The Kingdoms – Natasha Pulley

We’ve all got favourite authors but sometimes it feels like I don’t have room (in my head, my heart or my bookshelves) for a new favourite. But then I realise that I’m kidding myself – all three areas have always got just enough space for another quality writer. Especially if I can find somewhere to squeeze another bookcase…Natasha Pulley has, quite quickly, become one of those authors I will gravitate to whenever they have a new book out. She has a particular blend of utterly believable alternate history, complex and humane characters and well-developed plots that keep me coming back for more – so The Kingdoms was always going to make my reading pile. 

9781526623157The story partly involves the disappearance of three keepers from a lighthouse and, as such, bears a certain amount of resemblance to The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex. This tale, however, is set at the scene of the most famous lighthouse mystery, Eilean Mor off the coast of the Outer Hebrides. The alternative historical nature of the book, however, is key as the central character, Joe Tournier, finds himself in a London which makes no sense to him. He steps off a train from Scotland to find that he can remember nothing about his journey but somehow feels that everything is wrong – England is a French colony, has been since Nelson lost the Battle of Trafalgar, slavery is endemic and the English language is seen as subversive. Without quite knowing why, apart from a mysterious postcard signed by an M, Joe takes a job with a company involved with lighthouses. He ends up visiting the recently built Eilean Mor light but finds it deserted and, from some angles, an aging ruin. And then the time-slipping fun begins…

Great, but terribly damaged characters, a plot you really need to concentrate for and a love story based on risking your entire past to try and make a better future this is a novel which was hugely emotional and intensely satisfying. Status on my favourite authors list is confirmed.


Ariadne – Jennifer Saint

In case you hadn’t noticed, feminist or LGBT+ centred retellings of Classical Greek myths and legends are still a huge thing. BookTok (which I’m really far too old to get into…) has got so many people excited about Madeline Miller’s Circe and Song of Achilles, and Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls continues the Trojan theme; Homer himself is seeing increased sales too as are books of the original myths – this is a fascinating subject which has always intrigued readers so it is interesting to see that a slightly different approach has boosted this interest among younger readers.

59996316._SY475_Jennifer Saint has given us a novel based on the tales of Theseus and the Minotaur but, instead of focusing on either of these, better-known, characters, she centres the tale around Ariadne, a Princess of Crete, and her younger sister, Phaedra. These are women who have appeared in other books (Phedre, by Racine for example) but now, instead of just being the women who are judged by their relationships to their fathers, brothers or husbands, they are given the chance to tell their own stories. They are still related to the Minotaur and King Minos, and still both fall in love with Theseus, but we see events from their point of view. Although we see that they are aware of the loyalties they owe their country, as daughters of the king, we also see that they are fully aware of the cruelties than King Minos inflicts on his family, his people and his enemies – they are young girls who make mistakes based on emotional responses but they become women who know their own minds. Their lives are not always easy but they do manage to achieve a level of agency. At which point, their only issue is the reaction of the gods themselves….


The power of Pratchett

As you may have noticed I have not been reading and blogging much recently. For the first time I didn’t quite make my (admittedly substantial) GoodReads Reading Challenge target and I haven’t posted a review on here since *checks date* far too long ago. Something has, obviously, gone a bit wonky in the reading part of my head so I have turned to one of my sure fire cures – The Power of Pratchett! If Pratchett isn’t your thing replace his work with that of whichever author gives you pleasure, comfort and is a joy to read. When I was at University (back when Sir Terry was still fitting writing around a day job) and studying Literature I used to relax by reading endless Mills and Boon, among other things, so I am never going to judge your choice of comfort read. With this in mind, I have been alternating rereading Pratchetts with new books and it seems to be doing the trick.

Equal Rites – Terry Pratchett

9780552166614I eased into the year with the master’s first take on issues of gender equality and it was, as ever, a joy to read. I thoroughly enjoyed reliving my first introduction to Granny Weatherwax and her indomitable spirit – well, she’d call it something like that and the wizards would just call it stubborn – and the fact that other favourite characters (Death and the Librarian) appear too. If you’ve never read it the story revolves around how Eskarina Smith discovers that, while the eighth son of an eighth son who has inherited a magic staff can become a powerful wizard, there are major problems when that son turns out to be a daughter. Plumbing at Unseen University for a start. Pratchett is marvellously feminist in his outlook yet never fails to show us the prejudices from all sides – even Granny has to rethink a few ideas! This set me up nicely to reading…

Babes in the Wood – Mark Stay

9781471197994This is the second book in a series which began with The Crow Folk and continues the story of Faye Bright, a young woman coping with World War II, the loss of her mother, first romances, oh, and training as a witch. (See what reading Equal Rites did for me?) This time she is dealing with a group of German children who have arrived in Woodville via the Kindertransport, the local landed gentry, the threat of Nazi spies and always having to be the one who did the boring jobs at coven meetings. Throw in some terrifying visions and working out how to deal with the fact that Bertie seems to have a huge crush on her and Faye really does have a lot to think about.

