And there it was…my 400th post!

I got very into my #KeepKidsReading week last week and my 400th post completely passed me by! It has been a busy time, with one thing and another, not least my two daughters starting their GCSE and A level exams, so I put out my posts last week without paying attention to stats or anything like that, not that I do much anyway! It wasn’t until early this week, when I looked back at my list of blogs so I could re-share, that I noticed I had clocked up 402.

So, I’m feeling pretty pleased with myself.

I have been blogging for almost six years so I’m not exactly prolific (I make that a little under six posts a month), but I’m okay with that. I prefer quality over quantity and I know that if I tried to chuck a blog out every day, I would put less effort into each one. Also, as a bookblogger, each post usually takes a fair bit of research, so the writing part is usually the least time-consuming.

I also don’t have thousands of followers so I don’t have any great insights for any novice bloggers out there. Nor do I monetise my blog in any way – this was always a passion project for me, not a job, and that gives me freedoms.

If I had to summarise what I heave learned from six years and 400 posts-worth of blogging, it would probably be this:

  • Blog because you enjoy it, not because you think you’re going to get anything out of it.
  • Read other people’s blogs – you can’t expect anyone to return the favour otherwise and you never know what you might learn.
  • Communicate with people – the blogging community, particularly fellow bloggers writing about similar things (your ‘tribe’) are amazing. Get to know them.
  • Write from the heart, be your authentic self, not what you think you should be.
  • Keep a meticulous log of your posts – maybe this sounds corny, but I have a huge spreadsheet which enables me to plan ahead, keep track of my reading (without which I would not have a blog) and keep track of events in the book world (prizes, etc).
  • Engage with social media if you want to, but you don’t have to. I used to share a lot on the various platforms, but now I do very little, and I don’t think it has made one iota of difference. Except that I am a lot happier when I’m NOT on social media. It depends on your subject area and target audience of course, but for me, the blogging community is a far more honest and rewarding one.

I’d be interested in your thoughts about blogging, whether you’re a newbie or an old-hand, bookblogger or something else. I’m always open to learning more.

#KeepKidsReading – Book review #3 – “Heartstopper” by Alice Oseman


My final book review of the week and this one really is about that quest to KEEP kids reading, at the age when their attention spans are shortening and the amount of time they spare for reading is at its minimum, ie the middle teen years. So, I’m finishing with a young author who is a sensation at the moment, Alice Oseman. At the age of just 27 she is already an award-winner for her multiple novels, novellas and graphic novels and her Heartstopper series has been adapted for television by Netflix. The four volumes of graphic novels are all currently in the top six of the WH Smith children’s book charts.

The Heartstopper series is about the relationship between two kids at a boys’ school, Charlie Spring (year 10) and Nick Nelson (year 11). Charlie is ‘out’ as gay but he is in a difficult situation with another boy, Ben, who is abusive and controlling and who masquerades as straight. Charlie meets Nick when the school experiments with ‘vertical form times’, which include kids from multiple year groups, and immediately develops a crush. Nick is lovely, but he is sporty and popular, everything Charlie is not. Everyone assumes Nick is straight – he does not even realise himself that he might not be. But as his friendship with Charlie develops their is a burgeoning attraction between the two. And, yes, dear reader, they kiss! This is where volume 1, which I read, ends, but the television series covers all four volumes.

Graphic novels, or books which explore unconventional formats (Nicola Yoon’s Everything Everything is another YA book I love for this reason) are perfect for kids who get bored or switch off when faced with pages and pages of words. This book can be read quickly, or you can savour its warm and expressive illustrations, so it will also appeal to avid readers as well, especially with the TV link.

Highly recommended for teenage reluctant readers, and everyone else besides!

#KeepKidsReading – Book review #2 “Carrie’s War” by Nina Bawden

It’s my #KeepKidsReading week, which means I get to write about some wonderful children’s literature. On Wednesday I posted about a new author, Benjamin Dean, and his first novel, published last year, called Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow. Today, it’s time for something altogether different, one of the classics of children’s fiction, Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden. First published in 1974, the author drew on her experiences as an evacuee during the Second World War when she was sent to Wales.

