Booker book review #1 – “Small Things Like These” by Claire Keegan

And so, my annual reading marathon is under way and I have the first of this year’s Booker shortlist under my belt. At only 128 pages in length, Claire Keegan’s third novel (she has also written short stories) is the shortest ever to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize. But make no mistake, it is not one to be read quickly. All the author’s skills as a short story writer are here, every word is necessary, the writing is crisp, almost sparse. And yet the subject matter is grave and heavy, too much perhaps for Keegan’s usual medium of a short story to bear. The sense of time and place is brilliantly executed. It is one of those books which you ‘feel’ but where you have no clue how the writer has achieved this!

It is 1985, just before Christmas, in a provincial town in Ireland. Bill Furlong, the local coal merchant, is making his deliveries. It is cold, there is snow on the ground, and this is pre-Celtic tiger. Bill is well aware that many of his customers are struggling to make ends meet and he reflects on his own good fortune, that he, happily married, a father to five daughters, lives in comfort. Bill’s start was not auspicious, however; he was the only son of a young single mother who became pregnant whilst working in the house of a wealthy local woman. Thanks to her kindness, his mother was allowed to remain in her employment, despite her ‘disgrace’, and both Bill and his mother were treated with sensitivity and respect.

Whilst delivering to the local convent, which sits just outside the town, Bill makes a discovery in the coal shed which affects him deeply. The convent is a bleak and isolated place and the nuns who live there, particularly the Mother Superior, do not have a reputation for warmth and kindness. Bill discovers a disturbed young woman, scantily clothed and barefoot in the coal shed. He returns her inside to the nuns, and is taken aback by their apparent lack of alarm that this woman should have been found in an outhouse on a winter’s day in such a state. The young woman mutters about ‘escape’, but she is shuffled away by the nuns and Bill is given a large tip for his trouble.

Bill’s discovery preys on him in the days that follow. The contrast of the woman’s situation with his own relatively comfortable one troubles him. It seems to be well-known in the town that young girls who fell pregnant out of wedlock were taken in by the nuns and Bill realises that no-one seems to question what happens to them thereafter. Given his own background, he reflects how his own mother might easily have been in that very same situation had she not, by pure good luck, found herself in the employment of a benevolent woman. 

The story pre-dates the revelations of the Magdalen laundry scandal in Ireland, events which the country is still trying to come to terms with today given the instrumental role of the Church. It seems barely credible that this could have taken place so recently, in an age when we all consider ourselves so enlightened, tolerant and open-minded. Keegan’s novella shows us how blind and how complicit we can actually be. How easy it is to judge and how easy it is to remain silent when others are harshly judged.

This is a small but perfectly-formed story and I recommend it highly.

Book review – “Violeta” by Isabel Allende

I have a particular fondness for Isabel Allende. She is an icon of world literature, of global feminism, of how to embrace ageing and of the joy, beauty and depth of south American culture. In a week when the world said its goodbyes to one female icon (Queen Elizabeth II, regardless of what you think about monarchy, it was quite a moment) and were shocked to learn of the sudden death of another, this time from the world of literature (the terribly sad news of Hilary Mantel’s untimely passing), it seems appropriate to praise Allende and value her for all that she has given us. 

The last arts event I attended before most of the world went into lockdown on the brink of the Coronavirus pandemic, was a talk in Manchester between Allende and Jeanette Winterson on the publication of her last but one novel The Long Petal of the Sea. I enjoyed that book though I felt it was not among her best. Allende’s latest novel, Violeta, published earlier this year and written, one assumes, during the pandemic feels like that to me too. 

The central character, Violeta, is an elderly woman (almost 100 years old we will learn) writing a letter, memoir, for another character Camilo. We don’t know the connection between Violeta and Camilo until about halfway through the book and I’m not going to give any spoilers here, though we do know that she loves him “more than anyone else in this world”. The story begins with Violeta’s birth in 1920 at the time of the Spanish ‘flu outbreak in Chile. Her father committed suicide, after a series of failed business ventures brought him and his family to a situation of near penury, and it was Violeta who found his body.

Her childhood was spent mostly in a rural setting on a smallholding where she was educated in the school of life. The family was forced to flee there after they lost everything in the Depression. She grew up with her brother in the care of a poor family who showered her with love and protection. She married a man who was the son of affluent European hoteliers, but the marriage was largely sexless and doomed. When Violeta met the dashing Julian Bravo, a pilot, and a passionate lothario, she was immediately swept off her feet and left her husband. This brought disgrace upon her head, particularly as Julian refused to marry her, even when she bore him a son and a daughter. 