The book has great characters from Faye, through her two fellow witches, Mrs Teach and Miss Charlotte, to Mr Gilbert and Mr Brewer the antique dealers who share civil defense shifts with Bertie and the mysterious Lord and Lady Aston who take in the refugee children. The children are, in many ways, the stars of the whole book: they have lived through traumas but the adults who have got them this far have helped shelter them enough that their irrepressible natures shine through. The youngest, Rudolf, is particularly endearing in his efforts to help with the injured servicemen also billeted with the Astons. The plot is exciting and nicely complicated and the whole novel is a good blend of serious issues (like the horrors of the Holocaust) and a slightly irreverent humour. I look forward to the next episode.

The Twyford Code – Janice Hallett

The power of Pratchett had me pushing on through to The Twyford Code, the second book by the author of The Appeal (a bestseller which I managed to miss reading during my reading dryish patch, but which I sold lots of). I’ll admit being drawn in by the intriguing cover design but I was then quickly gripped by the story itself and the way it is told. We are initially told that what follows are voice recordings, transcribed phonetically in places, and then we are thrown straight into the mystery.

9781788165310Steven Smith was a troubled child and has grown into a rather rootless adult. Recently out of prison, where he discovered the joys of reading late in life, he decides to try and solve the puzzle of what happened to the one teacher he connected with at school. Miss Isles, in charge of a remedial English group, struck a chord with the young Steven when she read to the class from a book he found on a bus. She tells them the book is banned, although, in fact, it is a Blytonesque adventure story whose main sin is snobbishness and a lack of connection with the world Steven and his classmates endure: the class are gripped by the tale nevertheless. Miss Isles takes the group on an unofficial trip to visit the home of the book’s author, Edith Twyford, and, at this point, Steven’s memories falter – Miss Isles vanishes from their lives, a tragedy in Steven’s family leads him to stop attending school and the class lose touch. Now Steven attempts to find his old classmates, find out what happened to Miss Isles and solve the code which many people swear is contained in Twyford’s books.

The phonetic rendering of Steven’s voice recordings, often made without the awareness of the person he is talking to, meant it took a while to get to grips with him as a character but I was soon drawn in to his story. His terrible home life, his failed relationships and his efforts to reconnect with his classmates turned him into a very real person for me and I was constantly trying to second guess what secrets he was uncovering. I’m actually thrilled that I was utterly wrong in almost everything I guessed. A really gripping read.

Guards! Guards! – Terry Pratchett

To round things off – and as a sort of personal reward – I returned to Pratchett and the first of the City Watch novels. Which always struck me as a sort of fantasy fiction version of Bladerunner – endless rain, a city full of low-level criminals and a world-weary detective – and that is in no way a complaint. Of course Bladerunner was rather lighter on dragons, magic and sausages inna bun but that was Ridley Scott’s loss, in my opinion.

15796725I adore all the members of the City Watch, cynical Vimes, anything for a quiet life Colon, the impressive and charismatic Carrot and the frankly furtive Nobby. They are the personification of every cop character ever but, more than that, they almost feel like they are the originals (since I am quite happy to believe that, to quote a totally different writer, there are eddys in the space-time continuum which would make this work…) Lord Vetinari, Patrician of Ankh Morpork (who doesn’t so much rule the city as make sure it rules itself), Lady Sybil Ramkin, breeder of swamp dragon and the Librarian also feature in a plot which sees a group of underdogs try to gain the upper hand by employing a, well, blooming huge dragon. The fast-paced humour, larger than life characters and witty footnotes all combine with a strong satirical streak which makes the Discworld, despite its fantasy setting, as real as our own.


Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way (to quote Tolstoy)

Finding that I need to catch up with reviews (again) I realised that I have just read a group of books which all feature characters dealing with family issues. Some huge, some slightly daft and some rather more relatable but all very important to those they are affecting – the differences between these experiences led me to a quotation from Anna Karenina and, like summer following spring, onto another round-up post…

Black Water Sister – Zen Cho

Let’s start at the more surreal end of the range. I read and enjoyed a couple of Cho’s earlier books which were a glorious mix of magic and Regency school stories with a quick side trip into faeryland so I knew to expect something a little, um, arcane. What I got was a blend of contemporary family story, with our main character, Jess, hiding her sexuality from her parents, and a tale of hauntings, past betrayals and a vengeful goddess. Tolstoy never thought of that one!

