I read about the Beat the Backlist Challenge on Mary’s Book Craicblog at the turn of the year and thought that the relaxed rules and chance to read the books that are still sitting on my shelves from last year sounded very appealing! The challenge was created in 2017 by Austine Decker and the full details are laid out in this blog post.
These are the essential rules:
The book must be published in the previous year or earlier (for the 2023 challenge, anything published in 2022 or earlier counts).
You have to start and finish the book in 2023.
And that’s it!
Sharing on social media? Don’t forget the #BeatTheBacklist tag!
The challenge runs from January 1, 2023 to December 31, 2023.
I’ve decided to concentrate on one shelf of children’s books, the majority of these are books that I purchased but haven’t managed to read as I prioritised books sent to me to review. The second shelf are adult books which are approximately a 50:50 split between purchases and gifts. I belong to two book groups; three of the above books are on one of the reading lists for this year, so I should at least manage these!
So here it is; I offer you my highlights from newly published books that I’ve read this year. It is always so difficult to pick out just a few, but these are the books that have stayed in my head and my heart long after I finished reading them. I offer them to you, in case you are looking for a bookish gift and are still wondering what to choose from the huge and tempting selections on the bookshop shelves. From the sixty or so books that I’ve read this year, here are my favourites by age category.
Young Teen Highlights: I highly recommend these outstandingly well-crafted novels to readers just moving on from primary to secondary school, looking for immersive and enjoyable reads with rich underlying themes. Reviews are available by clicking the links: War of the Wind, The Raven’s Song, Ghostlight and The Haunted Hills.
The YA books that I have read this year indicate to me that there has been a huge improvement in the scope and quality of books for this readership. These three are superb; a story full of righteous anger told in free verse, a reimagining of Greek myth and a deeply moving reflection on grief. Read my full reviews by clicking on the links: Activist, Her Dark Wings and Aftershocks.
Adult Books: The majority of books that I read in my bookclubs this year were not newly published, Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr I think was published just at the end of 2021, so I am perhaps cheating a little by including it here, but it held me enthralled throughout and I loved the way that the multiple narratives were pulled together at the end. Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus was a birthday present and dredged up some long forgotten knowledge from undergraduate studies, made me laugh, made me cry and was the perfect summer holiday read and I can’t even begin to describe the work of genius that is Super-Infinite.
I shall end by thanking the wonderful blogging community that I am a part of, for constant inspiration and encouragement. Thank you to the authors, illustrators and publishers who constantly strive to create books that appeal to all tastes, and grateful thanks to the book PRs who send me review copies. I hope that you’ve enjoyed some of my reading highlights from this year, let me know if you have read any of these in the comments. Wishing all my readers a very happy and peaceful Christmas, however you choose to celebrate during this festive season.
This is one of those books that made such an emotional impact on me that I am not sure that I can do it justice in a review, so I am going to start by simply saying that I think everyone over the age of 13/14 should read it; teenagers, parents, carers, grandparents and anyone who in any way works with or on behalf of young people. It is a profoundly moving novel written in free verse and inspired by the stories posted on the website, Everyone’s Invited, where young people posted their school experiences of sexual harassment and even rape by fellow pupils. It is hard-hitting but necessary in a climate where some voices continue to be shouted down by aggressors and abusers can be enabled by systematic failings.
Author and teacher Louisa Reid has fictionalised and coalesced these reports into a narrative which is presented in the rawly emotional voice of Cassie, a determined, articulate and vulnerable sixth former who decides to take action when adults in authority fail the children in their care. Reading this harrowing but ultimately uplifting narrative in poetic form tapped directly into my emotions and I feel sure will make all readers empathise with those who have suffered from either physical, verbal or online abuse. The portrayal of a misogynistic, sexist, abusive culture at an exclusive fee-paying school, where the teachers appear to collude with the braying bullies in making female pupils feel entirely unprotected and unsupported, made me seethe with anger in the same way as Cassie. Her indefatigable spirit as she fights to get the voices of girls heard by her mother and grandparents as well as school staff is eye-opening. The constant advice from adults to just keep quiet and accept things as they are for the sake of a good education, and to open doors to better prospects, reflects the lack of change in attitudes by some sections of society and the continuation of inequalities. It is heartbreaking to realise that in the 21st century, females are still battling to have their truth listened to.