The book opens with the central character, Carrie, returning to Wales where she and her brother Nick were evacuated during the war. She was twelve and he was ten years old at the time. Carrie, now widowed, has brought her four children to the small town, and tells them about her time there, about Mr Evans, the parsimonious shopkeeper, and his sister, Aunty Lou, with whom Carrie and Nick were sent to live. Carrie’s friend Albert was sent to the manor house outside of town called Druid’s Bottom, which was owned by Mr and Miss Evans’s sister, the elderly and poorly Mrs Gotobed, who has been estranged from her siblings since she married ‘up’ many years previously.

Carrie and Nick visit Albert and find Druid’s Bottom a much more inviting place than their own accommodation. Mrs Gotobed’s housekeeper is Hepzibah Green, who also cares for Mister Johnny, a simpleton who has limited language and intellectual skills, but a high level of intuition and empathy. Hepzibah tells the children all sorts of stories about Druid’s Bottom, including the legend of the skull of the slave boy. Apparently, when he died, the slave put a spell on the house, that if his skull ever left it, disaster would strike the estate and all those living there. Mr Evans believes Hepzibah to be a witch who is only after his sister’s money.

When Mrs Gotobed dies, Mr Evans, as her only living male relative, will inherit the property and intends to turn out Hepzibah and Mister Johnny. Albert believes the old lady would not have wanted this and that she must have left a will to that effect. When none is found, Albert tells Carrie he believes Mr Evans stole and destroyed it, just to keep his sister’s old housekeeper from living there.

Carrie and Nick are called back to live with their mother, who has moved to Glasgow where she is an ambulance driver. On their last night at Druid’s Bottom, Carrie tosses the slave boy’s skull into the horse pond, wishing ill upon the house, which now belongs to Mr Evans, as she is so angry with him. As the children leave on the train the next morning, they pass the old house, only to see it in flames. She had not expected the spell the be enacted so fast. Carrie has believed her whole life that she is responsible for the fire and that all the residents (Albert, Hepzibah and Mister Johnny) must have perished. She is so sure of her guilt that she never bothers to find out what actually happened.

Early one morning on their visit to Wales, Carrie’s children walk to Druid’s Bottom before their mother wakes up. The house remains derelict, but they find the now very old Hepzibah and Mister Johnny living happily in a converted barn in the grounds. Hepzibah recounts what really happened in the years since Carrie and Nick left and it was not at all like Carrie feared. She laughs at their hints that she is some sort of witch, as their mother had believed (in the nicest possible sense), giving rational explanations for all the seemingly mysterious occurrences, but the ending of the book is ambiguous on this point. It’s fascinating that modern books for children rarely leave this element of doubt, this unanswered question. Are today’s children really less tolerant of ambiguity?

Like Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow this is a ‘middle-grade’ book, and the central character is twelve years old. But, as you would expect from a book written almost fifty years ago, there is a kind of innocence that today’s children may find off-putting. The language and the structure are fairly simple and the setting not too difficult to imagine, so this book would probably suit the 8–10 year-old modern reader. Its themes are perhaps more complex than you might expect though, and it is multi-layered. On the one hand, a younger child could make a very simple reading – there is history of a certain aspect of the war they will be familiar with (I think my son read this in primary school as part of their learning about the war), there are some superficially obvious goodies and baddies, and the story is straightforward. For a more sophisticated reader, however, there is a more nuanced interpretation of the characters – about what underlies Mr Evans’s sadness and therefore his behaviour and attitudes as an adult, about the power of legends, and about the experiences of relatively young children thrust into situations beyond their control which were sometimes frightening.

Nina Bawden’s first novel was actually an adult crime novel, but she then turned her hand to children’s fiction and was hugely successful. Carrie’s War was her third book for children and arguably her best-known. Her other books include The Peppermint Pig and The Robbers.

She was awarded a CBE in 1995 and died in 2012.

This book deserves a place on every child’s bookshelf.

