book itself is trying to defy –

And yet, and yet –

That title. Why stories for boys who dare to be different. Different from what? Why is it daring? The transgressive act only becomes transgressive when rendered as such; perhaps this should be a form of normalcy that we should be trying to understand as such. Surely in making something the other, we perpetuate that otherness –

And yet, this isn’t a bad book. To be frank, it’s actually pretty good.

But I still have questions to resolve, and I will resolve them and I will do so with the full and frank acknowledgement that this is a good, kind and thoughtfully constructed book. It is representative, inclusive and frequently moving, encompassing characters such as Nicholas Winton, Taika Waititi and Lionel Messi. There’s elements of it still to challenge, and on fully legitimate circumstances and not ‘grumpy scholarly’ circumstances. Louis Braille is included and yet there’s no acknowledgement of the fact that much of his entry cannot be read by those he sought to help. Similarly, the entry for Junot Diaz suffers from recent events, and I was concerned by some of the looser rhetoric involved in other entries such as “It’s time to take their country back”. That’s a problematic phrase, not in the least for its implicit politicking, and it’s a phrase that, really, means very little. And sure, a very young reader might not pick up on that angle, but they’ll pick up on the language. The phrasing. And it’s that sort of thing in this book that matters and should be fought over, fiercely.

These books are having a moment and I welcome the effort that Brooks has done towards making his contribution a pretty damn good book. I suspect much of its problems come from the hobbles of frame and circumstance, and that I’m maybe demanding a lot of it that perhaps it can’t quite achieve in such a context. And yet, I’m unapologetic in doing so because these books – as evidenced by their raw and fierce popularity – are clearly needed. I just ache for them to, somehow, become something more than what they are at present.

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Clean : Juno Dawson

CleanClean by Juno Dawson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The versatility of Dawson never fails to astound me. She is a writer who imbues a sense of truth into everything that she does, and this is no exception. Clean is a beautiful book. It really is, because Dawson manages to twist all of the pain and anger and fear and sadness into something honest and truthful and human. That underneath it all, we’re all still people. We’re all still somebody and sometimes finding that somebody, that essence of truth, is the hardest thing to do. This book is full of truth, but also of sympathy. Being human isn’t easy. It’s not pretty. But it is achievable, someway, somehow.

Rich socialite and it girl, Lexi Volkov is forced into rehab after a near-overdose. It’s time to get clean and to face up to her demons. As she gets to know herself, and her fellow inmates, she starts to realise just who she really is. And who she’s going to be.

Reminiscent of Melvin Burgess at his fiery best, this is an unsparing and unafraid book. It touches on some challenging issues, uses some challenging language, and yet does it all in a justified and straightforward manner. Dawson’s not working for shock value here, but rather for a kaleidoscopic truth. Lexi isn’t the most likable of characters at times, and yet, in a way, that made me like her even more. It’s easy to root for the people who have failings, and for the authors who allow these failings to be shown. It’s human, and I like writers and books that are able to acknowledge the truth of that experience.

I also have to add a note of praise for the Quercus design team. This is an outstanding front cover. Absolutely, so.

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Wave : Suzy Lee

WaveWave by Suzy Lee

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a remarkable and show-stopping thing, let down only by the printing format itself. Lee’s art is a delicious joy, telling the story of a girl on a visit to the beach. It’s wordless throughout and delivered in a simple, clean palette of blacks and whites and blues, and it’s beautiful. You can see some pictures in this tweet and really, it’s the moments of this book that make it what it is. That sheer, wild pleasure of stamping in water; of teasing the edge with your toes before jumping fully into it; of being soaked, suddenly, beyond your imagination, before you can quite realise what’s happening. It is lovely and it’s very, deliciously primal. Wave is a book that speaks to that child that we all have inside of us, and I would pay quite happily to have prints of it on my wall. The vibrancy, the sheer truth of Lee’s art is inescapable.

As I said however, the book is let down by the printing and the relationship between the artwork and the gutter. The gutter is a pivotal space within picture books, providing as it does a space for innovative acts of storytelling but also for training children to understand the shape of books, and the pattern of reading itself.

In Wave, the gutter is too tightly bound or the dimensions of the artwork are off or something, because certain parts of the image get caught up in the gutter and lost or cut-off. The girl, for example, loses part of a limb at one point, whilst the delicious edge of the wave, with its kaleidoscopic edge of fragmented blue, is stopped bluntly by the gutter. I can see some point for that in some spreads, to emphasise the barrier between the girl and the wave – the distance – but in others, the gutter forms a heavy handed truncation of what might be a perfect, endless book.

Wave thus becomes a bit of an oddity, where the raw, distinct beauty of the book and its utterly perfect grasp of the ‘moment’ becomes tied back by this gutter problem, becomes bound by something heavy and solid and blunt. It is an undeniable recommendation nonetheless because Lee’s artwork is beautiful. Utterly, utterly beautiful.

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The Positively Last Performance : Geraldine McCaughrean

The Positively Last PerformanceThe Positively Last Performance by Geraldine McCaughrean

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are some authors who have this fierce richness about them when they work. They tell story; words that run together and layer something wonderfully thick and dense about you and you don’t quite know what’s happening until you finish it and realise that that was good. Geraldine McCaughrean is one of those authors and The Positively Last Performance is a classy, classic sort of tale.

The Royal Theatre at Seashaw now only plays to ghosts; the humans are long gone, and the theatre is not what it was. One day, a stubborn little girl and her parents arrive at the Royal; Gracie and her Mum and Dad are there to bring it back to its former life. Whilst Gracie makes friends with the ghosts, her parents try to restore the theatre…

Inspired by the Margate, and the theatre there, this is a book that both renders that sense of place superbly but also catches the peculiar joy and sadness of the British seaside. There’s love here, for both what was and what is, but also a recognition that these resorts face complex lives and hold complex, wonderful people. There’s a lot in this book and I don’t think it quite lets you see this until you’re well into it. You have to work past the slightly brittle opening, the defence of rhythm and chapter, until it lets you see the truth of it.

People, really, people. McCaughrean is interested in people, the shape of them and the stories of them, and what happens when they mingle and touch on lives that are not their own. As Gracie gets to know the ghosts and their stories, she learns about the black and white minstrels, mods, artists and librarians who lived and worked in Seashaw. One thing to note is that the n- word does make an appearance in the book (particularly when relating to issues of blackface) but is challenged, rebuked and analysed appropriately. It did stick out for me though, so it’s worthwhile mentioning and taking note of.

I was concerned about this getting repetitive (the rhythm of ghost – backstory – ghost – backstory) but then there’s a sudden, wrenching, movement in the middle of the book that turns all of that on its head. It’s beautifully, horribly, done and the sign of a writer who is simply just very good at what she does. I liked this a lot. I devoured it.

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The Arrival : Shaun Tan

The ArrivalThe Arrival by Shaun Tan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It hit me recently that I’d never reviewed this, this story of eloquence and love and shadows, and that was something I had to make right. The Arrival holds a difficult place in my heart in that, I think, I read it too soon. Too blindly. Too hungry for words and language and precision. Reading can be selfish, sometimes. You can ache to remake the text in your vision, to dominate it with your perspective and views, and thus deny the value of the read itself. We read for others. We read for otherness, for voice, and for echoes to map our lives against, and sometimes I don’t do that. Sometimes I can get a little lost, and need to step back, and remind myself that this is not my story. I do not own this text. I am a reader. I own my reading of that, but I do not own the other.

And so I came back to Shaun Tan, drawn in part by a political and pervasive rhetoric that seems to seek division where there is none to be found, but also because of the stillness of that front cover. It made me understand what I had done to this book before, and it make me realise how I needed to approach it now. I look at a lot of books as part of my job, and stillness is not something you see that often on a front cover. Yet, as I look at it now, I can see that it’s not still. That it’s a moment, an encounter, and this is a split second point between it. Stillness in movement; being able to capture that precise, delicate, beauty where the two of them meet eyes and properly see each other? Beautiful. Perhaps, too, the essence of this book. The encounter where things become Things, and Known, and Named.

So, the book itself. It is wordless, split into six “chapters”. I say “chapters”, because honestly, imposing an idea of sequence on this poetic narrative seems difficult. It is linear, but it’s also not; the story of people coming to a new land, forming connections, but also what came before and after, the stories that thread through us on a daily basis, the web of connection that is life, I suppose, just living and being and loving. Moments. Beats. The dance of your heart and the stillness that comes when you find home.

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A Change Is Gonna Come

A Change Is Gonna ComeA Change Is Gonna Come

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A Change Is Gonna Come is a compilation of short stories and poems from 12 Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic writers, ranging freely over a series of topics and themes, and pretty much all of them are rather wonderful, powerful contributions. What really struck me about this collection is the care that’s been taken over every element in it; from the striking and wonderful cover design (for more on that, have a look at this, to the note in the introduction from the editorial mentee (a good thing, publishing world), and the inclusion of debut writers, A Change Is Gonna Come feels like it’s been loved. And that sensation of love is powerful when it slides into the hand of the reader, so very powerful.

A frank highlight for me was Tanya Byrne’s lyrical and incandescent love story ‘Hackney Moon’. Byrne is a writer whose debut Heart-Shaped Bruise was something I called kind of spectacular, and Hackney Moon is right up there. An aching, tender, and fiercely told love story, it’s honestly, one of the best things I’ve read for a long time. I finished reading it and did one of those little ‘oh that was good’ pauses. (Don’t you love them?)

Another highlight for me was Aisha Bushby’s ‘Marionette Girl’, a distinctive, eccentric and powerful story of growth. Bushby’s writing is sympathetic and kind, but also full of a very subtle sense of drive. The sense of a character pushing up against barriers all around her mixed with the knowledge that she’s going to break through. Does that make sense? I hope it does. This is a story full of drive and determination and power, and it’s kind of heartbreaking and beautiful, all at once.

What a way to start the year this is!

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The Book of Dust – La Belle Sauvage : Philip Pullman

La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust, #1)La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It’s difficult to review this book so, forgive me if I take a while to get to the point. If I’m honest, I’m not wholly sure as to why I didn’t like this and I’m not sure that that dislike comes from me, as opposed to the text itself. Like I said; difficult.

Let’s do the formal bit first. This is a prequel to the events of Northern Lights. There’s a boy and a girl and a baby named Lyra. Things happen; characters make cameos, and I am left ferociously whelmed by the whole experience. (“I know you can be overwhelmed, and you can be underwhelmed, but can you just be…. whelmed?” “I think you can in Europe.”)

If I’m honest, and these reviews are the space to be so, La Belle Sauvage is a solid adventure story that tastes of Peter Ransome and Eva Ibbotson and Katherine Rundell and that’s about the all of it. That is not to say that these are bad references to pick up on, because they are the very opposite of it. Ibbotson and Rundell and Ransome are totemic and magnificent, and to participate in that space on an even keel is a marvellous and beautiful thing.

There’s some hints of something else too in this book, even though the last third feels like a different book altogether (and I wonder, so much, at that structure), and the wilderness of Pullman’s power sometimes makes itself known with ferocious strength, but as a whole this book lacks something of the raw tenderness that his work can achieve. Is that an oxymoron? Can tenderness be raw? I’m not sure, but I know that it’s the best way to describe it. This universe of daemons and witches allows it. Longs for it, sometimes. You share the deepest part of yourself with somebody else, and have the pain and the ecstasy all at once. La Belle Sauvage doesn’t quite connect, somehow, and it might do in the following books, it might find its space in its wild and wonderful world, but right now it feels anticlimactic. It doesn’t feel like the book it should be.