Silence isn’t golden, as they say,
a sea of drowning
I think this narrative of a relatable teenager encouraging others to stand up for what is right and finding her strength even when she is at her most vulnerable will be incredibly inspiring for all teenagers to read. There is nuance here, with some boys showing abhorrence at the behaviour of their peers and exhibiting solidarity with the girls; the range of behaviours portrayed by different characters could be used to prompt discussions in PHSE lessons. The second storyline of a campaign to save a local woodland from the greed of developers is an interesting parallel; the pillage of mother nature and an environment where Cassie and her friends previously found solace, emphasising the brutal way that some people take what they want with no thought for the rights or needs of others. I certainly recommend that all secondary school librarians should purchase a copy of this book, and suggest that staff as well as pupils read it; I know that Cassie’s story will live long in my heart. Louisa Reid’s writing is searingly honest, every word perfectly chosen to deliver maximum impact. I have not read any of her previous verse novels but I will certainly be seeking them out after reading Activist.
I am most grateful to Bella Pearson at Guppy Books and Liz Scott who sent me an advanced copy of Activist in exchange for my honest review. It will be published on 12th October and can be pre-ordered from all the usual sellers now.
The Book Club that I run at work, chose Crooked Heart as our first book for 2022. It was actually a re-read for me and it was a story that I was more than happy to revisit. Lissa Evans writes with such assuredness and precision that she seems to enable the reader to defy the physics of time and walk the blitz-damaged streets of north London alongside her protagonists. And what a cast of characters they are!
In the prologue we are introduced to Noel, a boy of 10 or 11, who lives in bookish bliss with his godmother, Mattie, in an airy villa on the edge of Hampstead Heath. His days are spent reading, visiting museums and engaged in stimulating, intellectual pursuits with his larger-than-life guardian until she falls under the curse of dementia. Within thirty pages of the most remarkable storytelling, Mattie’s personality arrives and departs, leaving her shadow hanging over the rest of the story from where tendrils will be woven in and out of the tale.
After a brief sojourn with an officious cousin of Mattie’s, Noel is evacuated from London alongside the rest of Rhyll Street Junior School as the Blitz begins in earnest. He is eventually taken in by Vee Sedge, a widow who lives from one small scam to the next, and who sees Noel with his limp and apparent muteness as a meal ticket for her small household. As he finds himself crammed into a small flat above a scrapyard with Vee’s self-indulgent son Donald and her invalid, deaf mother, Noel compares Vee to “a magpie hanging around a picnic” as she searches for scraps on which to feed, both physically and emotionally.
I absolutely love the way that this pair of misfits gradually develop a relationship and become partners in petty crime. Noel lending his intellectual and strategic mind to Vee’s money making scheme, so that she no longer finds herself “neck deep in consequences and drawbacks”. They, along with all the other characters in the book are truly nuanced, with Noel at one point arguing that what they are doing is “legally wrong but morally right”. He is a young boy, who as a consequence of his upbringing, often appears old beyond his years. However, his childlike sense of justice comes to the fore when he vows to avenge the crime that an air raid warden perpetrates on an old lady, who he himself has scammed.
The side plots are magnificently constructed too. Donald, like his mother, is a grifter and when his scheme goes awry causing him to abandon Noel in central London the consequence is a touching, deepening of the relationship between Vee and Noel. Old Mrs Sedge provides some of the funniest moments with her stream of letters to Churchill and other dignitaries, advising them on how to boost the morale of the nation!
