YA Review: HappyHead by Josh Silver

Published by Rock the Boat, 16 March 2023

Having read HappyHead cover to cover in one sitting, I can confirm that it is indeed, compelling, dark and thrilling. For a debut novelist, Josh Silver has written a remarkably assured story, which combines a rawly emotional romance with a dystopian take on the wellness industry.

The voice of seventeen year old Sebastian who is struggling to be his authentic self, in a family and an environment where his sexual orientation has been met with hostility, cries out for understanding and validation. There is not a single false note as Seb fights for approval, love and ultimately survival in an experimental treatment facility for emotionally damaged teens. The cover makes reference to The Hunger Games and the comparison holds true in that we are plunged into a nightmarish scenario where teens are subjected to manipulation by adults with nefarious intent, are forced to compete with each other and have to rely on their instincts as to whom they can trust when the challenges become increasingly dangerous.

The author’s own experience as a mental health nurse has fed into his brilliantly imagined scenario of an isolated wellness facility, situated in the Scottish wilderness where stressed and damaged teenagers can escape the pressures imposed upon them by schools, parents, peers and even themselves, in the relentless pursuit of perfection. The oppressive atmosphere of the story starts to build from page one, with Seb crammed in the back of the family car with his scheming younger sister while his parents become increasingly tense at the SatNav’s inability to navigate the rural Scottish landscape. By the time the car is met on the road by an employee of HappyHead whom Seb nicknames Antiseptic, you are already silently screaming “just get back in the car and go home to Woking!” Then, as Seb shuffles into the lecture theatre with all eyes on him, the last arrival of the first cohort of 100 students, we experience his insecurity through his inner monologue. Burning with humiliation, becoming the object of snarky comments, he is already mentally rehearsing advice that he’s no doubt heard many times from his mum about finding his inner confidence…and then he spots Ice Eyes. A chiselled, manga-like apparition with tattoos emerging from under his tatty jumper. And the tension ratchets up another notch!

I so enjoyed the unfolding of the plot that I don’t wish to discuss any details that might provide spoilers but will just say that the suspense builds brilliantly, from an initial sense of unease to eventual extreme anxiety as the challenges faced by the protagonists become increasingly unhinged. Like all the best dystopian fiction this story work because it is based on real truths; teenagers are facing too many societal pressures, homophobic bullying does still exist and there are sadly individuals who exploit the vulnerability of others. The characters’ back stories are revealed in carefully timed and often heart-breaking recollections and reveals, demonstrating the real life experiences which resulted in mental health issues for these unfortunate young people. The survival dilemma faced by Seb, of whether to reveal his true self or play to please the adults running the experiment, is nail-biting for it is soon clear that this is a competition not a retreat! And layered on top of this struggle is the beautifully observed blossoming of first love. The tender romance between Seb and Finn at the heart of HappyHead is described in searingly honest language and I found it very affecting. It adds another seam of emotional depth, demanding the reader’s compassion for the teen protagonists as they seek to escape their dystopian nightmare whilst continuing to add to your fears for their survival. The ending is sufficiently ambiguous to leave you desperate for a sequel, which I certainly hope that Josh Silver will be writing. I highly recommend HappyHead for a readership of 14+.

I wish to thank Liz Scott and Rock the Boat Books for providing me with a review copy of HappyHead prior to publication on 16th March 2023.

2022 Reading Highlights

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.

Picture Books: For the youngest readers, this selection provides gentle stories combined with gloriously vibrant illustrations to enjoy every time the covers are opened. Read my reviews for the two Tatty Mouse stories and The Marvellous Doctors for Magical Creatures.

Illustrated Chapter Books: For any young readers who are just gaining their confidence in reading independently, the books in this selection offer entertainment presented in short chapters with the text broken up by illustrations. You can read full reviews of each story by clicking on the links: Wildsmith, The Little Match Girl Strikes Back, Rainbow Grey Eye of the Storm, Edie and the Flits in Paris and Breakfast Club Adventures The Beast Beyond the Fence.