I was also concerned at the shaping given to many of the characters here and indeed, even in writing that, I have to stop and choose my words carefully. What am I trying to say? I think I am trying to say that I loved Malcolm and his heart, but I did not like certain aspects of how the characters were constructed. Perhaps that comes from spending the last few years embedded in books that talk about girlhood and womanhood, but I ache somewhat when women perform the role of caregiver and when girls become romantic pawns – and have this element of their characters be not treated as powerful. Does that make sense? Honestly, I’m not sure, and I wonder if, in a way, I’m writing this review too soon. But then again, when can you write a review? Sometimes I write about a book the moment I finish it because I’m hungry and giddy and mad with love, and sometimes I wait and try to let the thoughts settle in my head.

And now that I have done that, we are here and I am left with this : I think this book could have been better and I am still not sure how I feel about that.

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Freshers : Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison

FreshersFreshers by Tom Ellen and Lucy Ivison
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Messy, chaotic, and laugh out loud funny, this is something rather joyous. A dual narrative, crafted by dual writers, Freshers was one of the most refreshing, honest and wildly moving young adult novels I’ve read for a while. There was the slight plus of it being set in ‘York Met’, a thinly veiled University of York with aggressive geese and Betty’s making cameo appearances, but that’s really just the icing on top of the cake.

Not many young adult books head into university. This isn’t a new thing; I work a lot with girls’ school stories, and a common critique is that they don’t deal with their girls once they’ve left school. There sort of is nothing beyond the school. And whilst a lot of that reflects the fact that, thanks to *cough* the patriarchal system of values that they were about to enter there was no future *cough*, it’s also an absence that’s ripe to explore. Lucy Ivison and Tom Ellis do it justice. Beyond justice. They hit on all the big points of those first few weeks of the university experience; bad sex, bad food, bad decisions, some of the best friends you’ll ever make, and then pack it with a little bit more.

And then, just in case you’ve not had enough, there is the most beautifully wonderful usage of Brie within a book that I think I’ve ever seen.

Freshers somehow manages to stay away from the obvious, and the cliche, and rings all the truer for that. It hits all the high points – and the low points – that university is. This is kind of special.

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My Little Pony : The Ultimate Guide

My Little Pony: The Ultimate Guide: All the Fun, Facts and Magic of My Little PonyMy Little Pony: The Ultimate Guide: All the Fun, Facts and Magic of My Little Pony by My Little Pony

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am very much here for the firmly feminist message that is the My Little Pony series, but I am also here for very nicely done media tie-ins. It’s very hard to judge this sort of thing objectively, because it is so often done poorly. You’ll know the sort of thing; they appear suddenly at Christmas and have whatever it is slapped across whatever was left over at the back of the store room. And they’re poor ; thin paper and even thinner pages, with the sort of font size that you used when you were trying to convince your teacher that you’d done a longer essay than you had.

This is great, genuinely, and it’s not often I’ll say that about this sort of book. It’s immensely good value for the price point, delivering an encyclopedic dissection of Ponyville whilst throwing in some smart and beautiful messages about empowerment, friendship and self-belief. That’s the sort of thing I can get behind, and when it’s wrapped up in something as well put together – and as genuinely good – as this is, then it’s a pleasure to do so.

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Poo Bum : Stephanie Blake

Poo BumPoo Bum by Stephanie Blake

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I get books recommended to me a lot. Poo Bum has been on my ‘to read’ list for a while; but when a lovely librarian friend of mine told me that it got the “best reaction she’d ever had” at story time, it slid right to the top. Story time is one of those very specific tests for picture books and not all of them manage to pass it. Not all of them should pass it, in a way, because some picture books are made for very close and confidential shared reading, but those that do pass it are very special beasts. They’re books which translate to a very wide audience in a very short period of time. And they’re books which, when handled by a good librarian, help to make reading an event, a moment which burns very precisely and potently in the brain, and helps to pull young readers on a journey that’s going to last them a lifetime.

Poo Bum is outstanding. It’s wicked and naughty and just far enough past that edge of inappropriate to feel naughty, but not to far so that people get alienated. I’m loathe to give you too much details because really, the twists in this story are everything so I’ll settle with the blurb that simply says: “Once there was a little rabbit who could only say one thing…” As you’ll remember the title of this book is ‘Poo Bum’, you might imagine what that thing is…

The copy I’ve got from the library aches with being read a thousand times, and I love that so much that I can hardly deal with it. That’s another test for a picture book; the audience is still learning to figure out the idea of the book itself, and books that can survive that wear and tear whilst keeping the essence of themselves together, are very important things. Poo Bum is rendered in such potent artwork, and punchy text, that I suspect it would survive the apocalypse. The colours are bold, often primary, and often still have the tangible mark of creation on them; those lines and scratches that show you exactly where the pauses and edges were.

And oh, this is funny. It’s funny and it’s smart, and I can see exactly why it hit home. Turns out librarians know exactly what they’re on about. Who’d have thought?

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The Little Library Cookbook : Kate Young

The Little Library CookbookThe Little Library Cookbook by Kate Young

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve been waiting for this book for a while, ever since I came across Kate Young’s work online and, in particular, the moment where she made breakfast rolls as inspired by The School at the Chalet by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer. What more perfect an aim could one wish for then a cookbook inspired by literary foods?

And this, this is perfect. It is a very particular sort of perfect, one crafted by brown-butter madeleines and porridge and Rebecca and The Bear Nobody Wanted, shifting from ‘before noon’, to ‘around noon’, to ‘after noon’, ‘the dinner table’, ‘midnight feasts’, ‘parties and celebrations’ and ‘christmas’, and stopping off at My Life in France and My Naughty Little Sister on the way.

The Little Library Cookbook is a delicious and intoxicating mixture of memory and recipe, where writing nestles up against recipe (which is, to be frank, a form as elegant as any poetry you’d dare to mention), and Bad Harry sits on one page whilst on another, Young’s writing makes me want to try porridge. Porridge. I can’t stand porridge, but this book makes me want to stand it, makes me want to try it through writing as delicious as this: “Pour the oats and water into a saucepan and leave to soak while you have a shower or check your emails or snooze against the doorframe – 1o minutes will do.” Food, books, and snoozing. I am sold. I even want a spurtle.

I’m not one for cookbooks, not normally. I find them a little removed and unachieavable. Aspirational, yes, and inspiring, sometimes, but somehow never quite doable. But oh, I love The Little Library Cookbook because it’s a tribute to language and fiction and food, all at the same time, and fiction sustains us, in its way, as much as a fried egg on toast does. This is cookery for readers and Young doesn’t leave you behind. Her recipes are friendly and kind and honest; swap this for that, if you don’t have this, here’s a substitute, and her book choices are delightful.

I love work like this, and I love it when it feels like you’ve known a book for a long time even though you’ve just met. The Little Library Cookbook feels like family. It feels like home.

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The Explorer – Katherine Rundell

The ExplorerThe Explorer by Katherine Rundell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A brief moment of context.

I didn’t wholly connect with The Wolf Wilder as much as I did with the rhapsodic and blissful joy of Rooftoppers, and so The Explorer was a book that I read with a little bit of nervousness. Rundell is transcendent, capable of paragraphs that feel like the first footsteps in new fallen snow, but sometimes I connect with her work less than I’d like to. Much of this comes back to my position as reader and my natural predilection for the things and contexts that I love. The Paris of Rooftoppers, for example, is something much closer to my heart than the snowy wilderness of The Wolf Wilder and that’s, perhaps, inevitable. We are readers after all, all of us, and each of us come to a book with a different story of our own. Each book will connect with a reader in ways almost unfathomable to understand. Sometimes it will hit home, and sometimes it will hit home. It’s important to understand this, this aesthetic of reading, because it’s something that can be almost disassociated from the stylistics of the text itself. As I said, Rundell can be transcendent, furiously so, but sometimes it’s the content that fails to connect. You can appreciate something so very much, and be envious – desperately so! – of such skill, whilst also recognising the ways in which it does not wholly hit home for yourself. Though it sounds decrepit to say this, the more I read, the more I recognise the legitimacy of disconnect. You can love something. You can also recognise the beauty in something but not, perhaps, find it life-changing.

So, having said that, and given you some context as to where I was for this review, The Explorer hits home for me. So beautifully, so powerfully, so genuinely so. For me this is Rundell’s texture, these stories of children being bold and brilliant in the most unusual of circumstances and fighting against a world that does not seem to wholly recognise their wonder. She is an author with a childist point of view, that not only positions children as beings of power within their world but also as beings with agency. Power, for me in Rundell’s work, and agency are quite different things. The ability to do something, and the actual doing of that something can often be miles apart. The love, really, that Rundell has for her characters, and the belief that they can do what they need to do.

This is a story of survival, and it’s one pitched for the middle grade audience, so we have moments of terror and furious delight, often tumbling together within a matter of sentences. Nothing is certain in this forest other than the love and faith and strength that friendship and belief can bring. The children are delightful, Max – the youngest – is furiously perfect, and the book sings of the sheer need to have an adventure. As one of the characters comments at one point, “You should always dress as if you might be going to the jungle. You never know when you might meet an adventure.” The Explorer is touched with a little bit of madness, that feverish urge to look beyond the far brow of the horizon, and I loved it. It’s a book that reminds us to be prepared for adventure, whenever and wherever it may come.

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The Secret Of the Old Clock : Carolyn Keene

The Secret of the Old Clock (Nancy Drew, #1)The Secret of the Old Clock by Carolyn Keene

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s interesting to consider just how old this series is now. The Secret of the Old Clock, the first in the mythic Nancy Drew series, was originally published in 1930 with a substantial revision in 1959. That’s a fair while, even for me who quite enjoys the more ancient side of children’s literature. Yet this edition of The Secret of The Old Clock is fresh, breezy and reads rather as if it could have been written yesterday. There’s still a space for this ferociously girl-positive novel, even when you pause to consider and dissect its Blytonian morals and broad paintbrush approach to society’s morals.

Nancy Drew herself is a delightfully persistent girl with nothing better to do than wander around and solve mysteries, and occasionally deliver papers to her father’s clients. She’s one of those characters that makes a thousand points of sense within a book and yet, outside of it, is so rampantly confusing that you can’t quite figure out where to begin. But you believe her, and this book takes you with her, every step along the way. Yes, The Secret of The Old Clock blithely trots from crisis to crisis and Nancy skips from problem to resolution without barely messing up her hair, but you do not stop reading. It’s kind of fascinating to realise how purely, vividly readable this book still is.

As I said earlier, there’s a space for Nancy Drew in the contemporary world of children’s literature and that space is this: alongside Robin Stevens, Clementine Beauvais, Katherine Woodfine, because Nancy is still awesome. Horrendous, too, in a myriad of ways, but underneath it all, still pretty fabulous.