I don’t think that I have read a book before where the behaviour of Londoners during WWII is portrayed as less than heroic but Lissa Evans manages to take you from outrage, to empathy; tears of sympathy, to snorts of laughter during this marvellous novel. Every character is fully formed, the story arc is absolutely perfect, set piece scenes are written with comic precision and the mix of pathos and humour is breathtaking. This book opened my eyes to the way that social class impacted the experience of those who lived through the war years, gave an insight into the aftermath of the suffragette movement and introduced me to characters who will live long in my heart. It is, without doubt, one of my all-time favourite books.
Sometimes there are just too many things going on in real life for me to settle properly into a long novel. The run up to Christmas 2021 was certainly one of those times, thus I was delighted to find a collection of short stories by Eva Ibbotson in my local Public Library and to purchase a collection of short mysteries to read for my Book Club’s December choice.
A Glove Shop in Vienna contains nineteen short stories, many of which are set in Eva Ibbotson’s native Austria. Her delicately emotive writing conjures up snow and frost covered landscapes, lavish villas in the fashionable neighbourhoods of Vienna, illicit love affairs, grand passions and the intricacies of Viennese society in the pre-WWII years. I found it to be the perfect transportive read, whisking me off to an entirely different time and place. I think that the first story, Vicky and the Christmas Angel was my favourite with its insight into the tensions running below the coming together of disparate branches of the family at Christmas. Vicky comes of age following her dramatic and unwelcome realisation of the enormous contribution that “poor relation” cousin Poldi makes to the family’s annual festivities. I also loved the story of a great life-long love which finally flourishes in the headily exotic setting of the city of Manaus, deep in the Amazon rainforest. This has prompted me to seek out our much-read family copy of Journey To The River Sea, which I have wanted to re-read since hearing that Emma Carroll has written a book inspired by this classic.
Christmas is Murder by Val McDermid is another fantastic collection of short stories by a writer of immense dexterity. Her ability to create believable characters and imbue them with a back-story sufficient to make them the victim or perpetrator of a crime; scatter some red herrings; build tension and draw the story to a satisfactory conclusion within the confines of twenty to thirty pages is incredible in and of itself. However, Val McDermid adds another layer to the majesty of this collection, her uniquely beautiful prose. My favourite of the stories, Ghost Writer, had a supernatural rather than crime theme and ironically centered on a struggling writer:
Gavin had no talent for narrative. Story eluded him. Sometimes he sensed it almost within his grasp but whenever he tried to corner it, it slipped away, slithering under his out-stretched arms or between his legs like a nutmegging football.
If we are going to use footballing comparisons, then Val McDermid must surely be the Dennis Bergkamp of crime writing, entertaining her audience with supreme skill and making her craft look effortless. It was such a treat each evening to enjoy these short stories once the day’s chores were done – in all honesty, it was the most pleasurable Book Club choice that I read in 2021.
I finished reading this book well over a week ago and it has taken me until now to process the information and raw emotion in order to attempt writing a review. As I am not at all certain that I can do justice to such an important book, I will start by saying that I urge you to read this book to gain some insight into the real impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on healthcare workers. It will open your eyes to the human story that the government and much of the mainstream media seem to gloss over in their slick presentation of statistics.
Before retraining in medicine, Dr Roopa Farooki previously published fiction, for both adults and for a middle-grade readership, additionally she lectures on a post-graduate writing course at the University of Oxford. Her prowess as a writer blazes through this account of her experience as a Junior Doctor during the first forty days, “la quarantena”, of the pandemic lockdown in March 2020. Already grieving for the loss of her older sister to breast cancer, she is exposed to the rapidly escalating crisis of COVID-19 infected patients at a time when the scientific and medical community were desperately trying to assess the best way to deal with the new virus and frontline medical staff were asked to treat patients with little or no protective clothing. The absolute vulnerability of the healthcare workforce facing this new threat is laid out starkly, and although it angers her, the language of the battlefield is deployed to underline their sacrifice on the frontline.