9781447299998Jess and her family move back to Malaysia, the country of her birth, when her father’s illness has destroyed their finances. She thinks the worst she will have to deal with is separation from her girlfriend (and keeping her secret from the family) but then she starts hearing voices. Well, one voice. Who claims to be her recently deceased grandmother Ah Ma. Jess will need to help Ah Ma seek revenge on a gang lord trying to develop a piece of land sacred to a local spirit – although the spirit, the Black Water Sister, seems to be doing a good job of delaying work herself by causing a series of accidents which have the workers very worried. As if this wasn’t enough she will need to sort out her own relationships, decide where her future lies and try to help the poorly treated migrant workers she meets on the development site.

I really enjoyed the blend of Jess’s more Western sensibilities and the strange magical settings. There are plenty of amusing moments and, for Jess in particular, some rather frightening ones. Her main problem, in the end, boils down to trying to work out, for herself and for her wider family, who she really is and what her future life will be like.

Son of the Storm – Suyi Davies Okungbowa

I’ve been hearing a lot about Afrofuturism recently and while this book is more fantasy than sci-fi it is certainly based on African culture, history and mythology. (A quick Google tells me I should probably think of it as ‘afrocentric fantasy’ – either way, it is a cracking story with a cast of fascinating characters.) Whatever, I love mythologies, wherever they are from – I’ve always had a soft spot for the Silmarillion for example….

9780356515823Danso is a talented student – he is training to become a sort of druid/storyteller – but he is not accepted as a full member of the elite because his mother was an outsider, from far beyond the main city of Bassa. His mother is dead so his father and uncles have decided to marry him Esheme – also on the borders of society but the daughter of the city’s most powerful ‘fixer’ – to try and give him (and them) a secure future. Esheme is a student too, her plans are more geared towards the legal professions, but she is interested in her mother’s work too – this girl craves power. Add in a mysterious outsider – Lilong – whose very presence, and the strange power she wields, seems to strike fear into the city’s rulers. Danso must decide whether to side with his city (which he can see has huge flaws) or a potentially lethal stranger and powers he may not be able to control.  And, well, we already know that Danso is the sort of person who prefers to look beyond the rules.

This book has some really interesting characters (including a few you don’t like but you can’t look away from) and a well-built world. It is also the first in a series (planned as a trilogy, next book due Summer 2022) so I look forward to seeing just what happens next for Danso, Esheme and Lilong.

Hana Khan Carries On – Uzma Jalaluddin

Just to prove that not all family issues are centred around magic and murderous intentions let’s turn to a rom-com for a little light relief. Jalaluddin’s first book was a Muslim take on Pride and Prejudice: this time she has her sights on the film You’ve Got Mail…

57922223._SY475_Hana’s family runs a small halal restaurant in an area of Toronto known as the Golden Crescent. Like many girls of her generation Hana and her sister have been allowed to follow their dreams by their parents. No arranged marriages or enforced burqas – instead Hana is an intern at a local radio station, working towards her chosen career as a broadcaster, and her sister was a talented footballer who could easily have turned professional. Society, however, is not quite as liberal as the Khan family – the radio station seems to prefer Hana’s fellow (male) intern for the one permanent position and her sister’s career is brought to a sudden end by a government ban on head-coverings in sport (which seems to be based on real-life situations in the first decade or so of the C21st). The story itself centres on the arrival of a rival restaurant, with an owner Hana wants to hate but who she finds very attractive, a visit from Indian cousin Rashid (who Hana starts to believe must be part of the Indian mafia rather than a trainee accountant) and the arrival of a previously unknown aunt who turns out to be a complete rebel.

Full of action and some great characters (especially Rashid and devil-may-care Aunt Billi) this is a romance with a social message. It doesn’t shy away from the harsh facts of racism and hate-crime but it also shows how neighbourhoods can pull together to support all the communities contained there. And also, with help from Aunt Billi, Hana is able to decide what she really wants in life, how to be true to herself and who is worthy of her time, effort and heart.


Something to look forward to?