MG Highlights: Three of my favourite MG stories were sequels and so well written that I thoroughly enjoyed them, despite not having read the first in each series: The Unexpected Tale of the Bad Brothers, The Butterfly Club: The Mummy’s Curse and Amari and the Great Game. I hope that Seed might have a sequel, the story certainly ended on a note that cries out for a follow up. Wished by Lissa Evans is absolute perfection, she is one of my favourite authors of both adult and children’s books and I love this story.

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.

#YAReview: Activist by Louisa Reid

Cover image by Yuzhen Cai, publisher Guppy Books,
12th October 2022

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,

silence is

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.

Review: The Raven’s Song by Zana Fraillon and Bren MacDibble

Cover image by Joanna Hunt, published by Old Barn Books,
October 2022

A tale of survival, discovery and hope in a vividly imagined near-future where the population makes reparation for the climate crimes of the past, this new novel jointly written by an Australian and a New Zealand author is thought-provokingly brilliant. I think that the cover image by Joanna Hunt does full justice to the narrative’s imagery of two world’s colliding in a mystical space.

Shelby Jones, known as Shel by those closest to her, helps her dad manage a chicken farm. Her neighbour and best friend Davy helps his family run a sheep farm. Their world comprises exactly seven hundred hectares enclosed within an impenetrable fence and populated by precisely three hundred and fifty kind, ethical people. They know that another closed township exists a distance away, but travel outside their compound is out of the question and one of their main priorities is the daily check of their sections of the fence for any breeches in its security. As Shel’s first person narrative states in the first chapter:

If anything from the honoured and natural world gets in, that’s on us.


This strictly controlled world order is based on scientific analysis of the ability of the land to support human life following the climate-based disasters caused by earlier generations with their greed and disregard for the environmental damage they were causing. Now Shel and Davy’s generation must pay the cost; living low-tech, sustainable lives while the planet recovers. School history lessons repeatedly remind the children that they must endure a simplified, hardworking lifestyle in stark contrast to the technological advances that were enjoyed by their forebears but which caused existential chaos across the earth. The reverence in which the natural world is held is highlighted by the language, the title “honoured” bestowed on every reference to a part of nature from critter to mountain!

When a sheep goes missing from Davy’s farm the children find an unnatural cut in the fence and spy an unusual reflective disc tied to a distant tree in the jungle beyond the boundary of their world. This leads Shel to begin questioning what might have been on their land and the jungle that surrounds it, before the township was created and sets the tale of discovery in motion.

In a dual narrative we are introduced to the aptly-named Phoenix, who sees strange visions featuring a raven during the night, and his long dead mother at the window during the day. Combined with his sleepwalking, his Gran declares he has a sixth sense, a gift passed down from previous generations. Phoenix’s younger brother Walter seems to have linked visions and his sister Ida declares that ravens are birds of prophecy and that the visions are meaningful messages from the spirit realm. After a sleepwalk in the bog results in a bagful of objects linked to their dead mother, Phoenix and his four siblings decide that it is time to visit their mother’s memorial tree, planted in a small forest in the middle of their city. The mystical connection to a far distant past which occurs at this point left me intrigued and mesmerised and from this point I could not stop reading until the end of the story.

The connections across time between the narratives emerge in a plot which combines ecological science with poetic mythology. The duality of a fully preserved human child emerging from the liquid depths of a bog, and child victims of an incurable virus being suspended in time awaiting a scientific breakthrough is perfectly rendered in a complex and intriguing mystery. The themes of children teetering on the brink of adulthood and having their futures sacrificed by adult carelessness is as heart-breaking as it is beautifully and metaphorically written.

This is such a timely tale as the world emerges from the onslaught of COVID-19 and following a summer in which extreme climate events have been reported from all around the world. It is a story which certainly makes you think about they way we are treating the planet, the lessons we should be learning from the past and is ultimately a salute to human resilience and the value of taking responsibility to make a difference. When Shel and Phoenix’s existences finally collide, she says with the straightforward truth of youthful thinking:

You was just a kid. There’s not much you can do ’bout the world you’s born into, I guess, ‘cept try to walk real gentle where you can and give voice to the critters that’s too quiet to be heard and be a different kind of adult when you grow up.


I highly recommend this book to mature readers of 11+ and would encourage all secondary school librarians to place a copy in their collections where I am certain it will appeal to teenagers who are environmentally aware. Pre-order your copy today!