#KeepKidsReading – Book review #1 “Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow” by Benjamin Dean

When you are seeking out appropriate titles for your children and young people it can be quite tricky to select books which pitch at the right level for each individual. The term ‘middle grade fiction’ tends to refer to books for the age group 8-12 years, which means that the vocabulary, themes, subject matter and points of interest are appropriate to most children in that range. It won’t suit all, however; some children may be earlier or later developers and find the books too easy or hard for them at that age. A six or seven year old stronger reader may find some of the content or themes too mature, or likewise a weaker reader in secondary school may find the content too childish. It’s not easy. You can read bookblogging sites (like this one!) or visit others who specialise in children’s books. One of my favourites is librarygirlandbookboy. Subscribe to Caboodle or readinggroups.org for ideas, events and competitions, or ask the advice of booksellers and librarians who will be only too happy to make recommendations. Honestly, it doesn’t matter what your child reads, magazines count too, anything they enjoy, just keep them reading.

Benjamin Dean is getting a lot of attention in the children’s fiction world at the moment. Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow was his debut novel, published just last year, and his follow-up, The Secret Sunshine Project was published in March. His third novel The King is Dead is due for publication this July – busy chap! Ben, as he apparently likes to be called, is a LGBTQ+ writer of colour and his stories touch on these themes, but, let me stress, not exclusively.

Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow tells the story twelve year old Archie Albright whose parents have recently separated. They are both trying hard to maintain a good relationship with their son, but Archie overhears the constant arguments and it is clear that something in their relationship went suddenly and badly wrong, though Archie is not sure what. As an adult reader it was heartbreaking (and should be sobering) when narrator Archie describes his feelings about his parents’ break-up and how when they think they are doing the right thing by him, it is often all wrong. Over-compensating perhaps.

One day, Archie finds a leaflet that his father accidentally dropped, advertising the London Pride event. Archie gets it into his head that if he were to go along to this he would find out something that will enable him to improve the situation with his parents. He expects to find some sort of pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. With the help of his two best friends, geeky Seb and feisty Bell, they make a plan to travel secretly to London to the Pride event (they would never get permission to go if they asked). On the train they bump into Archie’s (gay) babysitter Oscar and his friend Dean, who at first want to take them back home, but are persuaded to accompany them.

When they arrive in London, they are completely unprepared for the scale of the event and the volume of people attending. Almost as soon as they leave the station they lose Seb in the crowd and Archie and Bell also become separated from Oscar and Dean. Archie and Bell are then befriended by a couple of drag queens who are taking part in the carnival and who agree to help them find their friends. Horror strikes again when Archie bumps into his father, who is also attending Pride. Naturally, secrets are revealed and the two manage to open up to one another. Archie’s dad came out as gay and this was the reason for the split with his mother, something that they have had difficulty coming to terms with.

Middle-grade fiction always has a happy ending and the group is eventually reunited with the help of the network of performers. The events enable Archie and his parents to move forward to the next stage of their lives with honesty and love.

It’s a really lovely book, emotional at times, but greatly heartwarming. I loved the characters and I think children will be able to identify with Archie and his vulnerabilities. But Archie is the hero in the end because it is he who enables his parents to find a way through their troubles and to be the family they want and need to be. I would not say this is a book for children who are perhaps questioning their sexual orientation, (though it may be helpful if they are), but it is a book that could help children trying to adapt to changing or non-traditional family structures, or who might be experiencing communication difficulties in their relationships at home. It’s also just a great little story for any kid.

Archie is in secondary school so although the content is probably aimed at KS2 (junior school kids), it might also work for younger or less mature secondary school students. A younger reader might benefit from having a parent read it with them as they may not get all the ironic references or the humour.

Look out for more in the future from this author.

#KeepKidsReading week

It’s been quite a big week in my household: my middle child reached 18, so that is now two reared successfully to adulthood! My eldest went off on his biggest solo travel trip to date, to the other side of the world. That’s been a challenge for me. When I was his age I had travelled often and for longer (without a mobile phone!) and I am only now appreciating what my poor parents must have gone through! And my youngest has this week started her GCSE exams (A levels start for my newly adult daughter next week). It is particularly stressful this year – in the UK it will be the first formal exams sat by students since 2019, the year before the pandemic. This has put enormous pressure on kids and teachers alike and I feel for all of them. If any of you have young people taking exams this summer, I wish them all the best of luck. And if there are any teachers reading this – THANK YOU, you have done an amazing job.