I’m someone who likes to enjoy life. If I can’t have the big things – like the holiday to Italy we had planned for 2020 – then I hope I will find something else to enjoy instead – the wonderful weather we had during the spring of 2020 and the fact that I live in a beautiful part of West Yorkshire with lots of excellent opportunities for walks and runs. My daily government-sanctioned exercise was something to look forward to (especially once I was allowed to sit with a book or a sketchpad too) and my garden is still feeling the benefits of my times on furlough. It sounds a bit ‘Pollyanna’, I know, but I’d rather be happy with what I have than miserable about what I’m not allowed to do. That said, there were things I did miss during lockdown – seeing friends and family in person mostly – and one of them was work. I love being on holiday from my job but an enforced absence of many, many weeks was tough. I missed the books, my colleagues and the customers. I especially missed talking about books with customers: recommending and being recommended to or just little metaphorical high-fives when we agree on how brilliant a particular book is. Family and friends I could phone or Zoom but I missed the customers, acquaintances and complete strangers… Let’s just say I’m really happy to be back at even modest levels of normality. Which leads me to the thing I’m looking forward to next – the return of Bradford Literature Festival! It isn’t going to be as big as previous years – there will be far fewer events and each of them will be much smaller to allow for social distancing so book early– but there will be authors, there will be books and there will be those wonderful, wonderful conversations with people I’ve never met before (but who will turn out to be kindred spirits as we bond over novels and poems or really, really beautiful book jackets). Even though it is a smaller event I haven’t read all the titles which will be featured but here are a few I have. The Khan – Saima Mir 31567976._SY475_I first came across Saima Mir when I read her piece in the fabulous It’s Not About the Burqa, writing about being an emancipated, divorced, Muslim woman. Although this book never mentions the Northern city it is set in the fact that Mir has lived in Bradford (and the fact that there is a Morley Street and a 620 bus – big clues!) means that it is easy to see this novel unfolding in our streets. It is also easy to see, in the strength of the main character, Jia Khan, an emancipated, modern Muslim woman. Jia’s family, however, owes more to a world of crime – her father is the head of a local organized crime syndicate – and it is this world which she is thrown into when her father is murdered. Her younger brother is hot-headed, and far too emotional, so it falls to Jian to take control of an organisation she had tried to escape from years before. This is a gripping novel with an incredibly strong female lead – in two worlds where the world assumes women either don’t belong or are naturally subservient. A heady mix of A.A. Dhand* and Martina Cole. Six Tudor Queens: Katharine Parr, The Sixth Wife – Alison Weir 57433693._SY475_This is, obviously, a complete change of mood from contemporary crime to a piece of biographical fiction. But there are also a lot of similarities if you look below the surface. Like Jia, Katherine Parr is shown to us to be a young woman with a past full of tragedy and a future full of hard decisions. Both women have to take up a role they didn’t really want, in order to achieve an end which means a huge amount to them. In the case of Katherine Parr we see her life prior to her involvement with Henry VIII – two marriages, two widowhoods and beloved step-children, and a new way of thinking about her relationship with religion – and then the marriage which brought her to the attention of history as the sixth, and final, wife of an aging king. What I particularly enjoy about Weir’s telling of the lives of Henry VIII’s wives is the fact that we are able to get an idea of what their marriages were like from their perspectives. Henry’s quite understandable obsession with fathering an heir is well known but, certainly after about the second wife, it can be hard to see why (beyond the sheer power of the Royal command) women were eager to wed him. In the case of Katherine Parr (in an echo of her predecessor, the tragic Katheryn Howard) she was poised to finally choose to marry for love when she caches the eye of the king. Through her eyes we see Henry as a sad figure, almost broken by Katheryn’s betrayal, who still has the ability to be kind and charming. His physical disabilities and despotic temperament are there but I also felt hugely sorry for him at time. And Katherine? She marries power in order to promote her religious convictions – a dangerous course to take in the circumstances but one which works for her, leaving her free to marry her true love. Part of the joy of reading good historical fiction is that you know how the stories will end. The pleasure of reading Alison Weir is that she almost makes you believe that Katherine Parr will have the happy ending she seems to so richly deserve…. Jane *Do not fear – the Bradford Literature Festival will be featuring a new book from A.A. Dhand. And, as soon as I finish reading it, I will be posting a review…

Back to proper grown-up reading again…

After my last post, rounding up children’s books, here are a few of the adult fiction novels I need to tell you about…

The Manningtree Witches – A K Blakemore

A few years ago I read, and loved, The Familiars by Stacey Halls – a story centred around the Pendle witch trials in the early Seventeenth Century – so I was interested to read this book, set a few decades later in my home county of Essex.