I am most grateful to Ruth at Old Barn Books and Liz Scott for providing me with access to an e-book version of The Raven’s Song ahead of publication on 6th October 2022.

#YAReview: War of the Wind by Victoria Williamson

Published by Neem Tree Press September 23rd 2022

An environmental thriller for a teen audience with positive representation of children with additional support needs, this book needs to be in every school!

This new novel from Victoria Williamson, who has been rightly acclaimed for her previous middle grade books, is aimed at a teenage audience as it details the personal journey of fourteen year-old Max, who is struggling to come to terms with total hearing loss. From the opening pages which plunge the reader into the icy North Sea alongside Max during a terrible accident on his Dad’s trawler, you are drawn into his world of alienation; feeling great empathy with his character as you begin to realise the frustration and anger behind some of his challenging behaviours.

On a remote Scottish island where Max was once one of the cool gang, proud of his physical prowess and joining in with his mates when they teased the “specials” or “zoomers” as they unkindly label the children with additional learning needs, he is now one of those children. And he is not happy about it. I think that what Victoria Williamson does so well, is that she makes the reader inhabit a character who is scared, angry, frustrated and flawed. She paints Max as an absolutely believable teenager, he is not rendered as a saintly hero just because he is now deaf, but has carried his former prejudices with him into his new reality. Feeling that his parents have replaced him with perfect baby sister Sally, not understanding why his Dad can’t be bothered to communicate in writing and irritated that his mum is always too tired to sign accurately, Max lashes out at those who are trying to help him. The narrative delicately unfolds his growing relationships with three children who have been “othered” their entire lives: David who is a wheelchair user, Beanie who has Down’s Syndrome and Erin who was born deaf. His gradual acceptance into this community is not without its ups and downs, but as their isolation provides them with the singular opportunity to save their island community, their strengths come to the fore.

You see, this is not just “an issues” novel, it is in fact a fast-paced, technological thriller with a despicable scientific-military experiment at its core. The islanders have voted to allow three huge wind turbines to be installed just off the coast; disregarding the ugly new impostors on the rugged coastline and their resultant noise pollution in favour of the promise of long awaited wifi. As the blades start turning, the local wildlife bears the first impact but then Max begins to notice inexplicable and sinister changes in the behaviour of the majority of the island’s inhabitants. As Max, Erin, Beanie and David work together to disrupt the plans of ruthless scientist Doctor Ashwood, I found myself turning the pages quicker than a turbine blade on the stormiest Highland night!

I highly recommend this novel for all secondary school librarians, both for it’s entertainment value as a gripping thriller and for the empathy-inducing portrayal of children who are often overlooked or dismissed. In the author’s notes at the end, it is stated that the novel was reviewed by the British Deaf Association to ensure that it presented a sensitive portrayal of deaf characters. As an adult reader, I was hugely impressed with the narrative and will take away new learning for my inclusivity work as a health librarian. Additionally, I can’t help seeing parallels between a white haired villain who manipulates a population to allow a change which is calculated to set neighbour against neighbour, and I imagine that this could lead to some interesting PHSE conversations.

War of the Wind will be published on September 23rd 2022, which happens to be International Day of Sign Language; 20% of author royalties are going to be donated to the British Deaf Association so pre-order your copy today. I am most grateful to Neem Tree Press for my gifted copy in return for my honest opinion.

#YAReview: Ready or Not by Tracy Darnton

Cover image by Ardalan Hamedani on Unsplash, published by Little Tiger Group, May 2022

I requested this book from Little Tiger Press when I saw the publicity material which compared it to one of my favourite ever YA novels, We Were Liars by E Lockhart, and it is certainly likely to appeal to fans of that title. The plot revolves around a group of privileged teenagers, and their final carefree summer holiday at the idyllic and luxurious summer home owned by one of their sets of parents. The story is narrated by the youngest of the group, fifteen-year-old Millie, who is trying to piece together the clues around a mysterious disappearance the previous summer. The story shifts backwards and forwards between 2018 and 2019, which combined with the unreliable narration, leaves the reader grasping for clues in the different characters’ perspectives of the fateful game of hide-and-seek which sparks the mystery.