The book is arresting in its structure. I think it is the first time that I’ve read a biographical account written in the second person. As a reader, you are forced into Dr Roopa’s shoes and experience the immediacy, viscerality and exhaustion of her journey through la quarentera. This focus on the first forty days of lockdown demonstrates how unprepared the powers at the top of our society were, and reminds us that we could and should have learnt from the experience of clinicians in Italy, who desperately tried to warn other countries what they were about to face. This lack of leadership in the very early stages accounts for the anger that comes later in the recount, in the light of so many lives both clinicians and patients, lost unnecessarily. The doctor certainly does not hold back on her scathing opinion of our Prime Minister.
As lockdown is enforced Dr Roopa begins walking to and from work and in the early days spots a fox, which she thinks is basking in the early spring sunshine. As realisation dawns that it is actually lying dead under the trees, she charts it’s gradual decomposition which symbolises her own slow deterioration under the onslaught of the pandemic. As the flow of patients with breathing difficulties into the hospital increases, frontline staff must treat them despite a total lack of PPE, or even basic scrubs. You can almost feel the bone-aching exhaustion of 13 hour shifts in which she is lucky to get a 5 minute break. Being skilled at tricky procedures such as accessing awkward veins means that Dr Roopa is often called in to take body fluids from COVID-positive patients, increasing her own risk still further.
It does not escape the doctor’s notice that there is a disparity in the COVID-19 mortality statistics between populations of different ethnicities. Amongst the names of those healthcare workers who died from the virus in the early stage of the pandemic she recognises that the majority are of BAME heritage and, as someone who was born in Pakistan, she conveys the desperation of knowing that becoming infected could be a death sentence. This is compounded by a less than sympathetic domestic experience, where she is treated like a leper who might bring disease into the family home. With so little support from those around her, mental conversations with her deceased sister become a means of rationalising the situation. Inevitably, Dr Roopa does fall ill with COVID-19; thankfully she recovers to return to the NHS frontline.
I am beyond admiration and gratitude to Dr Roopa Farooki for her dedication to her dual vocations as both doctor and writer. I hope that this searingly honest account will open the eyes of many to the sacrifices that are made by NHS staff to protect the health of the nation; standing up to their responsibilities in the face of indifference, ineptitude and disrespect from some of those in power who should be supporting them.
I am grateful to Bloomsbury and NetGalley for access to an electronic proof of Everything is True ahead of publication in return for an honest opinion.
This slim volume contains the powerfully emotional thoughts of acclaimed novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as she contends with her raw grief following the death of her beloved father, James Nwoye Adichie. The chapters are each just a few pages long thereby allowing the reader time to reflect on every step of her journey as she examines her pain and tries to reconcile herself to her loss. Her notes on grief provide snapshots expressed in her uniquely elegant style which speak to the universal suffering felt by those of us who have lost parents or other deeply loved family members.
My wariness of superlatives is forever stripped away: 10 June 2020 was the worst day of my life.
As she shares her pain, anger, frustration and utter disbelief that she will never again see her father, small details emerge of this kind, gentle and brilliant man. Like many thousands of bereaved individuals around the world the author had to deal with the pain of losing her “Daddy” at the peak of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, compounding the loss still further. She and her five siblings are marooned at different points on the globe, communicating their memories and sadness over Zoom and waiting on the vagaries of international travel before they can arrange a funeral. At a time when all of your usual compass points have been torn away, the feeling of utter helplessness is palpable.
In sharing such an intimate account of her own grieving process I think that the author helps us all to recognise and articulate the sorrow that we experience when a loved one dies and also provides assistance in expressing our condolences to others who are bereaved. She states right at the start:
You learn how much grief is about language, the failure of language and the grasping for language.
I think that many readers will be grateful that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has provided us with the words that both honour her own devastating loss and, at the same time, help us give voice to our own emotions.