Julian lived life on the edge, having lots of money one minute and none the next, so although their relationship was initially a fulfilling one, it lacked stability. As a young woman it was clear that Violeta had business acumen so she set up a company with her brother in the construction industry and was very successful, able to support herself and her family without being dependent on her wayward lover. 

That is as much as I will say about the plot. The book is basically the story of a life so to tell you any more would be to give you a full synopsis! The life story it tells is an interesting one and Violeta certainly has an interesting life. She is also telling the story from the perspective of a person of a great age, so she is able to reflect on her mistakes as well as celebrate her life’s achievements. It is a pretty linear first-person narrative and that, for me, is where it disappoints. I have come to expect more of such a great writer and the book for me never really delivers. Throughout I was just wanting more. There is no doubt that Allende is a great storyteller and the interweaving of history into the narrative, the politics of south America in the twentieth century, the dictatorships, the terrors, the corruption and the sheltering of Nazis fleeing Europe, is fascinating and deftly done, but I just felt she was capable of more. Some parts of it are clumsy (for example the love scenes which made me squirm a little!) and some parts of it feel autobiographical (for example, Violeta’s views on feminism), almost as if Allende herself is writing a letter to her readers.  

I hope there is more to come from this wonderful author, and fans of Allende (and I count myself as one) will of course treasure every word she writes, but I do rather feel this book lacks some of her usual creative energy.  Perhaps that is a result of its having been written during a lockdown. My fellow book club members enjoyed it, and found its uncomplicated approach quite refreshing, especially as we read it over the summer. It also does have a rather neat symmetry, which you will see if you read it. 

Recommended if you like a good story that does not ask too much of a reader. 

Literary sightseeing: James Joyce’s Dublin

I have been visiting Dublin for many years now as my husband is Irish and most of his family is still there. I have always wanted to visit on ‘Bloom’s Day’ (June 16th) – the date on which the whole of the events in Joyce’s seminal work Ulysses is set. However, since this falls in the middle of school term time, this has not so far been possible for me. Maybe next year! On this particular day (in fact, the whole of the week from what I gather), Joyce enthusiasts dress up in the fashions of the time and replicate Harold Bloom’s odyssey through his home town on that day.

I have visited a few of the many sites that occur in the book, however, and on our visit this summer I added a couple more to the list. Perhaps if I don’t get to ‘Bloom’s Day’ soon I’ll do my own little one day tour! Here is a broad itinerary if you happen to be in Dublin’s fair city not on 16th June.

Stop 1 – Sandycove and the Martello Tower

The opening scenes of Ulysses (Telemachus episode) take place in the Martello Tower (built by the British as a defence against Napoleon, who never invaded) at Sandycove. Joyce stayed here briefly when it belonged to his friend Oliver St John Gogarty. In the book, Buck Mulligan lives here and he and his two companions take breakfast following a swim in the ‘Forty Foot’, a bathing pool in the sea below the tower, which is still there.

Today, the tower houses the James Joyce museum, which has been run almost entirely by volunteers for many years, with only very limited funding. Entry is free and you can see a number of artefacts inside, as well as get a good sense of Joyce’s life and career.

Sandycove can be reached on the DART train from Dublin city centre.

Stop 2 – Sandymount Strand

Leopold Bloom takes walk here at sunset. It is a beautiful spot with fantastic views across Dublin Bay, with the iconic chimneys at Ringsend, the mouth of the Liffey. At low tide, you can walk the vast sands where work is being done here to preserve rare grasses. When the tide is in, you can walk along the promenade, along with many other Dubliners.

Sandymound Strand is a few stops north of Sandycove on the DART train.

Stop 3 – Dublin City Centre

Within the city you can walk along many of the same streets that Leopold Bloom (or Stephen Dedalus) took. I would begin at O’Connell Street (and perhaps drop in at the General Post Office while you’re there. Although not directly Joyce related, there is a fantastic museum that tells the story of the independence movement and in particular the 1916 Easter Rising, which centred on the GPO.)

From O’Connell Street you can walk south, cross the Liffey, to Trinity College (you can book tours of the famous library and view the Book of Kells), and then on to Grafton Street, Kildare Street and Merrion Square. All these locations appear in the Wandering Rocks episode.