Author, Tracy Darnton, shows her mastery of this genre, gradually releasing insights into the seething tensions festering below the carefree holiday facade. For beneath the surface of three university friends, who have been holidaying with their children year after year and assuming that the children will be great friends, we are given a glimpse into the simmering distrust sown by a narcissist amongst the children. When the gathering for the final summer holiday is further thrown into imbalance by a marital break-up and the appearance of new partners, the civilised surface shatters; beautiful but flawed Kat disappears; and three families are left broken.

Millie, who idolised Kat, is determined to get answers about what happened after the final game of hide and seek. She insists that the remaining teenagers: Charlie (Kat’s twin), and brother and sister Matt and Jem, should meet one last time at the Cornwall house before it is sold. Her memories, combined with the letters that her therapist has suggested she should write, gradually reveal fragments of the truth. With an excellent final twist, this is a book which will appeal to fans of the contemporary mystery genre. Suitable for readers of 14/15+.

I am grateful to Little Tiger for sending me a copy of Ready or Not in return for my honest review.

#YA Review: Her Dark Wings by Melinda Salisbury

Publisher: David Fickling Books, July 2022

I will start this review by quoting from the blurb on my proof copy of this YA novel, due to be published in July 2022:

Her Dark Wings is a potent, passionate modern-day take on the Persephone myth, beautifully told by an exceptional writer.

back cover blurb

If I was in my late teens, free of exams and responsibilities, I would have devoured this novel in one sitting. As a full-time librarian with family responsibilities, I had to pace my reading which had the advantage of allowing me to savour every perfectly constructed sentence and passage of this gripping story. Steeped in Ancient Greek lore, the narrative has a mythical feel; set on an unnamed, agricultural island where Ancient Greek rituals are observed by a contemporary population, the effect from the earliest pages plunges the reader into an unsettling space where the veil between real-life and the mythological realm appears to have been lowered. Author, Melinda Salisbury, has clearly steeped herself in research and writes so lyrically, that she transports her reader into this modern day fable with the same ease that an Olympian might summon a mortal from the earthly realm.

Our narrator, Corey Allaway, is a broken seventeen year old, submerged in the misery of first teenage heartbreak from which she does not seem able to resurrect her former self. She is totally overwhelmed by the joint betrayals of her first boyfriend, Alistair and her childhood best friend, Bree. Consumed by jealousy, rage and obsession she narrates in a voice of heightened emotion which compels the empathy of the reader as she explores her inner turmoil and reconstructs the events leading to a night on which everything will change. The appearance of a beautiful boy with golden lips at the Island’s Thesmophoria festival sparks a chain of events which encompass gods, furies, and mortals. The permeable border between the human and mythical world is used as a backdrop to interrogate the fine divide between love and hate, obsession and attraction and friendship and betrayal.

Corey’s affinity with the earth, her uncompromising sense of justice and gift for propagating new life produces enlightening results in a narrative that takes your breath away with both its plotting and prose. It becomes clear quite early in the story that the shattering of a life-long friendship is the ultimate betrayal in Corey’s mind and her feelings are examined with poetic beauty. I honestly could quote from virtually every page, but here are two examples taken from Corey’s imprisonment in the Underworld. Firstly as she returns to the care of one of the Furies after an encounter with Hades:

She folds her wings back once more. Even in the few moments she’s been away my mind has sanded down the edges of her, letting me forget how different she is compared to me, with her black quartz eyes, her talons and her feathers. 


And just a few pages later, whilst still in the cave of Erebus, with Alecto the Fury, this meditation on friendship:

Friendship is built on stories – secret for secret, confession for confession, and each one weaves invisible threads between you, binding you to each other. The more threads, the stronger the friendship.


This book is targeted at the YA market and I can see it being very popular amongst the older teenage audience. Those 16 – 18 year olds who were amongst the earliest readers of Maz Evans’ Who Let the Gods Out MG series, are likely to be intrigued by the reacquaintance with familiar names. I will certainly be adding it to my own teen’s TBR stack ready for the end of the public exam season. For those regular readers of my blog, who often come here for primary school recommendations; this is very definitely an older teenage book, with language and adult references not appropriate for the younger audience. As an adult, many years older than the target market, I thoroughly enjoyed Her Dark Wings and would categorise it in the same bracket as Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles or Circe and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History in terms of thoroughly immersive writing infused with classical content.