This insightful collection of sixteen essays is an excellent resource for anyone who wishes to gain an understanding of the lives of individuals who might feel marginalised by their ethnicity, their religious beliefs, a disability or their sexual identity. It is pitched at a Young Adult readership but I think that the content is valuable for adults of any age. The goal of the book is to educate and enable the reader to use whatever privilege they might possess to become an ally to those who face challenges and perhaps discrimination, micro aggressions or outright bullying in their daily lives.
I am embarrassed to admit that I had not really encountered the terms ally or micro aggression until I attended a disability workshop run by the well-known campaigner Samantha Renke earlier this year. It was listening to her daily, lived experience of the challenges that she faces negotiating a world that is not designed to enable her, that opened my eyes to the need for support or ally-ship from those of us who can encourage change. This book fulfills the same task, with contributions from authors who generously present their own experiences of either being made to feel marginalised or their attempts to fulfill the role of ally. It explains that micro-aggressions are the constant undermining comments that seem to diminish or dismiss an individual’s worth and that we cannot ignore these if we want to be an ally.
One of the aspects that I most appreciated is the tone of gentle encouragement, and forgiveness throughout. It can be very difficult to keep up with the evolving language around ethnicity or sexuality if you are not immersed in the study of it and several of the essays acknowledge that it is easy to inadvertently use the wrong words. The advice is to listen carefully to anyone who corrects you, apologise for any unintended offence caused by your words and continue to progress on your quest to be an ally. I found this to be very reassuring as I try and sometimes fail to get the language correct. In the opening essay, Dana’s Absolutely Perfect Fail-Safe No Mistakes Guaranteed Way to be an Ally, Dana Alison Levy states:
“Being a good ally without making mistakes is like eating popcorn without dropping any on the floor: it’s possible, but let’s be honest, it rarely happens.”
My takeaways from this book were that a mindset of openness, civility, empathy and kindness are required from us all to help every member of our society feel valued and that we can all learn from and support each other. I feel indebted to the sixteen authors who were prepared to open up about their experiences to help us all develop empathy and I really like the essay (and illustrated story) format that allows you to dip in and out and refresh your mind whenever necessary. At the end of the book there is a comprehensive list of further resources to explore, suggested by each of the contributors. I think that this will be a valuable resource for anyone who wishes to play their part in making society and their workplace kinder and more inclusive and I would recommend it to all workplace, academic and public libraries.
I am grateful to the publisher Dorling Kindersley and NetGalley for allowing me access to an electronic version of this book for review purposes.
So, here it is; one summer, three months and a challenge created by Cathy (@cathy746books) at 746books.com to make a dent in the toppling TBR stack. I have opted for the 10 books challenge due to time constraints! Thank you Cathy for hosting!
My fifth book in this summer’s challenge is actually a re-read as it was chosen by one of my book groups as our July title. Purple Hibiscus was the debut novel of acclaimed author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and is a deeply moving, coming-of-age story, recounted through the voice of fifteen-year-old Kambili.
Kambili and her older brother Jaja, live in a luxurious house in the Nigerian town of Enugu. Their father Eugene is powerful and wealthy, the owner of factories and a newspaper and on first appearances their lifestyle: private school, chauffeur, large house filled with modern conveniences, abundant food and servants would appear to be enviable. However, the tone of tension in Kambili’s voice, her constant watchfulness and desire to say the right thing to make her father proud, betray the falsehood of this assumption.
Eugene controls every aspect of his family’s existence, the children’s lives are scheduled by the minute, they are expected to come top of the class without excuses, and when they anger him through a wrong look or word he punishes them with horrific domestic abuse. His wife is also subjected to the most extreme violence whenever she does not meet his standards of perfection. Eugene himself is controlled by his adherence to the Catholic faith in which he was educated as a schoolboy from the missionary school he attended. He credits his western education and faith in God with his success and now entirely rejects the beliefs of his ancestors, to the extent that he will not visit his own father or allow his children to visit him due to his perception of his “heathen” ways. When the family return to their compound in the ancestral village for Christmas, a time when Eugene provides food and money for the entire village, he callously sends his driver to deliver a small sum of money to his frail father and the children are allowed only a few minutes in the company of their grandfather.