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When Dimple Met Rishi : Sandhya Menon

When Dimple Met RishiWhen Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When Dimple Met Rishi is a ferociously charming book. It’s also a book I heard about on social media and so, I suspect, might be my reposte to those critics who think that book-talk on social media is the death of everything they hold dear. People talk about books, freely, fascinatingly, and that talk is driven by emotion. In the case of When Dimple Met Rishi, it was a talk that sang of love, all the while accompanied by that cover, that rich, beautiful cover.

And I’m always a little nervous because I don’t want to be the person who, for want of a better phrase, shouts against such a loving discourse. Like what you wish, talk about what you wish, and if you’ve read the book, if you’ve participated in the world, if you’ve quizzed your reaction as much as the thing that you’re reacting too, then fine. Your perspective is warranted, welcome. Necessary, really.

When Dimple Met Rishi is delightful. It is a book that more than easily stands up to the discourse around it, and more so, drives it through having such a genuinely beautiful, eloquent and passionate narrative that slides out from its pages, easy as air. This is a good book. It’s a very charming, distinct, book, which tells a very beautiful, very empathetic love story.

Dimple Shah and Rishi Patel. They’re both attending the same summer school programme for coders, and they are part of a “suggested arrangement”. That is to say, they’re part of an arranged marriage. Rishi, a wild romantic, is on board. Dimple, slightly less so…

When Dimple Met Rishi tracks the development of this relationship; unabashedly so, and it’s just lovely. There’s a slightly fumbly last few pages as Menon brings all of the threads together but really, the threads are so gorgeous and you’re so invested at that point that it’s easy to let that slide and just will them all to get together.

The other thing to note about Menon’s style is that it’s very quietly frank. She moves from discussing a group of ‘Aberzombies’ to theistic semantics, and does so in a tone that is very well handled, sympathetic, and also intensely welcome. In a way, I can’t recommend When Dimple Met Rishi enough really, as it’s such a quietly multi-faceted piece, full of an intense, vibrant heart and what’s not to love about that? It is a good book.

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Listen to the Baby Animals : Marion Billet

Listen to the Baby AnimalsListen to the Baby Animals by Marion Billet

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So I need to tell you a little bit about this book that, I suspect, might appeal quite immensely to the adults amongst you who have Suffered From Noisy Book Syndrome. Come on, we all know what I mean. Those books that children adore – and rightfully so – but that you’re quite tempted to flush down the toilet after the 365th tinny repetition of ‘Jingle Bells’.

THIS BOOK HAS AN ON AND OFF SWITCH.

IT IS HIDDEN BEHIND A PANEL THAT IS ACCESSIBLE ONLY TO ADULTS AND THEIR DEXTEROUS DRIVEN BY NECESSITY AND AN URGE TO PRESERVE THEIR SANITY FINGERS.

Like, what an amazing thing is that? It’s pretty much the interactive board book equivalent of inventing the wheel and I love it, ferociously, because it’s a gesture towards the parents as much as it is to the children. This isn’t just to turn the noise off; how much of a Gandalf will you look when you turn the noise on? Clever design benefits everyone, and Nosy Crow are so on the ball with this. Immensely.

I wouldn’t be writing this fulsome review of a book based solely on a switch, brilliant as it is, because the book itself needs to stand up and be worthy of interest in its own right. I think sometimes, especially with this age group, we can rely on tricks and *jazz hands*, and the story element itself gets neglected. Luckily enough, Marion Billet has done something quite intensely charming here. It’s a simple journey through a series of scenes, each of which introduces a baby animal with their parent, and the artwork is charming. Round-edged, thick, blunt colours, and a gentle prompt for the reader to encourage interaction.

This is delightful all the way through, from Billet’s fat and thick use of colour, through to the sounds – actually real life yips from puppies and cheeps from chicks (no tinny nonsense here!). I’d also direct you to Billet’s Listen To The Birdswhich features actual recordings of nightingale song and sort of blew my mind a little bit.

I could write about board books like this forever.

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Collecting Sticks : Joe Decie

Collecting SticksCollecting Sticks by Joe Decie

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was at a conference the other day where talk turned to the idea of ‘kindness’ and how writing can give an opportunity for emotions to be expressed another way. To shine a light into the darkness. It’s a complex idea and one that I suspect I’m going to be unpicking for a while, but what stuck with me was that idea of kindness. I have been moving closer to it for a while now, seeking it particularly in the children’s books I work with but also elsewhere. That acknowledgement that the world is a complex and challenging and intimidating space and that we are just people trying to do our best in it. Kindness. It’s hard to find in a book, hard to consciously seek it, but when you find it, you find a fat and rich and genuine warmth that sings of love and hope and belief in people in all of their foolish and idiosyncratic ways. Kindness.

And so I came to Collecting Sticks by Joe Decie, a comic book that I’d seen reviewed elsewhere and ordered at the library as a consequence (reviews! they work! colour me stunned!). It is a beautiful, beautiful book and I loved it. It’s a slender, elegant visual note, rendered in a black and white wash and wry notes and asides towards the reader. It’s autobiographical, covering a glamping trip undertaken by Decie’s family, but rather deliciously global in the same way; Decie focuses on the moments at the heart of his panels and lets the white space of the page or the quietly focused background of the panel provide that universal backdrop that means these moments of family and conversation could, perhaps, be in your house right now. It’s delicately done and all rather wonderful.

Seek this out if you’re a little tired with the world, or if you’re looking for something to remind you of the intense potential of people. Collecting Sticks has such a delightful warm rhythm to it that it beats with family life, of closeness and of love. It’s eccentric, funny, and self-conscious, and it’s full of utterly delightful beats. And it is full of kindness. Warmth. Empathy. Love.

This is a beautiful, beautiful little book.

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I Have No Secrets : Penny Joelson

I Have No SecretsI Have No Secrets by Penny Joelson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a lot to love about this potent and markedly well-told thriller, not in the least the vibrant delight that is the narrator Jemma. Unable to communicate, yet possessed of a quick-thinking and fiercely distinct personality, Jemma now needs to communicate more than ever. Somebody has been murdered – and somebody’s confessed to Jemma that they did it.

Much of the strength of this book comes from Jemma; she’s a delight. Funny, warm and brave, she’s the centre of her foster family and the secrets that they hold. She witnesses her foster siblings fight their own battles, and upon the news of a personal revelation for herself, she starts to take some immense steps towards independence. It’s difficult to not root for her; She’s so well-drawn and convincing that I Have No Secrets races by.

I was in a bit of a reading dip before this, having just read a ton of things with hideous opening chapters, but I couldn’t put this down. Isn’t that cliche? Yet all cliches come from fact and in the case of I Have No Secrets it’s true. I couldn’t put it down. It was refreshing, and sort of wonderful even in how it dealt with some very dark and complex issues. To put the murder itself aside, both Olivia and Ben, Jemma’s foster-siblings, face some complex troubles of their own.

Thematically, it’s a little Wonder and a little Jacqueline Wilson, and as much as it pains me to do that compare and contrast thing, I think it’s a worthwhile exercise with this book because it’s in doing that sort of comparative analysis that you realise how this book is something furiously singular, immensely readable and something quite valuable indeed.

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Terms & Conditions: Life in Girls’ Boarding-Schools, 1939–1979 : Ysenda Maxtone Graham

Terms & Conditions: Life in Girls’ Boarding-Schools, 1939–1979Terms & Conditions: Life in Girls’ Boarding-Schools, 1939–1979 by Ysenda Maxtone Graham

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a delight.

The second of two boarding school histories that I’ve breezed through recently, Terms & Conditions is an absolute delight. The first – Alex Renton’s Stiff Upper Lip: Secrets, Crimes and the Schooling of a Ruling Class was a much more different experience, focusing as it did upon the male experience of boarding school life and wrapping this around his own experiences. I found Stiff Upper Lip a dry read; interesting, yet I skipped over a substantial chunk of it.

Terms & Conditions, however, wasn’t anywhere near long enough. I loved it. I devoured it. I suspect my different reaction to the two books is partially due to my own research interests and angle of interest, yet Maxtone Graham writes with a sheer verve and narrative drive that can’t be denied. This is an honest, warm-hearted, genuine and sympathetic book.

Ending just before the popular arrival of the ‘duvet’, that blessed piece of night-time warmth, Maxtone Graham ranges through a series of tightly structured chapters constructed around the recollections of her interviewees. Being a big children’s literature fan, I was delighted to find that Judith Kerr functioned among these. What’s great is that Maxtone Graham admires these women that she works with and talks to, and she admires them openly. It’s so interesting to me, this complex ideal of the boarding school woman – of women, generally – because as they grow older, they are expected to be less visible. Less forthright. Yet as Maxtone Graham comes to articulate, these are the women that have remarkable stories – ranging from being pummeled outside in the dark as part of a new girl ritual, through to spending the night on the Kings Road with boys and making it back to the convent school in time for morning. I welcome anybody who works to make these stories visible, I really really do.

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The Hate U Give : Angie Thomas

The Hate U GiveThe Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is remarkable.

The debut novel from Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give is a ferociously crafted and brilliant and startling novel. It’s hard to not exhaust myself of superlatives for it but it is something else. I’m often a little nervous about those books that get a lot of good press because I don’t want to be the one who goes ‘actually..’. I really don’t. I don’t review to shoot things down, I review books for their bookish ways. For what they can say and do and how they say and do it.

Page two. That’s how long it took for me to know that I was going to review this book; that’s the moment when I read a sentence so utterly perfect that reader, I stared at it and marvelled at how wonderful a thing language is. I stared at the sentence in the way you do when you read a lot of things, when reading is your quote unquote job and you have seen it all before but you have never seen this. The Hate U Give gave me something new, something so fiercely beautiful and resolute that I’ve had difficulty stepping away from it. Thomas’ use of language is immense. Firmly, fiercely, immense.

Starr lives in two worlds; high school and home, poles apart. When she is the only witness to a shooting, those barriers start to crumble and Starr must figure out how to live her life and how to find justice. I read this, I devoured it, and it made me think of that maxim often trotted out in creative writing classes. Write the story you need to tell. Not the story you think people want to hear, nor the story that you think people might be able to sell, but the story you need to tell. And that’s what Thomas achieves here; every word cracks with fury and pain and beauty. It is remarkable. It should be epochal.

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The Calling – Endgame #1 : James Frey

The Calling (Endgame, #1)The Calling by James Frey

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

 

 

The reviewer sat down. She opened up her laptop. She navigated to Goodreads. She typed in the title. She found the book. She rated it one star.
She paused.
She had not enjoyed The Calling. She had found it somewhat challenging, complex, problematic.
It had begun promisingly; a good looking book is a good looking book.
It speaks of money, cash, investment.
Hope. Ambition.
But this book had not provided hope.
Or ambition.
It was not that the narrative was problematic. It had reminded her oddly, confusedly, strangely of The Amazing Race. It was The Amazing Race meets The Hunger Games and, in a way, she could deal with that. She could even deal with the paragraphs that seemed to be averse to indents, to the stilted and problematic third person, or to text that used one adjective when three could do, because this looked like it could be an interesting book.
But The Calling was not an interesting book.
It was a bad book.
She began to read parts of it out to the people she lived with, asking them to share in paragraphs that read like the literary equivalent of a hernia. A moon was 21 degrees above the horizon. Cars drove through countries and each and every country was named. Characters were bored, and the causes of their boredom were listed for the next five thousand paragraphs.
This book read, she realised, like somebody who was trying to hit word count.
Like word count, the count of words, the word of counts.
And she liked some of it, even though she was appalled by how badly it was written. How poorly it was scribed. How problematically it was inked.
But mostly she disliked it.
She did not normally review books like this, but The Calling had frustrated her. Annoyed her. Made her disgruntled.
It was in the distrust of the story for itself. There was a good story underneath it all, she realised, but it was so desperately cloaked with something else. Something that wanted to dazzle and spin. Something that felt it necessary to point out every little piece of detail in the scene. Something that could squeeze thirteen hundred words out of a person standing up.
Something that felt a little bit frantic and a whole lot of unnecessary.
She did not normally review books like this.
It did not feel constructive.
But The Calling had made itself an exception.