I am most grateful to David Fickling books and Liz Scott PR for sending me a proof copy of this book in return for my honest review.

Review: Aftershocks by Anne Fine

I have read, or listened to my children reading, many of Anne Fine’s books over the past 20 years, so I was fully aware of her prowess as a creator of absorbing and thoughtful stories. I am certain that Aftershocks, due for publication on 10th February 2022, will only add to her reputation as one of the finest contemporary writers of fiction for young people. This story deals primarily with grief, and Anne Fine has crafted a story which is gripping, atmospheric, deeply moving and full of wisdom which, at the moment they need it, could be a comforting and enlightening read for anyone of 10 years and above. It is often through fiction that individuals recognise their own or others’ deepest emotions and the publication of Aftershocks could not be better timed, given the dreadful individual and collective loss of lives experienced in the past two years.

The story is set in the fictional Federation, a land quite recognisable in its similarities to our own, with familiar technology and societal structure and is told as a first person narrative by Louie, a boy in his early teens dealing with the loss of his older brother, Toby, and parental separation. When a mix-up in his parents’ diaries results in him accompanying his engineer father to inspect a water pumping station in the remote Endlands, his family’s microcosm of grief becomes absorbed into a far larger trauma. The pumping station lies inland of a high ridge which separates it from the coastal community of the Endlands, populated by a minority group who have been broken and conquered by The Federation years earlier. In the middle of their first night at the industrial building, Louie and the engineering team are lucky to escape with their lives as an earth-splitting earthquake completely destroys the complex. Far worse is to befall the Endlanders, as a tidal wave wreaks destruction on their community. This scenario is brilliantly envisioned from Louie’s mind’s eye as he and the engineers hear the roar of destruction taking place on the far side of the ridge, which protects them from the in-rushing currents.

Events are portrayed with such immediacy and lucidity by Louie’s narrative that the story is utterly gripping and pulls the reader through all of the emotions felt by the protagonist and the characters surrounding him. The aftermath of a community’s collective loss and grief opens up an analysis of his own and his parents’ different ways of dealing with Toby’s sudden death under the wheels of a tearaway teenage driver. Such is the quality of the narrative that we are able to see the protagonists experiencing different stages or manifestations of grief without ever losing the pace and flow of the absorbing story. Thus we feel the mother’s visceral anger, Louie’s aching loneliness and the father’s denial and immersion into work to distract him from his thoughts. So loss and its aftermath have caused a breakup in the family and this is then brilliantly interwoven into the macroscopic bereavement of an entire community.

In creating the Endlanders as an imagined group with a unique set of beliefs, the author is able to examine collective rituals and different understandings of ghosts and lost souls. Louie’s Dad has remained on the coast with engineers and volunteers to help rebuild the infrastructure and Louie rejoins him during his school holiday. There have been reports on the internet of ghostly apparitions and the strange behaviour of the bereft survivors of the tsunami and it doesn’t take long before Louie encounters his first ghost, a young boy drenched in muddy water, leaving a trail of wet footprints before vanishing. The sense of a haunted landscape, crowded with lost souls is vividly rendered and there are scenes set at the pumping station ruins which sent shivers down my spine. As Louie begins to learn of the tradition of Malouy, the necessity of the bereaved to repeatedly tell the story of their lost loved ones to appease their unsettled spirits he finds the courage to talk to his father about the loss of Toby. There are some incredibly moving passages as the logical, scientific, engineer who has always had the ability to fix things, begins to understand that the more spiritual beliefs of others which he had previously dismissed as irrational, are in fact worthy of respect. Further, as Louie completes his understanding of the haunted community he is driven to an ultimate act of courage.

I am astounded by the power of this book. The imagery of loss as an earthquake, shattering all that had been complete and alive; the aftershocks of grief in all its forms; and the tsunami as a flood of emotions and tears which can be as devastating as the initial shock are all perfectly realised. Anne Fine’s writing style is very straightforward but packs a huge emotional punch, so perfectly does she express the inner lives of her characters and highlight the extreme difficulty experienced by some people of talking about bereavement. There is much wisdom packed into this dramatic work of fiction which could open up discussion, and I highly recommend it to all secondary school librarians and Year 6 classroom libraries as well as to anyone working their way through the loss of a loved one. I am certain that this will be a book that I recommend repeatedly in the years to come.