So blogging has taken something of a back seat for the last week or so. But with so much focus on young people it does feel like a good moment for another #KeepKidsReading week. I’ve read a few fantastic books for younger readers in the last couple of months and would love to share them with you. Throughout this week I’ll be reviewing Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow by Benjamin Dean, Heartstopper by Alice Oseman, and the classic Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden. So, do look out for my posts if you’re interested in any of those.

As I look at my daughters preparing to sit their exams, I feel blessed to have such great kids. I also realise how lucky they are to have parents who are reasonably well-read and have the time, resources and inclination to have exposed them to books from a young age. Not all kids are so fortunate.

And I am just a tad proud of myself too, for not giving up in the lean years when it looked like they were turning away from books. It is at this point that many parents just don’t know what to do to maintain their child’s interest in books. Keep the faith, they will come back to it. My 21 year old son, who in his teens once declared to me (to my horror!) that he hated books, now makes recommendations to me! Truly, I’m not being smug at all, just showing that they can come back from the brink with books if you just keep chipping away.

When I read some of my kids’ work, their essays, even revision notes, I feel absolutely convinced that the breadth of their vocabulary, their spelling skills and their ability to express themselves come from their having read widely and consistently throughout their young lives. I also know that for all of them, at this point in their lives, reading is a release from the tyranny of revision, it’s the thing they do to switch their brains off at night and help them get to sleep. It can be such a powerful stress-reliever in a world where they are under an obscene amount of pressure.

So, I hope you will find my reviews this week interesting. If you know a young person, there is no greater gift than the gift of reading so think about a book token for their birthday.

Audiobook review: Notes on an Execution by Danya Kukafka

This was suggested by one of my fellow book club members for our April read. I had not heard of this author before – this is only her second novel – but I feel sure hers is a name that we will all hear about in the future. Danya is an American and is a literary agent in her day job. She published her first novel Girl in Snow in 2017, and Notes on an Execution was published earlier this year, to great acclaim it seems, judging by everything I have been able to glean about the book since finishing it.

Danya Kukafka
Danya Kukafka – an incredible young talent

The novel is set in the US and covers a period of thirty or more years and moves effortlessly back and forth in time. The present day strand is narrated by Ansel Packer, a convicted murderer who is on Death Row in a Texas prison, twelve hours from his execution. He reflects on the nature of life and death and philosophises about right and wrong. He has been writing down his thoughts in what he considers to be a work of philosophy (harking back to his time in college where he majored in the subject but failed to complete his degree) and plans to leave it as his legacy. He has been having a Death Row visitor, Shawna, to whom he grants custody of his manuscript.

Interspersed with Ansel’s narrative is an account of his past. He spent his early years on a remote farm, where his violent father Johnny abused his young wife, Lavender, then only seventeen years old, virtually keeping her prisoner and well away from normal society. Ansel receives no formal schooling and is isolated from other children. When Johnny takes Lavender on a trip, leaving four year old Ansel in charge of his baby brother, Lavender escapes her husband’s clutches at a gas station and manages to call the police to tell them about the children. Ansel is taken into foster care. He is told that his baby brother died.

An account of Ansel’s time in foster care in upstate New York is given by Saffy, another of the orphaned children living in the home. Saffy has had troubles of her own – her Indian father is unknown to her, she is the result of a short relationship her mother had, and her mother was killed. Saffy eventually finds her purpose as a police officer, working her way up to detective. She is put on a case involving three murdered girls whose bodies have been found buried in the woods. Saffy knows one of the victims – it was one of the girls she grew up with in the foster home. A suspect is found, but Saffy knows the homeless man being fingered for the crime is not the real killer. She harbours a private agenda to catch the murderer, which grows into an obsession.