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The Yellow Room : Jess Vallance

The Yellow RoomThe Yellow Room by Jess Vallance

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I didn’t know what to expect from this. I picked it up because of the cover, and for some reason came home from the library with a handful of yellow books. Perhaps colour-based selection will be my new method when I’m not sure what to get; after all, it worked perfectly here. This is a hell of a book and it is surprising. It’s not often that I get to use that about a thriller because we are so familiar with what they do. We are trained to look for twists and turns and lies and deceit but sometimes a book just throws itself in a direction that you don’t expect. And when it does it well, oh that’s a good moment indeed.

The Yellow Room is outstanding.

The central protagonist, Anna, received a letter from her father’s girlfriend, Edie. It is unexpected: her father is dead, and Edie would like to meet her. The two start to form a close relationship and Edie provides much of the mothering that Anna lacks and needs – her own mother is preoccupied with work, and their relationship is deeply fractured. Yet Edie has problems and secrets of her own;, and secrets always have a way of being found out…

Vallance’s writing is calm and controlled and wickedly strong. It’s hard to write something like this because the temptation is to strew it with Conscious Things That You Should Pay Attention To. Vallance doesn’t do this; she laces her work with a sort of conscious believeablity throughout and everything that is within it is sort of normal and okay and then, when the shifts come and Things Happen, you sort of can’t process it because it’s so out of the blue and yet, in a way, it was there all along. That is an awful sentence but it’s the nearest I can come towards conveying the experience of this book. The last third, in particular, is vital and tense and brilliant.

I also loved how Vallance didn’t seek the easy way out. I’m starting to cleave towards these texts that treat every individual within them as human. Adults, child, all of them. No character left behind, no character placed in just as a cardboard cut out. Everyone has motivation, depth and when they do the things they do it is understandable. It is sympathetic, even when they are awful and unconscionable things. Give me depth, and I will follow you to the moon and back. I really will.

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The State of Grace : Rachael Lucas

The State of GraceThe State of Grace by Rachael Lucas

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Grace, the titular heroine of The State of Grace, has Aspergers. She also has a horse, and a boy that she sort of likes but doesn’t quite know how to act with. Coupled with this her dad is on long work trips overseas, her mother is starting to act weird, and her sister has secrets of her own, there’s a lot going on. Throw in a horse, some nice little nerdy in-jokes, and you’ve got quite a charming story driven by an intense sense of heart. I liked The State Of Grace. It’s a little messy, a little tumbly, a little disjointed, but unerringly driven by a sense of love and a determination to let Grace tell her story.

I really appreciate Lucas for centring Aspergers within this. People look for reflections of themselves within literature, and even more so when it comes to children and young adult. Whether that’s a drive driven by the adults or the young readers themselves is a debate for another time, but it happens. It’s one of the most consistent questions I get asked, irrespective of context. “Do you have a book about…?” Where The State Of Grace shines is both in its frankness of discussing Aspergers but also in the additional material at the back which covers more about the issue.

I also really loved the horse element in this. Grace has an Arab called Mabel, and that’s something we don’t often see in contemporary young adult. Her relationship with Mabel is sensitively told, and gives Grace both a sense of power and responsibility. It comes towards the fore at the end of the book and though I won’t spoil the incident in question, the reaction on Grace’s part is immensely true to life.

Tonally, The State of Grace has a lot to pay back towards the old Pullein-Thompson books but also towards a modern sort of romance vibe. It’s very genuine and somewhat innocent in feel, but really sort of determinedly charming with that. I liked this. Also, on a slightly tangential note, I would definitely welcome more male representation in texts of this nature. I really hope The State Of Grace signifies the start of that movement and of that discussion.

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Wuthering Heights : Emily Brontë

Wuthering HeightsWuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It’s odd, sometimes, how a book holds a consciousness in your brain before you have ever read a single page of it. Wuthering Heights is embedded somewhere in there, somewhere near Kate Bush and somewhere near the moorland that turns to grey and steel on an Autumn morning.

A while back I read my first ever Jane Austen. I have now read my first ever Brontë. These aren’t books that sit comfortably within my world; I am somebody who reads a lot, but I, as everyone does, have my grooves. So I went to Emily and to Wuthering Heights, prompted somewhat by To Walk Invisible in the hope to finally read a Brontë and to step out of those grooves once more. It’s good to do that every now and then.

So.

How long can I put off telling you what I thought about this book?

Everyone is horrible. Everyone is horrible and Northern with a capital By ‘Eck (I am Northern and stuggled substantially with the dialect of the novel), and everyone just gets horribler (forgive me, but it’s the only way I can express it) throughout the novel. It’s not an easy read. It also somewhat baffles me as to how I had grouped Heathcliff in ‘Fictional Attractive Gentlemen Whom Everyone Has A Crush On’ because he too is hideous. And the dog thing! I admit that I got to a point with Wuthering Heights where I grabbed the nearest person to me and said, “Do you know what’s gone on now?” and told them and then we discussed how on earth that sort of thing goes on and then the weather and the buses, for we are British and that is what we do.

I shall take a deep breath now, and restore a semblance of normality to this novel. Emily Brontë can write, undoubtedly. She burns with this sort of wild anger and love, so often the same thing here, and her description of landscape is superb. Ineffably so. These are lived in moors and known spaces; and I think it is in those moments that the novel worked for me. I write about the representation of landscape in my thesis and so it is a topic close to my heart. The setting of a scene can tell you everything before anyone has even opened their mouths.

But Heathcliff is not a hottie. Everyone else is moronic. Everything else is angry.

This isn’t a book about love, not really.

It’s a book about selfishness. It’s a book about locking the door and locking the world far away, and for me, as a reader located within that world, I felt invasive. Wuthering Heights screams to be read and fights, furiously, to hold its story to itself. Perhaps that’s it, right there. Perhaps that’s it.

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A Library of Lemons : Jo Cotterill

A Library of LemonsA Library of Lemons by Jo Cotterill

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It is a beautiful day and I would like to talk to you about beautiful things. I would like to talk to you about quiet and gentle and sympathetic and kind books and A Library Of Lemons is all of that and so much more.

I have a lot of time for Jo Cotterill. I adored Looking At The Stars, a wise and sensitive and graceful book about living in the worst of times, and I loved A Library Of Lemons. Absolutely, furiously, painfully loved it.

Calypso and her dad live alone in their big, dusty house. Her mother died, and they don’t really talk about it. Instead, Calypso’s dad preaches the values of inner strength and self-reliance and then mainly just locks himself away to work on his book. There’s never any food in the fridge, and Calypso is forced to look after herself. A lot. She withdraws into her love of books and fiction and the gap between her and her dad seems to widen. The arrival of a new girl at school, Mae, changes that. Calypso and Mae become friends. And, upon seeing how life can be in a normal house, Calypso starts to realise that her and her Dad have some serious problems to address.

I talk a lot about kindness in middle grade fiction because I think it’s a very important element to consider. It’s not that I want everything to be hugs and roses because nothing is. It’s more that I want the awareness of people being people, and that not everything in the world is as cut and dry as people being good and people being bad. People are people. And I think to realise that; to portray adults as fallible, to portray children as participants within a world that isn’t black and white, and to do that kindly is an immense gift. Cotterill writes stories that don’t leave people behind. Everyone earns their space and fills it, and it’s all done in such a subtle, nuanced way that is remarkable.

One thing to note about A Library Of Lemons is that it deals with some very serious issues, including bereavement, grieving, depression and young carers. It does all of this in a very gentle, honest way that I suspect would be immensely helpful to those needing to articulate such issues and I would immensely recommend it to those working in such a context. But, as ever, please read it yourself beforehand. I always say this because it’s vital to know a book and the issues it touches upon before dealing with it in a sensitive context. Plus, it is a joy. A Library Of Lemons is one of those books that reaches out to those on the edge of society and pulls them back in. And I think that is something rather beautiful indeed.

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Prisoner of Night & Fog : Anne Blankman

Prisoner of Night and Fog (Prisoner of Night and Fog, #1)Prisoner of Night and Fog by Anne Blankman

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Prisoner of Night and Fog is set in extraordinary, awful times. It’s 1930s Munich and Gretchen Müller has grown up under the protection of her Uncle ‘Dolf’. ‘Dolf’ is Adolf Hitler and Gretchen is his beloved pet. The daughter of a Nazi martyr, Gretchen has been bought up in the parties ideology. Yet one day she meets a Jewish reporter, Daniel Cohen, who tells her that her father was not martyred. He was murdered – by somebody in the party. Together, Gretchen and Daniel set out to discover just what happened to her father….

It’s the story that got me with this. There’s something incredible here, but I don’t think Prisoner of Night and Fog quite manages to follow through on the vivid, awful truth. Though several characters are identified as fictional, many aren’t and Gretchen comes into contact with a wide range of actual people. Hitler. Rohm. Eva Braun. Angela “Geli” Raubal. It’s a vivid context and one that should make a young adult novel burn. I’m not sure that this one does that. There’s a lot of running from one plot point to another, which becomes oddly repetitive, and Gretchen herself is somewhat toneless.

Sometimes I recommend novels more for the context of what they deal with. I do think Prisoner of Night and Fog is worth a read because the setting and the historical narrative is fascinating. I suspect in a way that it might have worked better were the novel itself less safe. That’s an odd thing to say in the context, and bear with me for a second whilst I explain it.

Let’s say ‘A girl sits down at the table, eats her lunch and gets up again’.

Now, let’s say something like: ‘A girl sits down at the table, eats her lunch, and then the table eats her.’

It’s a farcical example but I’m trying to make the point that sometimes a narrative needs to startle and snap when you least expect it. And when it doesn’t, and when I’m longing for it to be brave and reckless and unpredictable and it doesn’t – then I end up feeling somewhat disappointed. There’s a big story here and it’s one that would sing in young adult work; Prisoner of Night and Fog makes a good attempt at telling that story, but doesn’t quite succeed.

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Wild Animals of the North : Dieter Braun

Wild Animals of the NorthWild Animals of the North by Dieter Braun

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The latest step on my Carnegie / Kate Greenaway catch up is Wild Animals of the North by Dieter Braun. Genuinely a little bit breathtaking, this is something rather special.The conceit is simple and easy to grasp: Braun lists a selection of the wild animals to be found across a series of regions in The North. This can cover anything from killer whales in the Arctic through to pandas in Asia. And, as I said, it is something.