9781783786435This slightly later date means that we are now in the era of the English Civil war and, like so much of the country, the village of Manningtree has lost many of its men in the warring armies. Many of the women who remain are widows, old and poor – the least important people according to male society, but, in reality they were the ones who helped in times of illness, childbirth and death. When a young man called Matthew Hopkins buys one of the village’s inns he seems more interested in the ‘wise women’ of the area than in beer and the whole of the more ‘genteel’ segment of the area begin to turn against those they had previously turned to for assistance. We see the story unfold through the eyes of Rebecca West, whose mother would win any ‘most likely to be a witch’ contest in the area, and her growing feelings for a young clerk who is teaching her to read – so we consider the fate of maidens as well as that of crones and mothers.

As ever, this tale of witch-hunts and religious fervour shows the perils of being poor and female. The strong minded, intelligent and unattached seem to be in the greatest danger (or as seen as the greatest evil by jealous women and fearful men). The language used to describe the bleak Essex coastal landscape, the difficult lives of the villagers and the brutal treatment of the accused women is elegant and almost poetic – a glorious contrast to the lives described.

Bright Burning Things – Lisa Harding

9781526624468This is another tale of a woman struggling against a society she doesn’t quite fit into. Sonya used to be an actress living a life full of passion, glamour and attention. Now she is Tommy’s mother and she is afraid that she can’t do it. She drinks too much, even though she tries not to, never has enough money, and tries to recreate her past life by driving her beaten up old car too fast or swimming too far out from the beach. Other people’s attempts to make her calm down and conform, to send Tommy to school, seem like interference to Sonya – in many ways we can see that she is a terrible mother but she and Tommy, and their rescue dog Herbie, love each other so much we really want her to find a way out of her addictions. After an incident which hovers very near tragedy Sonya agrees to try rehab and also accepts help from a man she meets in a pizza takeaway. The descriptions of her time in the rehabilitation unit, run by nuns, and of her separation from Tommy are quite harrowing and her knight in shining armour also is not as good a man as he first appears: this is certainly no easy path to redemption for Sonya.

Not an easy read and you don’t always like Sonya but, by god, you are gripped by her story and, towards the end, you are cheering her on in the hope that, this time, she can get her life onto a sustainable course.

The Lamplighters – Emma Stonex

9781529047318Although this novel does look at the lives of three women whose lives are changed by the events at Maiden Rock lighthouse off the Cornish coast it also shows us the experiences of the lighthouse keepers themselves. But at the heart of the story is the mystery surrounding the disappearance of the three keepers in the early 1970s – when the boat arrives to deliver supplies and take one of the keepers for his turn ashore all three have gone, the doors are locked from the inside and there is no sign of any fight or altercation. The investigation can’t discover where the men went but we return to it when a journalist decides to try and uncover the truth twenty years later. His conversations with Helen, Jenny and Michelle give us more details about the lives they lived ashore and before becoming keepers and they are interspersed with episodes on Maiden Rock, which become more and more ominous as the fateful day looms.

This novel investigates the grief of the women who are left behind but also the complex psychology of the three keepers. The tragedies and family histories which led them to their careers and the secrets they keep from each other and their wives combine to create an atmosphere which becomes ever more oppressive. The story the journalist uncovers and the story we see developing are certainly not the same – part of the glory of reading Lamplighters is the fact that, at the end, you still have to wonder in your own mind about exactly what happened… Hugely enjoyable and kind of frustrating at the same time!


More lockdown reading: Children’s books…

Let’s just agree not to talk about how long it is taking between book posts, okay? Let’s just say there is stuff happening in life right now and many things are taking a back seat to the really important stuff (although, you’ll be pleased to hear that I’m still reading a lot….). Of course, some of the best things to read when life is getting a bit intense are books written for children. They don’t totally avoid the tricky issues but they can be rather more palatable than adult fiction – here are some I’ve read recently…

Rumaysa: A Fairytale – Radiya Hafiza

9781529038309Oh, this book was an utter joy to read! Amusing, linked stories with familiar sounding heroines – based on the traditional stories of Rapunzel, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty – but with a couple of fascinating quirks. The characters and settings are South Asian and Muslim and the girls are not passive princesses. These girls work out how to rescue themselves (and an Aladdinesque lad called Suleiman) without the help of adults, heroes or any of the usual suspects AND they support each other throughout. Lots of fabulous, positive messages here for girls and boys from any background. In fact, many of the copies I have sold since our shop reopened have been to young adults, mostly women, who have, perhaps, previously been denied a version of themselves in this kind of story. However, whatever your own heritage (or, indeed, age or gender) this book is an entertaining and exciting read.