Into this fearful and silent home comes a catalyst for change in the form of Eugene’s widowed sister, Aunty Ifeoma and her three loud and opinionated children; Amaka, Obiora and Chima. Auntie Ifeoma is a strong and educated woman, a lecturer at the University in Nsukka, who encourages her children to think for themselves, debate current affairs and who would rather live in relative poverty than bow to her brother’s demands. The contrast in her joyful practise of Catholicism mixed with Igbo hymns and traditions is in stark contrast to her brother’s dogmatism and rule through fear. You realise just how alien this is to Kambili when she is shocked by the sound of her cousins’ laughter, so absent from her own experience:
“She laughed so easily, so often. They all did, even little Chima.”
As the children come to realise that there is another way to live and a military coup threatens Eugene’s power base, events are set in place which are shocking and revolutionary for all protagonists.
I can only describe Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s writing as pellucid. Without the need for long paragraphs of descriptive prose she takes you to the heart of the luxurious, walled compound in which Kambili’s family are imprisoned, the ancestral village where they discover their roots and the cramped apartment on the university compound where they discover the ability to live free of restraints like the purple hibiscus in Auntie Ifeoma’s garden. The character’s are all fully realised and even Eugene is not portrayed as a one-dimensional villain. There are passages which are absolutely harrowing but overall I found the book to be utterly compelling both times that I have read it, and I have subsequently read all of this author’s later novels.
The third of my reviews for this year’s #20BooksOfSummer challenge, hosted by Cathy at 746books.com is my only non-fiction choice this year and with my health librarian hat on, I would say that it is a book that everyone would benefit from reading.
Dr Lucy Pollock is not just an experienced and compassionate geriatrician with a positive message to promote, she is also an engaging and entertaining writer. I was immediately struck by the accessible way in which she has presented a wealth of health information, which would be invaluable to a large percentage of the population, by framing this book through a series of stories with which readers can immediately empathise. The years of clinical experience are worn lightly and insights are presented with clear explanations which can be understood by anyone.
The Book About Getting Older celebrates longevity, explains how the final years of life can be lived positively and helps us all begin to have the necessary conversations about what is important to us as we get older. You will find clear-sighted and sensible discussion of poly-pharmacy, what is normal in old age and what is not normal, the concept of mental capacity, end-of-life care and a de-stigmatisation of dementia. Oh how I wish this book had been available 20 years ago when dementia cast its shadow in my own family. You see this book takes you by the hand as gently and kindly as the best clinician and leads you through so many aspects of the situations that confront us as we age, or watch those that we care for, age. In the company of Dr Lucy, the indignities and frailties of ageing do not seem such a frightening or lonely prospect. Quite the opposite, for the generous tone of this book is to celebrate the very old and to focus on those things that we can all do to live well for as long as possible.
It may also surprise you to know that there is a great deal of humour threaded through the book, with some passages that genuinely made me laugh out loud! The value of teamwork in the care of elderly patients is emphasised and practical ideas for improving social care are made, I hope that this book finds its way to the desks of some of our politicians! Dr Lucy’s respect for her patients as individuals and the life-lessons that she has learnt from them shine through the narrative. If people in power could see individuals through Dr Lucy’s lens rather than labelling older people with negative economic terminology such as “the demographic timebomb” one feels that something concrete would be done about social care.
I feel very passionately about this book, I think it will have a hugely positive impact on anyone who reads it and particularly for those who are in the lonely position of caring for a loved one. I have read the hardback version and also listened to the audiobook which is narrated by Lucy Pollock herself. In an ideal world everyone would have a geriatrician like Dr Lucy Pollock available when the complications of old age set in, the next best alternative is to get your hands on a copy of this book – in physical or audiobook format, and benefit from her wisdom, expertise and compassion.
So, here it is; one summer, three months, 10 books and I’m three books in! Thank you Cathy for hosting!