It’s hard to quite do justice to Braun’s big, bare, stylish artwork so instead I’ll direct you to a gallery of images. This is remarkable work, genuinely. One of the big points about this book is its size. It’s maybe a little difficult to wield for tinier hands, but that gamble pays off as it allows the artwork to breathe. There’s something rather special about just going big and bare with your work and it’s a gamble that pays off. Some of the images are genuinely breathtaking. All of them would be perfect as pictures on the wall.

Each image of an animal is labelled both with its English and Latin names. Some of them come with extra paragraphs of information, a little eccentrically formed, but still rather charming. What gives this book its strength is that sense of individuality about it. The weight of the paper. The texture of that front cover. The nuanced picking of detail in those paragraphs. I learnt things! (Learning things from a book – who’d imagine such a thing?!)

I loved this. It’s inspiring, distinct and fiercely unique work.

And I want pretty much all of it on my wall.

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Beck : Mal Peet with Meg Rosoff

BeckBeck by Mal Peet

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’m catching up on my Carnegie reading for this year and Beck was always going to be near the top of my list. From its story of production where Mal Peet passed away whilst writing and Meg Rosoff finished the manuscript, through to its critical reception, Beck is an eyecatching novel. I was never going to start anywhere else. Mal Peet was a remarkable writer and I could talk for days about his work (see here for reviews of Tamar and Life…). Peet wrote about faith and hope and big, sprawling stories of life. I loved them. I am so sorry that he is no longer with us.

But here’s the thing. I didn’t like Beck. Not at all, really.

The titular Beck is an orphan born of an encounter between his mother and an African American soldier. Left alone in the world, he is shipped to Canada and the supposed care of a group of Catholic Brothers. It won’t leave much to the imagination if I tell you that Beck does not receive anything remotely approximating to care. It also won’t leave much to the imagination if I tell you that this involves abuse. It is important to read this yourself to fully understand the nature of this but it is written very barely, very plainly, and rather horrendous through its banality. Searing is one way to describe it. Beck moves on, scarred and restless. Another time, another place, the hope to connect. He moves from circumstance to circumstance, some good, some bad, all the while trying to find his place in the world.

It was, as Goodreads somehow delightfully phrases it, just ok.

My dislike didn’t come from the graphic content, though I do recognise how this problematic for some and I would recommend reading it yourself before working with it. Tonally, Beck reminded me a lot of The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks and I wonder if this does win the Carnegie, whether there will be a conversation to have about the evolving tone of children’s literature and what we consider as meritable in the field. Is meritable a word? I don’t think it is, but I think its appropriate.

I got Beck yesterday afternoon (A library open on a sunday? Imagine!), gleeful after my reservation came in early, and I finished it that same day. And all I had was a glorious sense of disconnect. A book that should have meant something to me, really sort of didn’t.

Beck is a beautiful told story, but it’s a story told at a distance and whilst some of that is incredibly justified and thematically appropriate, there’s very little chance to connect. It’s like sitting on a train and seeing beautiful scenery beyond the window but the train never stops. I couldn’t pinpoint the precise moment where Rosoff took over from Peet’s unfinished manuscript but I could tell a tone shift in the final quarter or so. The book becomes something quite different and problematic. Do I mean problematic? Yes, I think I do. I can’t comment on the representation of people in this book, and would direct you towards other and own voices to seek that veracity, but I can comment on structure and plot. And I found it problematic. The book sort of burns towards a point where you kind of think it will go off and do its own thing – a defiant unwillingness to conform – and I wanted that.

But then the fire goes out. Wet twigs on a smoking fire.

And that’s relevant for the story told here, but it doesn’t make a book. It really doesn’t.

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Orangeboy : Patrice Lawrence

OrangeboyOrangeboy by Patrice Lawrence

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Orangeboy is one of those books which begin a long time before you read it. Take a moment and look at that front cover, that stark brilliant splash of vibrant colour that spills against the white background. It is an amazing piece of design and, as I have said before, design speaks a lot about a book. From the perfectly pitched cover of Trouble through to pretty much anything published by Nosy Crow, design matters. It speaks of ambition and it speaks of power, of doing anything in your arsenal to make this book stand out and be read.

Marlon’s big brother, Andre, went down the wrong path and now, Marlon seems destined to follow him. But he’s fighting all the way, trying to figure out what’s happening to him and how – or indeed if – he can get out of it alive. There’s a line on the blurb that does somewhat give away the first twist, and I’d say ignore it if you can. Don’t read the back of this book, trust me, because when that first twist hits, it’s quite the moment.

I suspect that from the state of this tight and fluid and gutwrenching novel, that Lawrence has much more in her. The first book is always the first book, and sometimes it speaks of that. There are a few moments here where the narrative kind of outpaces itself, and then everything races to catch up. It’s true to life, painfully, but I’d have welcomed some time for the text to realise where it is. Breath. Shadows and light, loudness and dark. Lawrence is so very brilliant in this story and I wanted more time to bathe in the richness of her writing, the dense word-clouds of music and of pop culture references and of relationships, both good and bad. I suppose it’s selfish, really, to imagine a book should be written for my needs alone and yet books like this make me selfish. I want more of them. I didn’t want Orangeboy to end. Those dynamic, awful, hideous last few chapters where everything happened and couldn’t be stopped, made me stir the beans for my lunch with one hand and read with the other. It is the very definition of an unpotdownable book.

Marlon is forced to make choices throughout this novel, from a good life to a bad, and when history and relationships and love and loyalty and family come calling, he’s forced onto a path not of his choosing. It’s a hard read, Orangeboy, searing at times and yet, as I say, unputdownable because you can’t help but wonder what you’d have done in the circumstances. There’s a lot of opportunity here for discussion and several ‘discussion points’ are included at the back of the book.

I welcome Orangeboy. I think it’s important. I appreciate how it doesn’t make things easy, not once, not ever. That’s life for a lot of readers. I think it’s right to write about that. I think it’s even better to write about it as well as this.

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Girl Online – Going Solo : Zoe Sugg

Girl Online Going Solo (Girl Online, #3)Girl Online Going Solo by Zoe Sugg

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This, the third in Zoe ‘Zoella’ Sugg’s series of young adult novels, solidified something for me. I’ve written about her her work before, and about the frustrating tendency for the media to leap onto her as a scapegoat for all that is wrong with the world in a literary sense. And so here I am at the third in her series about blogger Penny, and I have reaffirmed some thoughts for myself. These are generous and warm-hearted novels and I am glad that they exist.

Girl Online : Going Solo sees Penny come to terms with living her life and facing the world alone. What’s really joyous is that this book doesn’t shy away from the nature of young adult independence and the pitfalls of that. Penny experiences panic attacks, anxiety and the great sudden joy of making new friends and finding her place within the world. Underneath all of this are some nice and quietly handled moments of social commentary.

These are great books, genuinely, because they do what they do very well. There’s an almost palpable sense of wearing their heart on their sleeve and I like that. There’s a place in the world for books that do that, and I think the Girl : Online series does it immensely well. We speak a lot of the importance of voice as readers and writers; of knowing the way you want to say something and understanding the import of how that it’s said. And that’s where these books shine; they are palpably approachable, genuine and kind.

And I like that.

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Wing Jones : Katherine Webber

Wing JonesWing Jones by Katherine Webber

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the first things to note about Wing Jones is the beautiful production values that surround it. There’s a lot to be said for noting how people publish a novel. A lot of them exist in the world. A lot. How do you make yours stand out? How do you make yours sing of the faith and the hours and the money and the love that you have poured into it? In the case of Wing Jones, it’s a dynamic cover and some beautiful ombre page edges that shift from pink through to purple and oh, it’s beautiful. It says so much when publishers do this sort of thing because the book itself, it becomes something a little bit more eye-catching, a little bit prouder, a little bit more determined to make its mark.

And Wing Jones does, immensely. It’s the story of Wing Jones who doesn’t easily fit in. She has one grandmother from China and another from Ghana, and knows the problems of figuring out who you are in the world first hand. Her brother, Marcus, though, he’s working it out a lot easier than her. But then something terrible happens and it’s down to Wing to figure out who she is all by herself, save for the help of a magical dragon and lioness who come to her in the night. It’s a fiercely contemporary novel which deals with some stark issues and yet, there’s that touch of magical realism to it. A poetic of space, somehow, that twists the world that Wing’s in and makes it something else. Something that she can control. Something that she can run in.

It’s Webber’s debut novel this and there were a few moments where I’d have liked it being crafted in a slightly different manner, but I say this in the light of the great achievement that this book is. I am picky, undoubtedly so, because I think Webber’s quite remarkable with her language and oh, how I want more of that. She writes with a cadence that I’ve not found for a while, a sort of musical rhythm to her paragraphs, twists of languages and sudden symphonic sentences. And that, is perhaps more than anything, the reason I recommend Wing Jones. Webber’s language, her ability to craft a world that is rarely written of, and her ability to make that sing, utterly, and to make it beat like the pounding of your first-fallen-in-love-heart is quite something. Wing Jones is good. Extremely. Utterly. But I suspect Webber’s next book might be even more so.

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Margot and Me : Juno Dawson

Margot & MeMargot & Me by Juno Dawson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sometimes it’s hard to write through tears and yet, here I am, pushing through and trying to capture what makes Margot and Me so rather utterly wonderful. It is wonderful. I have written a thousand sentences trying to capture the nuances of this beautiful and heartfelt novel and I don’t think I’m anywhere near capturing it.

But I will try, and it starts with how Dawson understands character. She writes thick and fat and full and round people, believable people, understandable people, and this book is one that it’s hard to step away from. I love it. I love Dawson’s writing and how she crafts something so perfectly nuanced and, when it needs to be, kind.

Margot and Me is a split narrative between present day, where Fliss and her mother have moved to her grandmother’s farm in Wales, and the second world war diaries of her grandmother. Fliss’ mother is recuperating from chemotherapy and the farm stay is to help her recover. But Fliss’ grandmother, the redoubtable Margot, is not the easiest person to live with. It is only when Fliss discovers Margot’s WW2 diaries and starts reading them that she comes to figure out a few things about her…

Margot and Me inhabits a very distinct ground and it owns that ground so clearly and distinctly and so brightly and so perfectly. Think of the perfect A Little Love Song, think of Carrie’s War, think of The Other Way Round, and you’ll have an idea where this ferociously contemporary and deeply sensitive and nuanced book is. It hybridises that second world war story of growing up in extraordinary times with a consciousness that life, living, whatever time it is, is complex and troublesome and hard and a story that is needing to be told.

And I am still crying over the way it so, so perfectly does that.

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A Brush With The Past : Shirley Hughes

A Brush With the Past: 1900 - 1950 The Years that Changed our LivesA Brush With the Past: 1900 – 1950 The Years that Changed our Lives by Shirley Hughes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It was upon reading this that I came to realise something about Shirley Hughes and that is the great genuine humanity of her artwork. I have spoken before about how much I love her work (Alfie Gets In First possesses what is perhaps the most skilled usage of the picture book format I have ever seen) and A Brush With The Past is a rather wonderful addition to that canon. Canon. We don’t often use that word with children’s literature, or picture books, and it often gets fixed to something deeply removed from most people’s experience. The highest of terms. But in doing that, in allowing it to be taken and applied to work that perhaps deserves such a label yet achieves that at the exclusion of others, we do ourselves an injustice. So here I shall reclaim it. Shirley Hughes has a canon; it is a nuanced and smart and genuine and human and wonderful space which reflects all of what we are and all of what we could be. What skill this is, what skill.