Agent Zaiba Investigates: The Haunted House – Annabelle Sami

9781788953368Talking of excitement (and empowered Muslim girls) I have also been catching up with the latest adventures of Zaiba, Ali and Poppy as they investigate more mysteries. The girls have befriended the new girl at school, Olivia, and are delighted to be invited to visit her home, Oakwood Manor. But, as well as being an old, rambling building with lots of rooms to explore it seems that the Manor is also haunted! Ali, ever the voice of science and reason, doesn’t believe in ghosts but the children find themselves in a situation where they have a few hours to prove that there are only human forces at work when a housewarming party goes wrong.

Another lovely book with a great blend of (mild) peril, problem-solving and the power of co-operation. The returning characters continue to develop (young scientist Ali is still my favourite, I think) and new recruits are welcomed to the Snow Leopard Detective Agency (UK Branch). A great series for enquiring minds from about eight years old

Death Sets Sail – Robin Stevens

9780241419809Another series I have joined at the end of! This is the ninth, and last, book featuring the adventures of schoolgirl detectives Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong (and their various friends and relations) and, this time, they are sailing down the Nile on a ship bristling with members of a strange cult who firmly believe themselves to be reincarnations of ancient Egyptian deities when a murderer strikes. The girls join forces with their old chums George and Alexander (the Junior Pinkertons) to try to solve the mystery before the police arrive and arrest the wrong person…

Great characters and lots of respectful Agatha Christie references made this a really good read (even for a grown up) and I am now going to have to make time to read the previous eight volumes! And for anyone who has read the whole series there are new adventures planned featuring Hazel’s irrepressible little sister May. I would recommend this book to readers from eight or nine upwards (there are, obviously, references to violent events as well as blossoming relationships but nothing graphic in either case). 

Dragon Legend – Katie & Kevin Tsang

9781471193095At least this time I am only joining the series at book two – and it was pretty easy to catch up with the events I missed in the first book. Billy and his friends, Ling-Fei and Charlotte, have to try and rescue his best friend Dylan from the Dragon of Death. In these efforts they are aided by the dragons they have bonded with, Dylan’s dragon, and, less helpfully, JJ. This is a big, sweeping adventure – full of peril, problems to solve and huge consequences – and, even better, it has dragons! It also lets the children explore the friendships, rivalries and, sometimes, enmities between them; to develop the qualities they need to defeat the forces they face. Strength, intelligence or courage will not be enough…

Speaking as one who devoured the Anne McCaffrey Pern books this was an excellent read and one where the dragons were as well-developed as the human characters. And, given where this episode ends, I will certainly need to continue on to the next book to discover how they complete their quest.

Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow – Benjamin Dean

The final book in my round-up is not one filled with dragons, murder, haunting or fairy-tale magic but it is no less full of drama (although of a more personal and family-based nature).

9781471199738Archie Albright’s parents obviously both love Archie but, he can see, they don’t get on well with each other. His dad has moved out, although even that hasn’t stopped the arguments, and there is definitely something going on neither his mum or dad will tell him about. When Archie, and his friends Bell and Seb, discover the secret – that his dad is gay – he is unsure what to do: he still loves his dad but it seems that none of the family know how to, well, be with each other. With a child’s innocent approach to life Archie decides that he needs to find answers and, after finding a leaflet his father drops, a Pride festival in London seems to be the best place to find them. The children set off to London (after much pooling of finances, fooling of parents and downright nerves) and, at Pride, meet up with the most amazing and colourful group of people who help them to understand that love can overcome all.

A fabulous book that introduces a diverse range of characters – gay, straight, trans, of all ages, races and backgrounds – who show Archie, and young readers, that kindness, support and honesty are more important than labels. Although being fabulous also helps….


What I read in my Lockdown – or, yet another roundup…

*Sigh* Once again I find myself with lots of finished books and no reviews. If I’m reading an e-book I move them into a folder marked ‘reviews’: the folder currently has nineteen items in it. I’m not sure if they will all get onto the blog but let’s see if I can at least chip away and tell you about a few of them. Because some of them were so good I think they will move onto a favourites list of some sort (either for 2021, lockdown or, maybe, even all-time….).

The Galaxy and the Ground Within – Becky Chambers

9781473647664This series of books (The Wayfarers) is definitely on my list of all-time favourites – thoughtful science fiction, more concerned with the people involved than with technology or space battles and full of ideas about tolerance and diversity without ramming their ‘wokeness’ down your throat. We have followed various characters through the universe which Chambers has created and seen them on spaceships, on vast artificial ship-based worlds and on small planets and it is on the latter that this book is set. Not much of a planet – Gora has no air or water, plants or creatures – but one very conveniently situated at a sort of intergalactic crossroads of the wormholes used to travel to the more habitable and cosmopolitan worlds. To avoid messy accidents travel through these wormholes has to be controlled so Gora has become a sort of motorway services where ships and their crews await their turn to move on. 