From Merrion Square it’s a short walk then to Sweny’s Pharmacy, which I mentioned when I wrote a blog post about my visit to Dublin a few weeks ago. The shop remained a pharmacy until 2008, and the owners had changed very little of the interior from how it would have been in Joyce’s time, recognising its future tourism potential. Bloom called into Sweny’s to pick up a tonic for his wife and bought some lemon soap, a bar of which you can still purchase there today. It is run by volunteer Joyce enthusiasts, where they will chat happily to you about the author, the shop’s history, and hold weekly meetings where they read from his work.

You can get the DART from Sandymount to Connolly station, from which it is a short walk to O’Connell street. The above walking route is about 3km.

Stop 4 – Glasnevin cemetery

Glasnevin Cemetery appears in the Hades episode of Ulysses when Bloom travels there with his friends for the funeral of Paddy Dignam. It is a fascinating place with many famous Irish figures buried here including Michael Collins, Eamon De Valera, Maud Gonne, Brendan Behan and Christy Brown. Pre-booked tours are available.

The cemetery is a few kilometres out of the city centre, but there are several bus routes that pass it. Dublin buses have an excellent app where you can work out which service to get from wherever you are.

On your way there you will likely pass O’Connell Street again and can call in at the small but very interesting James Joyce cultural centre on North Great George’s Street. It is housed in one of the typical Georgian townhouses that Dublin is famous for. Another interesting stopover is the Hugh Lane Gallery. Hugh Lane was a contemporary of Joyce who established a superb art collection. He was killed in the RMS Lusitania which sank off Cork in 1915.

It is possible to visit many more Ulysses ‘sites’ than I have listed here. I can recommend the book The Ulysses Guide: Tours through Joyce’s Dublin by Robert Nicholson, which provides several detailed itineraries complete with the relevant extracts from the book.

Dublin is a fantastic city to visit with so much to see in a relatively compact area. Though Joyce spent much of his adult life outside Ireland, Dublin is at the heart of so much of his work.

Book review: “The Vanishing Half” by Brit Bennett

I’d heard a bit about this book before I read it, but I have to say that I had not paid too much attention to it. I’d recently tried to watch the film Passing (made in 2021 and starring Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson), one that had been on my must-watch list for some time, and I fell asleep less than halfway through! It was slow and I found it hard to get into, but perhaps I should give it another chance. The Vanishing Half deals with a similar topic so I was not in a rush to pick it up. It came up as an audiobook suggestion, however, so I decided to give it a go over the summer. 

The story begins with twin sisters Stella and Desiree Vignes, growing up in the small town of Mallard, Louisiana in the 1950s. Segregation remains in place in the Deep South of America, of course, but the black citizens of Mallard are unusual in that they are particularly light-skinned, a consequence of the town’s history and in particular its founder. Prejudice and discrimination are nonetheless deeply embedded. Both girls are bright and ambitious, but their widowed mother withdraws them from school prematurely in order that they can work with her at the house of wealthy local landowners and help to support the family. 

Stella and Desiree are frustrated by the manual toil and the unwelcome sexual advances of their employer and decide to run away. The twins have starkly different personalities; Stella is the quieter one, the more academic, Desiree is more outgoing, more vocal in her desire to escape the oppressed atmosphere of Mallard and is the prime mover in the escape plan. 

The two young women find themselves in New Orleans working in a laundry, with little money. After her sister is fired, Desiree encourages Stella to apply for a clerical job. Stella does not expect to be successful, but, with her very light skin, she is mistaken for a white woman which means that her skin colour is less important than her skills and she gets a job working for Blake Sanders. Finding that her status as a “white woman” affords her privileges which she has never before experienced, Stella maintains her secret and soon finds there is no way back. Furthermore, Blake falls in love with Stella and eventually asks her to marry him. Stella decides to leave her sister and her old life behind.

The hardest part about becoming someone else was deciding to. The rest was only logistics.

From Brit Bennett’s “The Vanishing Half

Meanwhile, Desiree, newly bereft, gets on with her own life. She marries a black man and moves to New York, where they have a daughter, Jude (whose skin is very dark like her father’s, not light, like her mother’s). But her husband becomes violent and so she decides to leave him. Desiree has nothing and has completely lost touch with her sister and so returns home to her mother’s house in Mallard with her daughter. Desiree never intends to stay, but somehow she does. She gets a job in the local cafe, where she quickly becomes indispensable, begins a relationship with a childhood admirer, Early Jones, who works as a shadowy investigator, and settles into small town life.