A Brush With The Past is constructed on a quietly steady pattern, hinging on the dialogue between singular pages of information and lusciously rich double page spreads which detail the fifty years of history between the 1900s and 1950s. This spreads, human all, show different scenes from the period ranging from a family meal to lunching alone through to a business man’s meeting.

IMG_20170104_094418763.jpgIMG_20170104_094447617.jpg

It’s the double page spreads that make this book into something quite spectacular. The detailed little notes around the years are fabulous; alternatively exuberant or quiet, calm and vibrant, and burning with the eye of an observer. We know Hughes can draw, but this is somebody who can capture. These are moments of life; all of them grounded in the human experience and captured so very carefully. An artistic blink. But oh those double page spreads, the richness of them. I returned to them often in this book just to stare and to let the great power of Hughes’ work hit me. This is palpable, honest, heartfelt and loving art. Look at how a boy sat at the table could sit with both feet flat on the chair but instead doesn’t; look at the energy trapped in that left leg of his, and the raised sole of the right foot. He doesn’t want to be there any longer than he has to be. IMG_20170103_221733931.jpg

Look at the other end of the table; the vague outline of the bare-boned tree outside and the little tableau occuring between the two women. The ambition that she’ll eat it. That she’ll appreciate it. The certainty that she won’t. The cat lurking, ready to pick up any leftovers. This is what I mean when I talk about humanity; Hughes finds detail and she pushes her work full of it. IMG_20170103_221723239.jpg

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The Journey : Francesca Sanna

The JourneyThe Journey by Francesca Sanna

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Journey is something rather special and painfully beautiful; it’s a picture book which retells the journey of a nameless family of refugees. Told in a mixture of calm double page spreads, and singular pages, the family have to leave their home after the war begins. They set off on a journey to “another country. A country far away with high mountains”; and it is a journey that has to go on without a member of the family. (I shall not spoil what happens to this member, suffice to say that it delivers one of the most poetic, restrained and pained double page spreads I have seen for a long while). The book ends on an unfixed note; the family are still traveling and the narrator sees some birds up above: “I hope, one day, like these birds, we will find a new home. / A home where we can be safe and begin our story again.” In an echo of these words, the final endpaper sees a birds eye view of a red train cutting through the landscape of an unknown country populated by trees and with mountains in the distance.

This book is endorsed by Amnesty International and it’s not hard to see why. The Journey treats its topic with a sensitive restraint and, through refusing to name either the countries involved or the people, invests the narrative with a pained every man quality. Sanna’s work here is vivid, quiet and subtle. It’s work that I suspect is for the slightly older edge of picture book readers and that’s simply due to the layering at work here. There’s so much going on in these wonderful, poetic, nuanced images. It’s Miyazaki meets The Last Unicorn meets an Aubusson tapestry meets a nightmare. Hard to describe, yet unforgettable.

There’s a dark edge to the aesthetic: scenes of familial bliss are edged by the dark edge of something threatening, whilst, in one of the most heart-rending scenes, the children sleep in their mother’s arms whilst she silently weeps into the night. As the text says, the children are unaware of this: “But mother is with us / and she is never scared. / We close our eyes and / finally fall asleep.” It is rare and brilliant work, this, and The Journey is something wonderful to end the year with this book. It is rather special and I hope a future classic.

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Username Evie : Joe Sugg

Username: EvieUsername: Evie by Joe Sugg

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Created by the ‘Sugg Squad’, and led by Joe Sugg who ‘created the storyline and characters and directed the project’; Username: Evie is a complex and often frustrating read. Yet, it’s equally important to note that it is a graphic novel with its heart in the right place. The central message is one of understanding the impact of your actions, and that being mean does have a consequence. It’s a message often lost in some frantic and overwrought panels, and quite confused writing, but it is still a dominant message throughout the comic. It’s not great, but it does try to do great things.

Evie is a fairly standard protagonist who doesn’t fit in. She lives with her dad, a terminally ill coder, who is secretly building a virtual environment for her to use after he passes. Following his death, and her discovery of his work, Evie experiences ‘e.scape’; where everything is perfect and wonderful and, as is always the way, this doesn’t last. A corrupting influence is thrown into the code and soon her idyll turns out to be something quite different.

It’s a beautifully produced book, drawn by Amrit Birdi and coloured by Joaquin Pereyra with letters by Mindy Lopkin, and the artwork is immensely accessible. Certain panels, particularly in the prologue, reminded me greatly of Fray and the visuals of Username: Evie situate themselves quite comfortably alongside such books (though I could happily step away from its obsession with perfectly crafted jawlines).

Where it struggles is the plot; there’s simply not enough time within this book for characters to develop further than their one-note beats, and where they do develop, their characteristics aren’t justified and instead read as a little bit weird. It’s as though it’s one of those creative writing exercises where you label a character with a trait pulled from a hat and forget, somehow, to make the rest work. Evie’s got this weird thing about hiding in the fridge when she’s stressed out. In. The. Fridge.

Though Matt Whyman is credited as “the person who took the story and created a gripping narrative”, I’m not sure where to apportion blame for the scrappy nature of Username : Evie and would, instead, lean towards a critique of the fact that this book doesn’t quite seem to know where or what it wants to be.

Username: Evie has its heart in the right place and tries to say the right thing; and has something immensely interesting to say about Evie’s father (the ethics of his actions are a whole novel in themselves and something the book barely considers), but it all gets a bit lost. There’s a good book underneath all of this, somewhere.

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No Virgin : Anne Cassidy

No VirginNo Virgin by Anne Cassidy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s taken me a while to figure out how to review this. Much of my thoughts find themselves settling on the cover, which I love. I do, genuinely, love this brilliant and blunt cover. It is unabashed and unashamed which befits the topic immensely. Language has an immediacy, a wonderfully sharp immediacy, because once you understand it, you understand everything. Our conceptualisation of the word differs as to our own personal circumstances but, say, if you read the word ‘table’ and have an imaginative link to the idea of ‘table’, you understand that word. And we all understand ‘virgin’, really, especially in the young adult market which so often touches on this issue.

And yet, in coming from a library context and as a librarian, I wonder how this cover would fit and work in such a space. It is not that I am asking for this cover to be redacted, nor edited nor hidden, because that stands against all I have ever understood and believed in. Rather, I’m wondering how it fits in that space and whether it would, easily, live and thrive. (Books live in libraries, trust me on that, and some jostle their way to the front and others are hidden behind others and some barely even return to the shelves, and there is a lifeblood and system here that I will write upon some other day, I promise).

As a gatekeeper both virtually and within the real world, I work to make sure that books get read, that they get out there, and they get to the right reader, and I hope this does. I really hope it gets out there and it gets displayed face out, and people are ready to answer the queries of customers with the point that this story, this slim and bare-boned and blunt story, is something very vital indeed. Maybe that’s why this cover startles me and yet I love it; it’s a rare thing, and yet change has to come from somewhere. Something has to begin it.

Cassidy’s prose is direct and bare. It’s simple, at times, and that’s a sign of trust in the story and the way it needs to be told. Stacey Woods, the narrator, was raped. Following her confession to her best friend, she writes it down and retells the story, exactly as it happened. And what follows is a twist on the Cinderella story; a rags to riches to tense, horrible moments and back again. It’s sympathetic, genuine, and very very tautly told. There were a few moments when the prose danced around, but contextually this worked immensely well. It’s not an easy story to tell and Stacey embraces the distraction before slowly, tentatively telling her story. Of finding out what’s left of her. Of finding out where to go next and what to do.

For me, it read a little bit younger than work by Louise O’Neill, though it certainly stands with such books. No Virgin is important, really, because of the still dominant absence of such narratives and it’s one that I’d rather love to be read by all sexes. It’s slender, incisive, painful, and sharp. Unabashedly so.

And here’s the thing, that even amidst all my reflection about the role of that cover and the position of that book within the library system, that’s where I found it. And that cover is why I picked it up. It’s not a reach to suggest that the same thought process might happen in another library, with another reader, and that this book might change everything for them. This is important literature, and even though it’s maybe isolated and different literature, these are the sorts of books that form the bones of why libraries matter. Stand up for these books, stand up.

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The Loneliness of Distant Beings : Kate Ling

The Loneliness of Distant BeingsThe Loneliness of Distant Beings by Kate Ling

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Seren is part of a multi-generational intergalactic crew, on a mission destined to last as long as her life several times over. The ship is all that she knows and all she’ll ever know. But then she falls in love; dizzy, drunk, but it’s the guy she can’t love and the rules won’t let it happen and they can’t be together, they can’t. Or can they?

An occasionally messy novel, yet oddly appealing, this is a romance story set against the impossible decision of a life that is not yours. Being part of the crew means that Seren is subject to rules and regulations such as who to marry, when to have children, and what jobs she must do. The system needs to keep running. People need to keep playing their part. Ship gotta fly, people gotta crew. When she falls in love with Dom, everything changes. She can’t do what she should – so it’s time for her to do what she shouldn’t.

I liked this; it’s messy and kind of frantically over-written in parts where not much actually happens, and it is ferociously predictable at points, but despite all of that there’s something deeply appealing about Ling’s chaotic, heartfelt prose. This is intense, vivid, selfish love. It’s about holding on when holding on is the last thing you feel like doing. And the premise is delightful, brilliant; how do you live a free life when all the choices have already been made for you? The Loneliness of Distant Beings is the first of a series, I think, so I’ll be back for the future. I’m intrigued. I suspect it’ll settle down and grow into something quite wonderful, because underneath it all, Ling’s prose is a joy and a love story set in space with echoes of The Tempest is something I’ll always sign up for. Give me chaos, and give me predictability, but if you give me heart, then I’m there. Passionate, stubborn, stupid heart.

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The Special Ones : Em Bailey

The Special OnesThe Special Ones by Em Bailey

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Special Ones are chosen. They are four individuals who have been removed from their former lives to live in a remote farmhouse under the watchful eye of him because he believes that they are the reincarnated totems of a cult. They must live a life of simplicity and meaningfulness to their followers; nightly chat sessions where The Special Ones answer their problems, and obediently confessing their sins in the middle of the night to be punished. And when they can’t perform their identities, when they fail in their role as one of the Special Ones, they are sent off to be renewed. To be replaced by somebody else from the world, somebody else to be held prisoner..

Reading like something between Big Brother and Black Mirror, The Special Ones is a darkly hypnotic and deeply unnerving novel. It is also a novel of two halves of wildly differing quality, and it’s hard to wed the two together. Bailey’s voice thrives in the darkness of the unsettling home of The Special Ones where everything lives on a knife edge, all along, but then somehow, the novel loses something in its second half. Much of this I suspect rests on the introduction of other voices; we spend the first half of the novel in the company of Esther, and her increasing disquiet and unease. The second half introduces others, rarely signposting the shift (all of these voices are in the first person) and so the text recursively feels the need to contextualise this voice through reference to others or perspective. It’s as though I write one paragraph and then another paragraph appears

which is apparently written by myself even though I am not myself any more, I am the person who walked by just as she needed to make a point about structure and reflexivity.