The book tells the story of one group of travellers, and their various spacecraft, who are stranded for an extended period during a freak technical crisis which knocks out most communications. The owner of the self-contained dome they are in and her adolescent child do everything they can to keep their guests happy and safe and the novel follows the backstories of the hosts, the three visitors, their interactions and, in the end, their potential futures. This is another of Chambers’ character-led tales where, through the lives of various alien races, we can explore questions which affect us as humans. 

The Paris Library – Janet Skeslien Charles

9781529335446A new author for me but a familiar theme – a Parisian romance with a book-filled setting. The story is partly set during World War II, where Odile gets her dream job in the American Library, and partly in a small Montana town, where a young girl called Lily is learning to cope with major changes in her life. The two stories intertwine, since Odile, having left France after the war, is Lily’s elderly and rather reclusive neighbour.

I loved Odile’s thread of the book – her joy at getting a job in the prestigious American Library and the friendships she forms there. Once war breaks out she sees how books can help in troubled times as they arrange to send reading materials out to the allied forces so far from home. When Paris is occupied by the German army this activity halts and, despite the fact that her father is a high ranking police officer, working alongside the invaders, Odile becomes part of the team providing books to those banned from using the library itself – mostly Jews. She hero worships Dorothy Reeder, the library’s director, and one of her colleagues falls in love with Odile’s beloved brother – both of these women help her to cope when her brother Remy joins the army – but she feels her life is complete when she finally falls in love with one of the many, many young police officers her father invites home to dinner. 

We learn of Odile’s story through her own words in the 1940s and also through Lily. Partly as Odile reveals details in conversations which she hopes will help the girl with her own problems but also through some rather shocking letters which the girl finds in the older woman’s house.  A reminder that historical fiction as always also about now, as well as then.

The Mystery of Henri Pick – David Foenkinos

9781782275824Like The Paris Library this is a mixture of two of my favourite things – a book about books and a quirky French love story. This is a much lighter story though, replacing a tragedy set in occupied Paris with a library in a small Breton town which contains a collection of manuscripts rejected by publishers. A young woman, making a name for herself at a Parisian publishing house, visits the library while on holiday with her author boyfriend, and discovers a manuscript which she is sure will be a bestseller. This book was written, it appears, by Henri Pick, a local pizza chef who is now dead and becomes a literary sensation. Although there is doubt, even from Pick’s widow and daughter, that he could have written such a book everyone who reads it is touched, and sees something of their own life reflected in its pages.

This was a pretty perfect lockdown read: a romance with no sugar-coating, a mystery with no murders, and a disreputable journalist searching for the truth. Very satisfying. 

Madame Burova – Ruth Hogan

Ruth Hogan is another favourite author – I think I’ve read all her books so far and thoroughly enjoyed them – so I was delighted to see she had another coming out. Her particular brand of fiction – involving a mix of sorrow and joy, a little romance, quite a few faithful dogs and a hint of the unexpected – is one that always seems to appeal to me. When you’ve always felt that enjoyment you do always get a twinge of fear when you start a new book: will this be the one that I just don’t like, quite as much? Luckily the answer, once again, is no. Still just my cup of tea.

9781529373318Madame Burova (Imelda to her friends and family) is a Tarot reader (also palms read and general clairvoyance) and has been since she took over her mother’s Brighton booth in the 1970s. Her job involves knowing a lot of other people’s secrets, and she has always kept them before, but this time she has been charged with revealing information which is going to change a young woman’s life forever. In the early 70s Imelda Burova joined the ranks of ‘entertainment’ at a local holiday camp and the story follows this motley crew – singers, pianists, a wall of death rider, a middle-aged contortionist and a trio of glamorous mermaids – and their romances, spats and jealousies. One of which leads to to the birth of a baby girl, abandoned on Imelda’s doorstep, who returns decades later to try and discover how she came to be. 

Nick – Michael Farris Smith 

9780857304544The Great Gatsby seems to be a lot of people’s favourite book. I didn’t read it at school and only got round to it a few years ago so maybe I wasn’t the right age to fall in love with it. It was good but was never going to replace the books which transformed my late teens (One Hundred Years of Solitude, maybe, or the Gormenghast trilogy). I was, however, interested to read Nick – a novel giving Nick Carraway the backstory which Fitzgerald never shared with us.