A further narrator is Hazel, the twin sister of Ansel’s wife Jenny. Hazel recalls her first meeting with Ansel; shortly after he and Jenny get together at college, he joins the family for the Christmas holidays. Hazel is strangely attracted to him and jealous of her sister, but there is something about Ansel she does not trust. In the middle of the night she looks out of her bedroom window and sees him burying something in the family’s back garden, an action she cannot explain, but she says nothing.

This is a book about a serial killer; we know the ending, we know that Saffy must therefore eventually get him. This book is not a whodunnit. It is part cat and mouse – the chase, how Saffy will eventually catch up with him. It is also about the women Ansel killed, it tells their stories. It is also about the mind of a killer, how this is cultivated, what part his upbringing and his being left by his mother played in that evolution. Lest we blame his mother for “abandoning” him, the author explores Lavender’s story too – she was a child herself when she was impregnated by Ansel’s abusive father and it was his violence that forced her to take the only course of action possible to save herself and her children. She will carry the burden of that action for the rest of her life.

I was reading this at about the same time as Crime and Punishment and there are some interesting parallels – the brutal murders of women, the lack of remorse shown by the killer, the philosophising on right and wrong by the person committing the crime. The two books, separated by more than 150 years, share some similar characteristics, but Kukafka, makes the victims front and centre even though Ansel is trying to make the story about himself.

This is a brilliant book. It is powerful and interesting in a way that I did not expect and even though we know how it ends, the author still manages to throw in some heart-stopping surprises. I listened to the audiobook and was riveted. The performances were excellent.

Highly recommended.

Reading the classics – Russian literature

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has galvanised most of the rest of the world in a way that one suspects Vladimir Putin did not expect. Economic sanctions have been imposed, Ukraine is being supplied with large scale weaponry to help it defend itself and organisations everywhere are questioning the participation of Russians in sport and the arts. Wimbledon will not be welcoming Russian and Belarussian participants this year. The Royal Opera House cancelled performances by the Bolshoi ballet scheduled for the summer. I read a news article this week about how Ukrainian citizens have been pulling down statues of Russian historical figures and renaming streets named after them, making their own views about Russian culture pretty clear. Days before Russia invaded Ukraine, I had just started to read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. After 24th February, I asked myself whether I should be setting the book aside.

Fyodor Dostoevsky (or is it Dostoyevsky?) 1821-1881

Dostoevsky’s work pre-dates modern Russian history by some margin: he was born in 1821 in Moscow. He travelled widely in Europe and was for some time addicted to gambling, running up significant debts as a consequence. He died of a pulmonary haemorrhage in St Petersburg in 1881 aged 59. He is undoubtedly one of the greats of world literature and was writing at the time of what is considered to be the golden age of Russian literature; he was a contemporary (or near-contemporary) of the likes of Gogol, Pushkin, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Chekhov. Dostoevsky is perhaps one of the greatest novelists ever and Crime and Punishment (first published 1865-66) is perhaps one of the greatest novels ever. That surely makes it a must-read whatever the geopolitical situation.

Dostoevsky has always been celebrated in Russia although his own politics are not easily defined. He was sentenced to penal servitude in Siberia at one point in his early life, for speaking out against the Tsar. This got him a sentence of four years, whereas Raskolnikov, the central character in Crime and Punishment , gets a mere eight years for a brutal double murder! Dostoyevsky was a Christian and decried the decline of ‘true faith’ in Europe in the nineteenth century in favour of secular constitutions.

My edition – with the old-fashioned spelling!

Raskolnikov manages to flee undetected, and the blame for the crime is pinned on a decorator working in the building at the time (he confesses!). But Raskolnikov is unable to live with his culpability. I use this term deliberately because it is clear that what our perpetrator feels is somewhat short of guilt, and certainly not remorse. Large parts of this novel are extended internal debates Raskolnikov has with himself, justifying his actions, but also fearing capture. He is paranoid about being caught by the wily police investigator Porfiry Petrovich. He becomes gravely ill (somatic sickness triggered by his mental torture) and is cared for by his loyal friend Razumikhin, as well as his long-suffering mother and sister.