Meanwhile Stella has also had a daughter (blonde and white), Kennedy, and leads a privileged life in California. Her world is somewhat rocked when a black family moves into her affluent neighbourhood. They are treated with suspicion and contempt by local residents and Stella finds herself torn. Despite herself, Stella develops a close friendship with the woman, which triggers a series of events and changes in Stella, a burgeoning of desires which will eventually lead her back to Mallard.

Unlike what little I saw of the film Passing, The Vanishing Half has a complex plot which is deftly handled by Brit Bennett. It spans a large time span, from the 1950s to the 1990s, and moves back and forth in time and between the parallel lives of the two sisters. It becomes even more complex when the two women’s daughters begin to play a larger part in the story, leading their own lives away from their mothers. The book also explores many different types of relationship, between Stella and Desiree and their husbands, Desiree’s with Early, fathers and daughters, the women’s relationship with their mother Adele, and the two, very different, cousins, Kennedy and Jude. There are many ‘halves’ in the book; Stella and Desiree, as twins, are of course, two halves of a single birth event, but there is also the dichotomy in Stella’s life in particular. There is also the issue of two sides to every story and in this novel each person’s personal narrative is multi-layered. 

I was gripped by this book and on audio it was brilliantly read by Shayna Small. I might have wished for a neater ending, but in fiction, as in life, things don’t always work out quite how you want them to!

Nonetheless I recommend this book highly.

Bye bye summer, hello Booker shortlist!

It has been a long, hot and eventful summer, but the year has ticked round, as it inevitably does, and we find ourselves once again at the start of meteorological autumn – my favourite time of the year.

Like many people, we found ourselves travelling more this year than we have done for what has felt like a long time, primarily because we COULD. Two, summers of severe restrictions curtailed lots of people’s plans and it has certainly felt to me as if there was a high degree of pent-up wanderlust. We had a family holiday in France this year, a few days in sweltering Paris, followed by a longer spell in the south-western Gironde area, not far from the location of some of the terrible forest fires to hit parts of continental Europe, although we were lucky not to have been directly affected. It was heaven and I ate far too much patisserie, partly thanks to our holiday home being located next door to what we were told was the best boulangerie in town – it would have been rude not to partake!

We also spent time with family in Ireland, as well as a couple of shorter trips in the UK. Interspersed with that was the stress/excitement of not one but TWO results days. It has been the most difficult year for 16-18 year olds in this country, with the damage done to so many by Covid and online learning, all the talk of bringing down the perceived grade inflation of the last couple of years, fewer university places on offer, not to mention the uncertain economic environment. I am relieved to say that both my daughters did fantastically well, getting results they thoroughly deserved, and I will be despatching my middle child off to university in a few short weeks.

With only my youngest child left at school (and with her going into sixth form that’s only two years left!), September for me now is less about ‘back to school’ – that is a hard habit to break after 16 years! – and more about renewal and re-focus. I have had my break (three weeks without posting a single blog!) and now I am ready to start again.

What does September mean for you?

One event that has been on my radar for some time, but which was somewhat overshadowed this year by the appointment of yet another new Prime Minister in the UK (our fourth in six years!), was the announcement of the Booker Prize shortlist last night. It went largely unnoticed here because the mainstream media was completely absorbed by the shenanigans in Downing Street. As ever it is an interesting list, and I am familiar with only two of the authors.

As usual, I will be attempting to read my way through the shortlist before the winner is announced on 17th October, a little under six weeks’ time. Last year was the first time I actually managed to get through all six, and I am fairly optimistic of being able to do so again this year as quite a few of them are pretty short! That does not necessarily mean one can speed-read of course as short books are often more intense, I think. A couple of them are very long!

I aim to publish reviews regularly in the coming weeks and to make my prediction on the day itself. I’m very excited! Having only just returned from Dublin I think I will be starting with Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These, a novel set in a small Irish town in the 1980s, a period when society there was dominated by the Church.

I would love to hear what you’ve been up to over the summer and what your plans are for the autumn.

Happy reading!