This story takes us from the mud, death and horrors of the Great War to the heat and passions of New Orleans on the brink of prohibition via a fleeting but doomed love affair while on leave in Paris. Carraway’s character in the Great Gatsby seems to be that of a practical, intelligent man of some integrity and we do have that confirmed to a large extent but he is also revealed to be so much more.  We see the details of his stifling Midwest upbringing, the tragedy of his Parisian love affair and the staggering brutality of war – these things all lead to the Fitzgerald Nick but it is the events in New Orleans which really fleshed him out for me. Heat, passion, booze all leading to pain, loss and, eventually, a future on Long Island…

Next post: I try to carry on the catching-up with some children’s books….



Unsettled Ground – Claire Fuller

Some authors write novels which follow a pattern – no bad thing. I like to think I’d always recognise Terry Pratchett’s style of novel but that doesn’t mean they aren’t something I love to read (ditto Georgette Heyer). I like an author who I know where I am with them but, just as much, I like to find writers who can branch out in unexpected directions. Claire Fuller is one such author – the first book of hers I read was a deeply disturbing tale of a child, living deep in the woods with her survivalist father, believing that they are the last people left alive and the second a love triangle set in the late 1960s. This, her latest, is a contemporary novel, set in rural England about a brother and sister left adrift by the death of their mother. The connection between the three? Great writing, characters you can believe in and a slight, but inescapable, sense of dread…

53341634._SX98_Julius and Jeannie have always lived in their rather dilapidated old cottage, on the edge of a farm. They lived with both parents until their father’s sudden death when they were barely in their teens and then with their mother. When she, too, dies the fifty-one year old twins have to work out how to cope with the world on their own. Jeannie still has her market garden and Julius does various odd jobs (but only within cycling range as he has near terminal travel sickness in any sort of motor vehicle) but neither has any qualifications and they have no money or bank account. They make plans – which all fall apart as they, and Jeannie in particular, discover the harsh realities of the modern world. They lose their home, their possessions and their livelihoods but, again, Jeannie is relentless in her efforts to find a way to carry on and find a way to continue you life they have always known. Julius is more eager to spread his wings, explore new relationships and new opportunities – including exploiting the siblings’ expertise as performers of traditional folk songs – but Jeannie is, after almost a whole lifetime being held back by health fears, the more practical and effective. 

This was a gripping story which touched on many issues – rural poverty, those who slip through safety nets in modern society and the lies told, with love, to keep families together. Jeannie is a wonderful character – full of life, humour, strength and hope – and I spent the whole book willing her on in the hope that she can find a way to survive her losses. The writing is wonderful but Jeannie goes beyond being ‘written’, she feels real…



The Crow Folk – Mark Stay

This was a fun book in a World War Two, witchcraft and demonic possession kind of way. I mean, why wouldn’t that be fun?

54203707._SY475_Faye Bright lives with her father, in a pub, in a small village called Woodville during the Second World War. Their position, in Kent, means that bombing is a constant threat and Faye does her bit by helping out as an air raid warden but she is devastated when she finds that her hobby of bell-ringing is to be suspended for the duration of the war.  Faye’s mother died when she was a very young girl and neither she or her father have really recovered from her loss – so Faye is angry and upset that the long peal the ringers were due to ring in honour of her mother will not now happen. It is with this sense of anger that she finds an old notebook of her mother’s which seems to suggest that she was a witch. And here is where the adventures begin. Armed only with her mother’s book (including its interesting sounding recipe for jam roly-poly as well as spells and arcane drawings) Faye finds herself pitted against walking scarecrows, a sinister pumpkin-headed man and every busy-body in the village. Luckily, two of latter turn out to be witches too and they begin to work together to save Woodville from something just as dangerous as the Luftwaffe. 

I absolutely adored this book – and am delighted to see it subtitled ‘Witches of Woodville #1. It made me think of Pratchett (NEVER a bad thing) but also of all kinds of other things. There’s a hint of St Mary Mead about the village, or maybe the villages of Midsomer, and the scarecrows and Pumpkinhead are an unsettling Oz/Doctor Who mash-up, Faye herself is a great character – funny, unhappy, feisty and brave – and I’m looking forward to seeing her develop. In fact, given the blend of some of my favourite things – folklore, a hint of the magical, a good coming of age story and a sense of place and history – I’m eagerly pacing the floor for the next in the series generally. I’d happily recommend this to readers of fantasy, horror and folktales from 12 upwards.