Raskolnikov is not a likeable character and the devotion of his friend, mother and sister seem misplaced. The book is littered with other unlikeable characters, also of dubious moral fibre, from Dunya’s cold-hearted fiance Luzhin, to the drunk Marmeladov, who spends all his money at the tavern while his wife and children starve, to the malevolent Svidrigailov who lusts after Dunya and tries to blackmail Raskolnikov after overhearing him confess to the saintly Sonya (step-daughter of Marmeladov). Raskolnikov wants us to see his crime as merely on a spectrum of immorality; all men are bad, and he is not really that much worse.

The novel is profound and interesting and examines the state of mind of a particular type of criminal in a particular setting. A highly self-absorbed and entitled young man who cites poverty as the main reason for his actions. It so happens that I have also just finished reading Notes on an Execution by Danya Kukafka, a contemporary novel which also explores the mind of a killer. The central character there, a damaged young man who never really recovers from feelings of abandonment by his mother at a young age, also philosophises on his actions and invites us to consider how much worse he really is than others. Look out for my review of that shortly.

So, yes, we should still be reading, watching and listening to the giants of Russian culture because these are rooted in a history and reflect a people that is entirely separate from the present regime in Russia. The likes of Dostoevsky were established as great long before the present Russian leader came along and will remain so long after he is gone.

I will be reading Ukrainian classic Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov next. Waterstones is donating the proceeds of all sales of this book to Oxfam’s Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal.

Women’s Prize shortlist announced today

Each year the Women’s Prize seems to get bigger and better! The idea for this wonderful initiative was first conceived in the early 1990s when it became apparent that despite women authoring the majority of books published, they rarely achieved more than one or two places on the shortlist for the prestigious Booker Prize; in 1992, there was not even one woman writer on the shortlist. Author Kate Mosse was the driving force behind the prize and remains its Director. She is a formidable character and I am not surprised she was the one to get this going! The first winner was the late Helen Dunmore for her novel A Spell of Winter. Other winners have included Carol Shields, the late Andrea Levy, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Eimear MacBride, Ali Smith and Maggie O’Farrell.

Over the years the Prize has had a number of sponsors and has previously been named after them (the Orange Prize and the Bailey’s Prize), but since 2018 it has been known simply as the Women’s Prize and enjoys a range of joint sponsors. Its remit is not simply to award prizes for literary achievement, but also to support reading and creativity in the community more generally and to make a space in the literary world for women’s voices.

In many ways, the Prize feels more relevant than the Booker even, and I have particularly valued how, during the pandemic, the talks with authors, which often only took place in-person in London, came to Zoom, making the work and the writers more accessible.

The shortlist for the 2022 Women’s Prize was announced today and is as follows:

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead – I’ve already read and reviewed this one as it was shortlisted for last year’s Booker, and it is AMAZING!


The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak – set in Cyrpus in 1974 at the time of the island’s division.


Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason – 40 year old Martha seems to have it all until her marriage breaks down and she has to move back to her dysfunctional family home. Can her life ever be ‘fixed’?


The Bread the Devil Knead by Lisa Allen-Agostini – Alethea is in an abusive marriage. She witnesses a woman murdered by her jealous lover and seems to see what her own future might be. Can she change her life’s trajectory?


The Sentence by Louise Erdrich – set in a Minneapolis bookshop during the tumultuous period November 2019 to November 2020 which is haunted by one of its now deceased customers. New employee Tookie must solve the mystery and make sense of events.


The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki – teenager Benny starts hearing voices after his father dies and his mother develops her own mental problems. He finds solace in the public library where he meets the characters who will help him through his grief.

This is a fascinating list of books and I would happily curl up on the sofa with any of them! I have long wanted to read Louise Erdrich’s work, so I think that may be the one I go to first.

Which do you fancy?

The winner is announced on 25 May and you can enter a competition to win copies of the shortlisted books by signing up to the the newsletter here.


Spring is here! Time for nature books

At last, spring seems to have arrived here in the north of England and it has felt like a long time coming. I love my garden but I could certainly not describe myself as a ‘keen’ gardener, nor have I a great knowledge about the subject. I like it to look nice though, and I like being in it. So, for the last few weeks, as the weather has got noticeably warmer and less damp, I have spent a lot of time in my garden, mainly cutting things back as it was already well-planted when we moved in and the shrubs just seem to grow and grow every year. I have barely touched the garden all winter, but as soon as buds start to appear on things, or spring blooms emerge, I am filled with a renewed gardening energy!