Literary Edinburgh

The Edinburgh Festival is currently underway. This almost month-long “event” is one of the highlights of the Scottish cultural calendar and world-renowned for its high quality, its breadth and its edginess. Between the main festival, the Fringe and not forgetting of course the book festival, there are literally hundreds of events to attend. So many events in fact that I don’t know how you would choose which ones to go to! I went once, many years ago, pre-children, and I remember seeing a comedian, a couple of plays, one of which was Shopping and F***ing by Mark Ravenhill (I can’t remember the other one) and going to the book festival. I went with a friend and we stayed with their grandmother. Accommodation in the city is at a premium during the festival, one of the main reasons I have not been since.

I have been to Edinburgh many times over the years and like the city very much. I’ve been for conferences, training events for my day job, to the Christmas markets, but I went recently with my son to a gig. We saw The Smile at the Usher Hall. It was a brief visit, but we did a self-guided walking tour which took me to parts of the city I had not previously seen. I thoroughly enjoyed it and vowed to return as soon as I could – perhaps when it’s less busy, although as it is the UK’s second most visited city, it is probably never not-busy!

To celebrate the festival, I thought I’d share some photos of my trip, particularly the literary aspects of the city.

Edinburgh Castle dominates the city from every point!
One of the many highlights on the stunning Royal Mile, the John Knox House, parts of which date from the 15th century, is one of the oldest buildings in the city. It is now a museum telling the story of the Reformation. John Knox himself, the firebrand preacher, is not thought to have actually lived here!
The Burns Monument, commemorating Robert ‘Rabbie’ Burns (1759-1796), unofficial national poet of Scotland

Sir Henry Raeburn’s famous Reverend Robert Walker skating on Duddingston Loch. One of the many treasures to be found in the outstanding Scottish National Gallery, overlooking Princes Street Gardens

There are other literary highlights that I did not get to see (and some I saw but did not photograph!), such as the Conan Doyle pub, named in memory of the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories and an Edinburgh physician. There is also the Elephant House cafe, said to have been patronised by the likes of Ian Rankin, Alexander McCall Smith and JK Rowling. There is even a ‘Harry Potter trail’ which takes in locations that JK Rowling is said to have incorporated into the novels.

Edinburgh has so much to offer bookworms and literature buffs as well as just being a beautiful and interesting place to visit. If you go on a walking tour, however, wear your most comfortable shoes and be prepared to climb lots of stairs!

[Note to self: must improve photography to ensure I capture fewer random strangers in future!]

Book review: “Death and the Penguin” by Andrey Kurkov

The last month has flown by. Not only have I not been blogging very much in the last few weeks, but my reading has also been patchy at best. As I mentioned in my last post, I was on a family holiday in France for two weeks. My eighteen year-old daughter, who has turned into a bit of a bookworm in the last couple of years, observed that you always think you are going to read more on holiday than you actually do. I always take at least one book for each week that I am away (and that’s when I am being restrained!), but if my recent performance is anything to go by, I seldom get through even one! I planned to read Margaret Atwood’s very bulky Burning Questions, but it came back with me unread because I had only just started a book called The Behindlings by an author I do not know, Nicola Barker. It’s a bizarre and curiously compelling (also very long) book which I have yet to complete. More about that for a future post.

This week I would like to tell you about another book that took me a very long time to get through, and which I posted about my intention to read many weeks ago – Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov. This was first published in Kyiv in 1996. The first edition in English came out in 2001. It has been reissued this year with an updated foreword by the author under the Read for Ukraine initiative in association with Oxfam. For each copy sold, a donation has been given to Oxfam’s Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal.  

Death and the Penguin is considered one of the greats of contemporary Ukrainian literature and Andrey Kurkov is a respected international commentator. He has written over twenty novels as well as books for children and is a documentary maker. Born in St Petersburg, he writes in Russian but in his foreword to this edition he writes of has sadness and dismay at the Russian invasion of his country.

I read this book very slowly, almost in real time with the events of the novel! The central character is Viktor and his pet penguin is Misha, a powerful presence in the book and a motif for Viktor’s state of mind. Viktor is an aspiring writer who is offered a job writing obituaries for a newspaper. It soon becomes apparent that he is writing notices about people not yet dead, and that his subjects are being assassinated mafia-style. Viktor becomes increasingly paranoid and he enters into a series of bizarre relationships. First he is left in charge of a young girl, Sonya, the daughter of the Chief of Police, known as ‘Misha non-penguin’ to distinguish him from his animal namesake, a hilarious touch. Misha non-penguin disappears and Viktor hires Nina, the niece of a militiaman he meets, as a nanny for Sonya, to look after the child while he is working, or hiding form the increasing list of dangerous individuals he believes are in pursuit of him. Viktor starts a relationship with Nina, but it is a strangely cold one and stands in contrast to his relationship with the penguin.