Suffice to say, it’s complex. Bailey gets away with it a lot because of the competence of her writing and the deep dark unease that permeates the novel at that point, but it’s an issue that does detract from her story. The first half is brilliant. The second half, less so. A dilution of voice, a dilution of focus, a scrappy – too quick – ending. But again, much of that derives from my greed for a resolution to match the opening of the novel, that powerful, dark, wonderful first half.

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The Butterfly Club : Jacqueline Wilson

The Butterfly ClubThe Butterfly Club by Jacqueline Wilson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s been a while since I read one of Jacqueline Wilson’s books. I went through a phase of them when I got access to a new library (I say that like I was a burglar, but trust me I was legitimate and had a ticket and everything). They had shelves and shelves full of Jacqueline Wilson’s work, and it was a heady rush to get to read them all. Wilson is one of the great dames of British children’s literature and one that exists in a curious absence. It is an absence that characterises both her and similar popular authors, an absence of critical approval and mainstream awards. Of course Wilson has won awards, and plenty of them, and has been longlisted for the Carnegie, but her work exists in a sort of popular bubble of otherness. This isn’t new in British children’s literature: JK Rowling, Enid Blyton, etc, etc, but it is marked. There are times when I wonder if we know how to handle popular fiction in this country (Let me talk to you at some point of Twilight and of how popular does not necessarily equal the death of all things …).

The Butterfly Club is deeply charming in that way that Wilson has. The consistent markers of her work are a charming, genuine sympathy both with her protagonists but also with the other characters in the story. She’s known, too, for integrating a diverse range of issues into her work and The Butterfly Club is no exception. In one neatly constructed narrative that bowls along with abandon, it deals with social class, health, school worries, and friendship.

I will admit that I was concerned at how certain elements of the class related issue was portrayed in the illustrations as they felt markedly simplistic in how they portrayed the different people involved. A sort of shorthanded visual stereotype. It’s difficult to explain and, in a way, I wonder if it’s because of the nature of the reading I give these texts. I am an adult, reading from a very privileged and distinct context, and so I mention this reaction but I do not deny the great appeal of this book. And I do not deny the great appeal and wonder of Sharratt’s vibrant and dynamic work; he draws his characters with such rich and lovely thick lines that it’s hard to not love them.

One particular piece of joy for The Butterfly Club is the way it highlights Tina’s scientific knowledge and interest in butterflies and how this helps to form a connection between her and others. Wilson handles it so well and positions it as such a source of pride within Tina, that it’s deeply inspiring and rather lovely.There’s also a delicious character cameo within the final sequence of the book that will make fans of Wilson’s former titles deeply happy. I like what Wilson does, I really do. She finds the heart of everything she does, and this book is no exception. It is full of such heart.

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Binny Bewitched : Hilary McKay

Binny Bewitched (Binny, #3)Binny Bewitched by Hilary McKay

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Binny Bewitched returns to the Cornwallis household and sees the family in disarray. Binny herself has misplaced something that wasn’t hers to start off with. James and his new best friend are engrossed in their own adventures, whilst Clem is acting particularly oddly. Coupled with that, the builder keeps coming round to do one last job on the house, whilst their next door neighbour is, pretty definitely, a witch….

Sometimes it’s hard to rate McKay’s work as you rate it within a certain context of wonder that is formed from your experience of her other books. This, the third in the Binny series, feels like an ending to that series and there will never be a part of me that chooses for McKay’s stories to end. She’s such a gifted, genuine, lovely storyteller that I get greedy and hungry and desperate for them to continue. I love what she does. Binny Bewitched then gets five stars, because it is perfect, and yet it’s not because I feel like this is it, but then it is perfect because it is here and it reads like soup and quilts and snow on a school morning.

What makes Binny Bewitched so wonderful is the way it hangs on a cusp of growth. There aren’t many writers who can transition well from one age group to another within the same text; from boyhood to manhood, from girlhood to womanhood. It’s a complicated moment and it’s one that, I wonder now, I haven’t described particularly well. Maybe it’s better to pull it back to the idea of moments; moments when you look at somebody and see a friend, but then, one day, you look at them and see something different. Something new and sharp and wonderful. Something else. Or when you’re walking down the road, and you see something that you’ve seen a thousand days, but then, suddenly, it means something totally different. Shifts. Changes.

Adèle Geras does this well. and Susie Day is, I suspect, another author who gets it. Who understands that moment when the world makes sense and then suddenly reforms to make another sort of sense. A different sort of sense. And that’s what Binny Bewitched captures, so wonderfully, that difference between the self you are and the self you will be. Binny is a wonderful character. She’s stubborn, tempestuous, funny, brave, passionate, confused, perfect. She’s everything, and this book is lovely and I hope this isn’t the end for this series but if it is, what a way to go out. And why we haven’t given McKay the Freedom of Children’s Literature yet, I do not know.

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Girl Online : Zoe Sugg

Girl Online: The First Novel by ZoellaGirl Online: The First Novel by Zoella by Zoe Sugg

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Penny, aka GirlOnline, blogs about her life and the panic attacks she suffers from. Following a chain of circumstance, she ends up spending Christmas in New York with her family. Whilst there she meets Noah and the two of them fall in love. Penny blogs, Penny falls in love. But Noah’s got a secret …

I’ve kept an eye on Girl Online ever since it was published and the saga around it’s authorship became public. Whilst I’m not interested in a review about the nature of ghostwriters nor parsing the nature of this text for traces of that experience, I am interested in what this book is and I’m interested in why, always, I see it on reservation for people. It’s being read. Immensely. And I can’t deny the relevance of that nor of Zoella herself.

So. Girl Online is rather lovely. It’s not Dostoyevksy (nor should it be and if you think it should be then we need to talk) but what it is is a novel which wears its heart on its sleeve in a rather wonderful manner. I genuinely enjoyed it.

Where it shines is in its relateability. It read a little younger than I thought it would, but there’s something rather delightful in how overt and emphatic it is. It doesn’t hold back from itself nor the tone of that; it’s very intense, very lovely and delightful. There’s a hint of innocence about it that’s also oddly intriguing; it’s not a book that dwells in the darkness. Conflict is introduced, resolved, and the happy ending is reached. There is space in the world for books like this, and this is so emphatically determined to reach a happy ending that I can’t deny it, I can’t.

Girl Online is a genuine, intense, innocent (I wonder if it’s almost naive at points?), sugary and rather lovely in a very particular sort of way book. It’s hard to resist. And whether I credit that to Curham, Sugg, or both, I don’t know. What I do know is that this book surprised me. And I like that, I like that a lot.

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Looking at the Stars : Jo Cotterill

Looking at the StarsLooking at the Stars by Jo Cotterill

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amina tells stories. She has an imagination, a powerful one, and it’s been her companion throughout the war that has ravaged her country. Her family have felt the impact of this differently, but they are together. That is enough. That is enough to survive. But then things start to change, and slide horribly out of control and Amina’s family life is shattered. Nothing will ever be the same again. Will Amina ever tell a story again? What’s going to happen to her family?

I am reading some good, good books lately. This, a tale of family and refugees and the terrible impact of war, is one of them and had me utterly in tears at the ending. Looking At The Stars is a book about imagination, voice and the power of story. It is also a book about the worst of humanity, and how people can so easily shift into horrific violence. It is, as you may imagine, hard to judge this sort of tone in a book for young readers and I think one of the strengths of this is that it is set in a fictional environment. This could be anywhere; there are echoes of Iraq, Afghanistan but also of Nazi Germany and the cumulative impact of this is to create a fictional ‘everyplace’ where, in a way, the story gains more immediacy precisely because it could be anywhere. It could be anywhere.

Cotterill pitches Looking At The Stars perfectly; she writes with a sympathetic warmth which doesn’t shy away from detailing some of the more graphic incidents that occur throughout the narrative. There are some which are difficult to read (as ever, read the book if you are working with it and know the context of the children you work with) but they are never gratuitous. They are painful, heartbreaking, emotional, but they are never poorly handled. It’s a great skill to have and one that gives this book its great strength. It is a story about stories and storytelling, and the delicious edge of that isn’t dulled. If anything, it’s sharpened through Cotterill’s restrained and quiet prose and her beautiful ability to see the wonder in a starlit sky. What a book this is.

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What’s A Girl Gotta Do? Holly Bourne

What's a Girl Gotta Do? (The Spinster Club, #3)What’s a Girl Gotta Do? by Holly Bourne

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Activate yourself” That was the take-home quote from a talk I attended the other day. The speaker was Sandi Toksvig who was eloquent, smart and spoke painfully on the erasure of women from politics. Activate yourself. She started a political party.

And I read a book.

I read this, really, devoured it, in a couple of hours, because Holly Bourne is on fire here and this is the sort of book that should be mandatory for every teen everywhere. I can’t praise it enough. There’s a niche in today’s society that I wish didn’t exist but it does. Sexism. Gendered Politics. Double Standards. What’s A Girl Gotta Do? investigates that niche and challenges it – everything about it. For one month Lottie challenges herself to call out every instance of sexism she witnesses. And it is exhausting, and terrifying and heartbreaking, but my God, so brave and so powerful to let her do it. To let this story bang its drum and to be told. This is vital, pulsing story and it’s brilliant. Bourne writes with rage and with love and with heart.

This is what young adult literature does. It investigates. It challenges. It lays bare the best and worst of people and it asks the reader to decide who they’re going to be. What’s A Girl Gotta Do? is challenging, delicious, delightful and brilliant. Shelve this with books like Trouble and Asking For It and let them ask the question that needs to be asked: how are you going to activate yourself?

Fire, fire in every word, heart and soul (and a lot of cheese based snacks), What’s A Girl Gotta Do? is outstanding. I was going to save this review for next week. I couldn’t wait. Books like this make me evangelical.

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Fifty Shades of Feminism : eds Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes & Susie Orbach

Fifty Shades of FeminismFifty Shades of Feminism by Lisa Appignanesi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fifty Shades of Feminism is a collection of short, bitesize pieces from a range of “some of the most significant feminists of our time”. The list is impressive, juxtaposing Alison Bechdel with Elaine Showalter with Sandi Toksvig and Kathy Lette amongst many other equally talented writers and voices. The editors are overt in acknowledging that limiting the book to fifty was a struggle; and there’s something in me that’s both proud and sad of that. A struggle because the voices are out there and demanding to be heard, and yet, the options for them to be heard are so limited, so tight –

There are omissions, naturally, as with every compendium of this nature. I’d have welcomed some more diversely formatted entries; illustration features, and yet, I want more, somehow, always.

Of the many entries that left me staring and breathless, Laura Dockrill’s entry captivated me. It’s a handwritten piece sprawling across two pages and yet, I didn’t somehow figure this out until I was halfway down one page and loving the free, blank verse. Sentences that ran together as fluid, questioning prose across both pages, broke up and became direct, wonderful things: “that’s your job handing out / purpose. Become a woman”. A wilful misreading, yes, but one that left me breathless.