Nature more generally is rather different for me; I love being outside all year round and I find great beauty in bare trees in the winter months, when you can see the wonderful shapes and the intricate patterns of their branches more clearly. It can appear to some that everything is ‘dead’, but while much of it is indeed dormant, there is still a great deal going on if you care to look. Nevertheless, in the spring, so much of the work of nature is visible that it’s a good time of the year to think about nature books. I’ve picked out a few below, fiction and non-fiction, both classic and contemporary, that you might like to indulge in.

Classics on nature

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

I read this while at university for a module on American literature, and I’m afraid my 20 year-old self found it very boring! It is, however, a classic of the genre. Written in the 1840s, when the author was in his late 20s, it is his account of living in the wilderness (for two years), beside Walden pond in Massachussetts, observing the changes in the natural world around him and contemplating the virtues of the simple life versus a more materialistic one. I would like to come back to this book sometime soon, to see if I feel any differently about it!

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

This is a book I’d never heard of until fairly recently. It is now regarded as one of the early warnings on climate change. Carson was a research biologist and became increasingly concerned about the use of pesticides in particular, and how they then infiltrated the food chain, and more generally about the way man was exploiting nature in a way that would have disastrous long-term (although short and medium term, as it turns out) consequences.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

The classic man versus nature novel. The whale represents existential threat to man’s self-perceived mastery and throws its protagonist into psychological turmoil. Spoiler: the whale wins.

Nature in contemporary fiction

The Overstory by Richard Powers

Moby Dick is one of my all-time favourite classics, and The Overstory is one of the best books I have read in the last ten or more years. It will become a classic. The secret life of trees is explored in awesome detail, woven into a plot about climate activism and the lengths that some people will go to to save nature. It draws on the classics of nature writing as well as new research. Powerful and brilliantly written.

The New Wilderness by Diane Cook

Like Carson’s Silent Spring, this 2020 Booker Prize shortlisted novel envisions a future where humans have prevailed and pushed nature to a point where life as we know it cannot be sustained. Dystopian fiction at its finest and most frightening, because much of it feels very close and entirely possible. If this does not spur you to action then nothing will.

The Last Bear by Hannah Gold

I recommended this in a post a few weeks ago, when I was looking at books out for young people. This book was the overall winner of the Waterstones Children’s Book prize this year and is at the top of my TBR list. Unlike many of the other books mentioned in this post where the subject is man versus nature, Hannah Gold’s book explores the special empathy that children have with animals and nature. A force for good which should surely be harnessed.

Nature in contemporary non-fiction

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

A brilliant book that has spawned a number of imitators. Published in 2014, it is a memoir of grief, but also a powerful evocation of the relationship between man and nature, again, this time in the form of a goshawk. The author’s father was a keen falconer and photographer who died suddenly. In an effort to reconnect with her memories of her father she acquires a young goshawk which she seeks to train. The landscapes she describes provide a perfect metaphor for grief.

The Snow Geese by William Fiennes

A beautiful and brilliant book by an English author who observes and recounts the epic migratory journey of these magnificent birds from the southern United States to the Arctic. Not a book about man versus nature, rather one about what we can learn about ourselves and human nature by observing animals.

Wilding: the return of nature to a British farm by Isabella Tree

Published in 2019 to critical acclaim and hugely popular to boot, Wilding is an account filled with hope of one couple’s decision to surrender their uneconomic 3,500 acre farm in West Sussex to nature, by introducing free-roaming breeds of animals and ceasing to manage the environment. In a few short years an extraordinary natural balance was restored. I have this book but have not yet read it, but I did listed to an adaptation on the radio which was inspiring.

I hope you approve of my selection. I would love to hear your reading suggestions for this verdant time of the year.