Viktor’s situation starts to look increasingly desperate when he finds that a new person has been hired to write obituaries and that he, Viktor, is to be the subject of one. In the meantime, Misha starts to become sick and Viktor is told that the penguin needs a heart transplant or else he will die. A child’s heart becomes available and the operation is successful, but Viktor decides that he must return Misha to Antarctica. He learns of an expedition that is travelling there and he pays for Misha to go. At the very last minute, however, Viktor opts to save his own life and switches places with the penguin, figuring that the penguin in popular and someone else will take care of him.

This is a surreal and dark book, with moments of black humour. Set in the 1990s in Kyiv and its environs it captures the sense of surveillance, of corruption, of secrecy and scarcity that pervaded the former Soviet republics at the time. It has been described as an existentialist novel, exploring as it does Viktor’s inner turmoil and expressing that through the mood and health of the unspeaking penguin.

It is a work of surreal quality that reminded me of The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Czech writer Milan Kundera, set in a similar context and with the same feeling of oppressiveness, as well, of course, as the presence of a pet. There were times when I wondered what on earth the book was about, but I understand it better having reflected on it. Kurkov is definitely an author whose work I would like to explore further.

I would recommend this book to gain an insight into a very different literary tradition, and to trigger a donation to the Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal. Let’s hope the war is over soon and that justice prevails.

#KeepKidsReading Book Review #2 – “Into the Sideways World” by Ross Welford

Going on holiday can play havoc with your writing goals so my July #KeepKidsReading week has turned into a #KeepKidsReading fortnight, my second book review being a full ten days after the first! So I am writing this from a very sunny south-west France where I am holidaying with my family. We escaped the heatwave in the UK last weekend, but exchanged it for very high temperatures in Paris, where nobody seemed particularly bothered. We spent a lot of time doing indoor things like enjoying the shops and visiting museums. It is very hot here in the Gironde today so I have chosen to stay inside for a couple of hours, fair-skinned English woman that I am. Thankfully the terrible fires that afflicted this part of France (and indeed Spain and Portugal) seem to be largely under control, or extinguished, and although it is hot here today, the termperature is set to drop to the (still very hot in my opinion) mid-twenties from tomorrow.

Preparations for my trip meant that I did not manage to write my review of Ross Welford’s latest book for children. Published earlier this year, it is his seventh and he has quickly become one of the leading authors for children in the 8-12 age group. I read his his first novel, Time Travelling with a Hamster (published in 2016), with a primary school book club I was running at the time and all the kids loved it. It was the first book we read in the club and I’m afraid they found every subsequent book a disappointment! I read Welford’s next two books, What Not To Do If You Turn Invisible and The 1,000 Year Old Boy, and loved those too, but he has written a further three books in the meantime that I have not yet caught up on. So, his latest novel felt like a good opportunity to dive back into Welford’s world.

Welford’s world is one that is familiar to me, the north east of England, the coastal area to the east of Newcastle upon Tyne, Whitley Bay, to be precise. Welford sets his books in the fictional area of Culvercot, equivalent to Cullercoats. I lived some happy years in Tynemouth, the next town along, and so I know the area well. I also love the fact that Welford’s character are really ordinary kids – they are not super clever with perfect lives. In Into the Sideways World, the narrator and main character Willa, who is twelve, has wonky teeth, is teased at school, her parents are stressed by their business problems and bicker constantly, and she is generally unexceptional. Wonderful! Kids can see themselves in this character without feeling they are somehow wanting.

Willa’s parents run a holiday camp in Whitley Bay that was set up by Willa’s grandfather, but which is now in decline. One of Willa’s closest confidantes is Maudie, on-site general handywoman and ageing hippy with a passion for learning and for chocolate. Maudie has worked on the site since it was opened and her main claim to fame is that she met briefly President John F Kennedy before he was assassinated and told him about her vision of a World Without War. The novel is set some time in the 2030s. Maudie’s vision seems even more poignant given that there is the threat of a third world war looming. References are made to “the great pandemic” that killed thousands, including Willa’s grandfather, and climate change is wreaking ever greater havoc.