Maybe that’s the thing about compilations of this nature. There will always be omissions but there will always be space. And that’s what we need to find, need to occupy, need to own –

Shelve this with Louise O’Neill, with Holly Bourne, and allow the questions to be formed –

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Binny Keeps a Secret : Hilary McKay

Binny Keeps a SecretBinny Keeps a Secret by Hilary McKay

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Binny Keeps A Secret sees Binny join a new school. This doesn’t go terribly well, and Binny is thrilled when a bad storm hits the town and wrecks the roof of their house. They have to move to a rented property in the countryside whilst the roof gets fixed. Clearly, this means that Binny won’t have to go to school, but life’s never straightforward for her. Binny has to go to school and she has to deal with the hideousity (tm Louise Rennison) but then, Binny discovers a great secret about their new house…

There are books that live and die on character, I think, books that have a voice so distinct and palpable and intense, that you can you can forgive them those moments where the structure is a little uneven or where the ending is a little sharp because the book itself is so gorgeous, so madly gorgeous, that you don’t care. You’re reading and it is good and you want that moment to live forever. I could read these Binny books forever.

A part of me wants to give Hilary McKay the freedom of children’s literature. I know there’s no such thing, but McKay’s books make me want to scream and shout and be all “just go look, look at how good she is, and how good these books are”. Binny Keeps A Secret is a little older, a little wiser, but still delightfully Binny. Binny is voice, I think, tumultous, life-living, complex, chaotic, vivid, beautiful voice. She’s an astonishing character. She makes me want to have written her and yet, I know I never could do her justice in the way that McKay does.

This is a book of voice. Of character. Life. It is messy, pretty, beautiful, foolish. It’s full of people. Family. Laughter. Loathing. And Hilary McKay is one of the best, the very best.

Now let’s talk again about that freedom of children’s literature thing…

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Tennis Shoes : Noel Streatfeild

Tennis Shoes (Shoes, #2)Tennis Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Streatfeild season comes when you least expect it. For me, it came earlier this week with the sight of Tennis Shoes on a library trolley, and then, as I read it and the evenings started to twist around the end of Summer and things like Yorkshire puddings and joints of beef found their way into the fridge, I realised that it was most definitely Streatfeild season and it was good. It was time for the rich books, the books of tumultous family and bright, hard-working children that don’t jib and don’t jibe but just do , yet never, somehow, irritate.

I’d never read Tennis Shoes before. It is … very …. tennisy. But! It is also rather lovely. It’s a madly readable book written in that relaxed, rich style of Streatfeild. The family is immense, close, loving, annoying, and the children are delights. There’s always a part of me that loves the complex child in these stories because they are, so often, the richest of characters. Nicky, here, is spectacularly irritating but also spectacularly brilliant. The contradiction of character. Streatfeild revels in it. There’s much here in the family and sibling dynamics that reminded me of A Vicarage Family; both books have this kind of delightful rich, direct tone about them.

The big difficulty about Tennis Shoes comes with its structure. It finishes far too soon and almost offhandedly. There’s a great, immense book here that could have been something rather brilliant, I suspect, but we only get to see a fragment of it. It’s a good fragment, and a delightful read, yet it’s a fragment shorn from something bigger. There’s more of a story, and the ending is too soon. But then, I suppose with Streatfeild, it always sort of is.

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The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo : Catherine Johnson

The Curious Tale of the Lady CarabooThe Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo by Catherine Johnson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Rich, vivid storytelling; The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo is written with such power and verve that it made me greedy. I wanted more. Much more. Johnson’s novel is based on a real tale of a girl who was not herself. She adopted personas and identities and stories, really, in order to be somebody different and to make her life a little easier. This time, the girl chooses her new life after a dark and sharply horrific event makes her want to leave the last one behind. The blink of an eye, and the girl is the Lady Caraboo, a mysterious figure from a far away land. And with this new identity comes problems of its very own….

I’ve a lot of love for Johnson’s work, though I’ve not read nearly enough. (sidebar: Brave New Girl is a gorgeously rooted story of Hackney and the Olympics and one I do recommend most heartily). The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo has been on my to read list for a while, and it doesn’t disappoint. It opens with a twisty, fragmentary, glass-sharp sequence of scenes (persevere with this opening because it pays off) before the story settles into something quite remarkable.

It’s an intensely filmic story. If ever a story begged for visual adaptation, The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo does. Some of the sequences are wonderful and awful, and much of their impact comes from Johnson’s clean, genuine prose. She’s not afraid of giving the raw edge of life here, the shadow beneath the pretense, and some of the scenes are much better for it. Do note though, that there’s a scene at the start which might prove problematic for the younger scale of young adult; yet do equally note that this scene is intensely relevant for the narrative as it stands. As ever, read, and then make your call. This book is powerful and it tells a story that needs to be told.

I loved this. Johnson has this great gift of story and to be frank, one of the reasons that this is not a full five star rave is that I wanted more. Books like this make me so greedy.

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Three go to the Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Three Go to the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #24)Three Go to the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of my favourite films is Stagecoach, which stars John Wayne. There’s a shot in this film (which you can see here) that makes John Wayne a star. The camera swings into him with such exuberance, and then when it meets him, it keeps going and ends up framed on that face. This is a director making a star, and it’s the first thing I thought of when I reread Three Go To The Chalet School. This is a book where several big characters debut: Mary-Lou Trelawney, Verity-Ann Carey and Clem Barras, and it’s a book which features several of the landmark incidents of the series. You know the sorts of incidents I mean; they’re the ones that somebody indirectly mentions thirty seven books later and everyone laughs, and you’ve not actually read the book that the original incident occurs in, so you’re just all well whatever …

I’m digressing. Three Go To The Chalet School’s a well told book, and it’s purposeful and direct. A lot of it takes place outside of the school and I rather love that. Much of that also speaks to the calibre of the new characters we’re about to meet; the new girl usually gets a bit of backstory, but that backstory halts when they get to school. This time it doesn’t, and the adults remain constantly present throughout. I rather love that. The more I read these books, the more I start to realise that perhaps the great longevity of them is precisely that constant adult presence. It’s in the way that we see inside the staffroom (was it just me who was fascinated with what went on in there?) and become party to adult discussions. These are school stories, yes, but there’s a whole world in there. But then, isn’t that the girls’ school story genre in a nutshell? That expression of femine power and absolute strength, wielded in a constructed and fiercely delineated space of gender parity and uniquely formed ideology?

The school is the world, always.

One other thing to adore about Three Go To The Chalet School is how Brent-Dyer handles Joey. Joey, at this point, had undergone something of an awkward transition. Still at school, but not. Mother, lover, schoolgirl, adult, writer. And here, Brent-Dyer sort of manages to relax with her and step away from that awkward effort to pigeonhole a character who denies such easy categorisation. Joey Maynard climbs trees and then goes inside and darns socks. She helps people through deep, lasting trauma and she plays slides on the drawing room floor. It’s rather delightful because it’s so unforced and through that lack of concern, she becomes intensely real.

I lied. There is a final, final thing to adore about Three Go To The Chalet School and it is a moment right at the end of the book with Clem and Tony Barrass. I won’t outline the situation, just in case you’ve not read in it, but there is a line here that makes me cry, every time. It’s a line borne out of life and living and of hurting, I think, and it reminds me how good Brent-Dyer really really could be.

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Through The Mirror Door : Sarah Baker

Through the Mirror DoorThrough the Mirror Door by Sarah Baker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I need to tell you a little bit about the background of this review. I was originally offered a review copy of Through The Mirror Door, which I declined. The reason for that is because I share an agent with Sarah Baker and it all felt a little bit too close to home. One of the great things I value about my blog is that it is honest and objective. I think it’s very important to maintain that standard, and the thought of reviewing something that was so near to me felt a little weird (and indeed, forms one of the points on this list of why I don’t review things).

I debated for a long time over accepting the review copy but I declined. Reluctantly. But then I ordered it from the library, because I suspected that was a way around things for me. I could read it in private and figure out if I could write about it. If I should. And I could also give my library some issue statistics at the same time.

And so here I am, writing a review about a book that I didn’t think I could write, and I’m writing it because that book is really rather lovely. Through The Mirror Door fits squarely into the very golden tradition of adventure stories and speaks quite distinctly to Philippa Pearce and Tom’s Midnight Garden, but also that E Nesbit vibe of strong and distinct heroines who can Solve Problems and Face Up To Things and Be Rather Plucky About IT All.

This is such a lovely story. It’s set in an atmospheric, crumbly old French house. The orphaned Angela is on holiday there with her ‘maybe-new-family’ of distant relatives, and she discovers a secret in the house. And it’s a secret that needs saving…

Through the Mirror Door is quietly accomplished and some of the plot twists in it were immensely well handled. Subtlety is a gift that a lot of people lack, they signpost things, but Baker doesn’t. She has such a warm and genuine style, that much of this reads like a much more sympathetic Famous Five adventure. Creaking doors. Shadows in the night. Horrible relatives. I will always love books that do what they do with such aplomb. And here’s the thing; I suspect that Through The Mirror Door isn’t the limit of Baker’s writing. I suspect that there’s more to come.

Good books will always make me write about them.

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The Power of Dark : Robin Jarvis

The Power of DarkThe Power of Dark by Robin Jarvis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I grew up near Whitby. It’s a gorgeous, wild place. It hinges on the great jaws of the West and East Cliff and when you stand there, on that bridge between the two sides of the town, you can feel the whole world rolling in off the sea to greet you. This is a strange, evocative town that you have to earn. Jennet and Ben, back in The Whitby Witches have to earn their presence within Whitby. They don’t get there easily nor painlessly, but they end up there when they’re needed. When they have to be. Whitby is a space between the worlds, a thin gauze between the human and the other, and such a town needs protectors. Aunt Alice was one.

Cherry Cerise is another. She’s the last of the Whitby Witches; a delicious bit of writing that I can adore and marry for it is perfect. This town has guardians, protectors, and it needs them right now because Whitby is facing its newest – and maybe darkest – hour. Young friends, Lil and Verne, embroiled in events they can’t begin to understand have to stand with Cherry and save their town from the brink of destruction.

I am a fan of Robin Jarvis. He writes big, British fantasy; stories that root themselves resolutely in space and place and explore the darkness of what may happen and what has already happened there. One distinguishing mark of his work are his great and deeply distinct illustrations. The Power Of Dark sings with little inked notes throughout; a sigil, the curve of a *spoiler* or the eyes of the Aufwaders who I had not realised how much I had loved and missed until I saw them look out at me from the pages.

The Power of Dark is the first in a series. A trilogy, I’m guessing. Jarvis fits well into trilogies and the rhythm of them; and this does have the mark of an overarching saga that makes me itch with potential. The Power of Dark is perhaps for a slightly younger audience than you may have expected, but even then, that’s a complex call to make because certain scenes are spine tingling and sharp and not to be read in the dark. I suspect this is one that might be quite fluid when it comes to age based reccomendations.

One other thing to note about The Power Of Dark is that I rather like the fact that it’s so exuberantly unnerving. Jarvis throws everything into this with a sort of delicious glee; there’s steampunk, goths, aufwaders, historic flashbacks, and witches. And it’s great. It rips along with an intense and madly engendering joy. This is a book that was, I suspect, begging to be written for a long time. And I’m really rather glad it was. The Power Of Dark is something that should be in the world, it really should. We are better for it.

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Edit: 07/08/2016 – Robin has confirmed via Twitter (Twitter’s ace, isn’t it?) that there are going to be four books in this series. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go and shriek with bookish joy…

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An Island of Our Own : Sally Nicholls