Book progress

A few weeks ago, I posted on here about the terrible flood events of January 1953 that devastated parts of the east coast of England and the Netherlands. In England over 300 people lost their lives in one terrifying night and in the Netherlands the death toll exceeded 1,800. This event is rarely talked about in England and I am not sure why as events which have caused much less loss of life and less destruction and which also took place a generation or more ago, command much greater pubic attention. Perhaps it is the ‘no-fault’ nature of the disaster – it was a natural event, not caused by negligence, corruption or malicious intent, unlike say the bombing of the Pan Am aeroplane over Lockerbie in 1988 (270 deaths) or the Aberfan colliery disaster in 1966 (144 deaths). I do not wish to ‘rank’ these events in terms only of death toll – the Aberfan disaster killing as it did mostly schoolchildren is particularly horrific – but I am simply somewhat surprised that it seems to have slipped from memory.

The morning after – Canvey Island after the devastating floods on 31 January 1953

The loss of life associated with the 1953 storms could not be said to be entirely ‘no fault’. Enquiries found a woeful lack of a meaningful communication system, and the fact that the events took place over the weekend (meaning that officials were not working) certainly contributed to the death toll. Perhaps it was the proximity of these events to the second world war that has contributed in part to the amnesia; tens of thousands of civillians died in the war that had ended only eight years earlier. It is also likely that the lack of investment in maintaining civil defences both during and after the weather contributed to the ease with which flood barriers were breached.

So, as you can see, I’ve been doing research! I’ve read pretty much all the main sources on the subject, and watched quite a lot of newsreel footage from the time. I’d like to tell you about one of the books I read, which had a section on the 1953 floods but which was about the tides more generally. Tide: The Science and Lore of the Greatest Force on Earth, written by Hugh Aldersley-Williams, a scholar of natural sciences, and published in 2017 is a brilliant read. I borrowed it from my local library, intending to read only the section relevant to my research, but I ended up working through the whole book, and thoroughly enjoyed it. The author is an intelligent and witty writer whose knowledge and authority on his subject is slightly concealed by his humour and deft use of language. It is scholarly work dressed up as an entertaining read, and there aren’t many serious works of non-fiction you can say that about.

The author looks at the link between the sea on earth and our moon, something I had never before understood fully. He also explores the cultural impact of the tides, particularly on nations like the United Kingdom which has such a long coastline relative to its size. Before clocks were invented, “measuring time” was meaningless. People lived their lives by natural phenomena such as the position of the sun, the phase of the moon, the behaviour of wildlife, and the ebb and flow of the tides. Clocks have largely inured us to these movements.

“The coast of the British Isles is one of the most tidally lubricated coasts anywhere in the world.”

Hugh Aldersley-Williams

Hugh Aldersley-Williams writes in detail about historical events that have been influenced by tidal flows, such as the cholera epidemic in London in the 1880s (construction of a sewerage system in the west end of the city meant that the tides of the Thames forced river water into the drinking water in the east of the city). The success of the D-Day landings in northern France in 1944 depended heavily on the accurate prediction of the tides. The author also travelled widely to investigate tidal phenomena all over the world and writes finally (and inevitably) about rising sea levels and the impact of the tides on low-lying coastal communities. Devastating flooding in Europe this last winter has given us a foretaste of this.

This book was an absolutely brilliant read and I recommend it highly.

Another book I read as part of my research and which I did not enjoy was Vulgar Things by Lee Rourke. I read it because it is set in Canvey Island, the location of my own book. However, I found that this book did not keep my interest – the plot was thin and the premise weak. I hope my own book portrays Canvey Island in a more positive light than Vulgar Things. I don’t like criticising books so I won’t say any more.

I recently attended an online writing class with Kate Mosse and Maggie O’Farrell. As writers of historical fiction they said that a book should wear its research thinly. We have all, I am sure, read books where the author is just dying to tell you everything they have found out about their topic! As a novice writer I need to be very careful about this. So, it’s the school Easter holidays and I am using this time to take a break between completing the research phase and beginning the writing phase of my book. Writing starts next week! I have cleared my diary for the next month or two and have high expectations of myself. There is danger to this of course; I could hit creative blocks, or plot problems, and will get myself in a panic about not hitting my daily word count! We will see.

Wish me luck!

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