Willa’s life seems mostly pretty dull and occasionally difficult, with more than a little sadness, until she meets Manny Weaver, a new boy at school who has spent his short life to date moving from one foster home to another. Manny is bolder and more confident than Willa and while he is not exactly delinquent he is more willing to push boundaries. When he learns about the Whitley Bay cog, a mysterious and shy sea creature, having been spotted in a cave on the beach at Culvercot, he encourages Willa to go searching for it with him.

Once inside the cave, Manny and Willa, experience a violent meteorological event and when they emerge, they do so into a very different world. The date is the same (this is not quite time travel), but it is most definitely a parallel universe where everything is different, where President Kennedy survived the assassination attempt and, influenced by the great and distinguished Lady Maud Fry, led the world to make different choices. In this new “sideways world” the worst effects of climate change have been averted, science has devoted itself to finding alternatives to fossil fuels and meat consumption, world leaders choose dialogue over conflict, and everyone is happy.

Once they have arrived in the sideways world, Willa goes “home” and finds the environment very different: firstly, she is now Mina, not Willa, she no longer has an older sister, rather her older brother Alex, who in her own world died as a baby from cardiac abnormality, has survived. Her parents are (embarrassingly!) still very much in love, their business is successful, and there was no pandemic so her grandfather is still alive. Cars as we know them have gone, rather there are strange floating scooters that run on some advanced hydrogen/solar technology. It is a utopian vision. Crucially, Manny’s longed-for mother, who in their own world disappeared for many years and has been tracked down to a psychiatric facility in Scotland, is getting well and they are about to be reunited.

Manny and Willa do not know what to make of the new world. It turns out that Manny is one of a very small number of people with a hypersensitivity to the moon and tides and who can switch between these different worlds at certain times. At the time of the novel, the moon, a Supermoon, is closer to the earth than it has been for decades or will be again for many years, which enables Manny to take advantage of the conditions to transport himself, and Willa, to an alternative reality.

The rest of the novel follows the two children as they try to make sense of what has happened to them. They make a couple of journeys back and forth and it becomes clear that, although the sideways world is, in countless ways, better and happier than her own world, Willa comes to the conclusion that the world she knows is where she belongs. She also realises that she has switched places with her doppelganger, Mina, who will be finding the old world extremely challenging compared to what she has been used to. For Manny, the decision is less clearcut – the old world has nothing to offer him, but he has a life with his mother to gain in the sideways world.

Thematically, the book is similar to the other Welford novels I have read, although I love the way he has incorporated climate change and the pandemic into this one. At this difficult stage in history, I also love the way he is showing children that things can be better, change is possible, they can be hopeful of a better world in the future, and the power will soon be in their hands to make it so. Welford achieves this without being preachy though, because he wraps it in yet another brilliant story with great characters, adventure, action, a chase (of course!) and all the little references that will draw children in, the social media and technology references, sibling rivalries and relationships with parents.

Highly recommended, brilliant summer reading for kids, and for me too!

#KeepKidsReading book review #1 – “The Fire Cats of London” by Anna Fargher

I was delighted to be invited to participate in the blog tour accompanying the launch of Anna Fargher’s latest book The Fire Cats of London, which was published just a week ago. This is Anna’s third children’s book; I reviewed her first book The Umbrella Mouse (published in 2019) on here and thoroughly enjoyed it. The follow-up, Umbrella Mouse to the Rescue, came out in 2020, reprising the same central character and historical period (the Second World War).

THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS SINCE IT IS MEANT AS A GUIDE FOR PARENTS AND CAREGIVERS

Anna’s latest book introduces us to a new, feisty central character, Asta, a wildcat, and explores a different historical period, the 17th century and specifically the Great Fire of London. Asta is a young wildcat living in the forests on the outskirts of London with her twin brother Ash and their mother, when hunters capture the young pair (killing their mother in the process) and sell them to a shady London apothecary, Rathder. He plans to use the wildcats to harvest their whiskers, blood and fur, which are rare and valuable ingredients in the potions he makes and sells to his customers. Rathder has his own pet cat, a wily British Blue named Beauty, who flirts with Ash and wins him over, convincing him that he will be safer in captivity with Rathder than in the outside world. Asta refuses to be drawn in, however, and maintains a strong desire to escape back to the wild.

The Great Fire occupies only the last quarter or so of the book. In between the wildcats’ capture and the Fire, Asta is used as a fighting cat at the Bartholomew Fair, where she makes friends with a bear and her young cub. The bear, Tilia is also desperate to escape captivity, most especially for the sake of her cub Lipa. Asta and Tilia plot a daring escape, aided and abetted by their raven friend Jet. Jet lives with Miriam, a wealthy widow and a herbalist, protege of the famous Culpeper, whose mission is to free animals that are used for human sport and quack remedies. She hears about Asta and the bears and determines to help them in whatever way she can.

Asta and Lipa do escape the Fair, though sadly Tilia dies in the attempt, and they make it to Miriam’s. She is a sworn enemy of Rathder and his accomplice Moore, both of whom suspect that she is behind the chaos caused at the Fair and the escape of the animals. This has had a direct financial impact on them both and they are determined to make her pay.

Miriam hides Asta and Lipa and plans to take them to Epping Forest (in Essex) to release them. Their plans are thrown into jeopardy however, when the Great Fire begins in Pudding Lane and they are forced to make a much more hasty departure. All the while, Asta has never forgotten her brother Ash and wants to free him from Rathder and Beauty’s clutches. This leads her to make a bold and high-risk move at the very last minute when she is close to safety.

Anna Fargher is a clever writer and as with The Umbrella Mouse has created a charming cast of animal characters in the tradition of Charlotte’s Web and The Wind in the Willows. Asta is a powerful central character, brave, loving, principled who, when faced with adversity, rises to the challenge and emerges triumphant, all good characteristics in a role model! I think she also weaves in some brilliant history lessons, about the period in London, the Great Fire and the various social tensions between different religious factions and races.

There is a lot of peril in the book – at the beginning when the wildcats are hunted, at the Fair, where the animals are brutally treated, and at the end with the Fire itself. There is also the fact that two mothers die! (Tilia the bear, and Ash and Asta’s mother). Younger children might find aspects of it challenging, or indeed triggering. There is something to be said for not sugar-coating the world for our children, especially our history, but some readers may need a bit of support.

The author has brought in some fantastic contemporary themes – the unequal and controlling relationship between Ash and Beauty, showing children that not all friendships are good ones even when someone seems to be nice to you. The importance of true friends and family, filial love, the importance of believing in yourself and standing up for what you believe is right. The impact of humans on the environment, the animal world in particular, is another powerful theme and one which is clearly close to the author’s heart. She has spoken of the decline of biodiversity in the British Isles, and the plight of Britian’s wildcats in particular seems to have captured her imagination.

Wildcats are Britain’s rarest mammal. They are now found only in Scotland. On the brink of extinction, only 30 native cats remain. The decline began with Henry VIII’s and Elizabeth I’s Vermin Acts, where Bounties were paid for culling animals believed to pose a risk to livestock and grain.

No wildcats have roamed England and Wales for at least 150 years, and although the current numbers are woefully low, there is hope. Rewilding programs are in motion, and the more we know about them, the more we can fight to preserve them.

Anna Fargher, 2022

There is much in this book for children to learn about, as well as a cracking good story for them to enjoy. Highly recommended.

Thanks to Macmillan Children’s Books for an advance review copy of this title.

#KeepKidsReading

Summer is here and school is almost out so it must be time for another #KeepKidsReading week. Many parents and teachers know all about the phenomenon of ‘learning loss’ and after two years of disruption to school this may be a very acute problem this year more than ever. The rigours of school life can also bring pressures so many children need and deserve a break from formal studying.

The long summer holiday can be an opportunity for many kids to discover the joy of reading for pleasure. Choosing a book because they like the look of it and not because their teacher tells them to. I have long been a fan of the summer reading challenge for children that is run every year by council libraries. When they were young my children always loved the weekly visit to the library to choose a new book, getting stickers and tracking their progress on a chart. Oh for the simple pleasures! A visit to the library is free and therefore even more attractive with pressures on family budgets as they are at the moment.

The theme of this year’s summer reading challenge is ‘Gadgeteers’, which will appeal to youngsters with an interest in science and technology, who may perhaps think they are less interested in books! Kids can sign up at their local library, which may also be running tandem events, and if they have internet access there are various online activities they can do too.

If you are looking for ideas for books, I have a couple of reviews for you to look out for this week. On Friday I will post a review of Anna Fargher’s new book The Fire Cats of London. My review will be part of the book tour this week.

At the weekend I’ll have another suggestion for you, the latest from one of my favourite children’s authors writing at the moment, Ross Welford.

So, if you have any children in your care this summer, do get them along to the local library (they need our support, use them or lose them, not everyone can afford to buy books), get them signed up and #KeepKidsReading.

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