I am most grateful to the publishers Old Barn Books and to publicist Liz Scott for sending me a review copy of Aftershocks in exchange for an honest review.

Short Stories for Long Winter Evenings: A Glove Shop in Vienna and Christmas is Murder

A Glove Shop in Vienna published by Macmillan Children’s Books & Christmas is Murder published by Sphere, an imprint of Little Brown

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.

Books for Christmas Gifts 2021

It’s that time of year when I start shopping for the books that increasingly form the backbone of my Christmas shopping list. There has been another fantastic roster of new books emerging this year and we are actually spoilt for choice when entering a bookshop, so I thought I would share some of the books that have stood out for me during the past 12 months and which I will be buying and giving this festive season.

Christmas/Festive Themed

Christmas/Festive themed books 2021

Once Upon A Silent Night by Dawn Casey and Katie Hickey is a beautiful retelling of the Nativity story inspired by a medieval carol, which would make a delightful gift for any pre-school child.

The Christmas Carrolls by Mel Taylor-Bessent and Selom Sunu is a huge-hearted festive story which absolutely brims over with Christmas cheer, warmth and humour.

The Lights that Dance in the Night by Yuval Zommer is an enchanting picture book which sparkles with the magic of the Northern Lights; in the author’s own words “a miracle of winter”.


Non-fiction published in 2021 by David Fickling Books and Bloomsbury

Roar Like a Lion by Carlie Sorosiak: a wellbeing book with a different twist, looking at what we can learn from the animal kingdom to help us navigate some of life’s uncertainties. If you know a tween or teen who has struggled with some of the challenges of the past two years, put a copy of this compassionate and life-affirming book into their hands.

How Was That Built? by Roma Agrawal and Katie Hickey is quite simply a towering work of non-fiction which will make a fantastic present for curious minds of any age.

Translated Fiction

Interestingly, both of my choices in this category come from Scandinavian writers and feature unconventional stories brimming with wit and wisdom. Firstly we have the classic children’s story Pippi Lockstocking by Astrid Lindgren which has just been re-released in a glorious hardback format with new illustrations in her trademark collage-style, by Lauren Child. A beautifully designed gift for any child to treasure. Recommended for age 7+.

Newly translated into English this year, Me and the Robbersons by Finnish author Siri Kolu (translated by Ruth Urbom) was one of my most joyous middle-grade reads of the summer. An anarchic tale of sweet-toothed, highway bandits on the roads of Sweden, the humour envelopes a beautiful story of acceptance. Recommended for age 9+.

MG Fiction

The Exploding Life of Scarlett Fife by Maz Evans and Chris Jevons is a riot of jokes, warmth and love, fully illustrated and perfect for readers who are gaining independence and don’t mind stopping every few minutes to wipe away the tears of laughter.

Mickey and the Trouble with Moles by Anne Miller and Becka Moor is their second hugely entertaining, illustrated, spy mystery in this series, which will test the brainpower of junior cryptographers. An excellent introduction to the world of espionage fiction.

The Crackledawn Dragon by Abbie Elphinstone is the conclusion to her Unmapped Kingdoms trilogy. It is a story brimming with kindness, playfulness and sheer, unbound imaginative brilliance which will delight readers of 9+

The Swallows’ Flight by Hilary McKay is a deeply moving story set during WWII and told from the perspective of both English and German characters. The elegant imagery of swallows flits through this story of the importance of seemingly small acts of kindness. A thoughtful read for anyone of 11+.

Island Adventures

Three books, all set on islands situated off the Irish coast were amongst my favourite MG titles this year, so I’ve given them a category of their own!

Noah’s Gold by Frank Cottrell-Boyce is a treasure chest of heart, humour and hope; a wonderful story which will entertain all the family. Perfect for reading aloud when the generations are gathered together over the festive period.

The Stormkeepers’ Battle by Catherine Doyle concludes the thrilling and lyrical trilogy of the battle for the soul of wild Arranmore Island.

The Way to Impossible Island by Sophie Kirtley is a life-affirming, time-slip novel about overcoming fears and challenging expectations.

Young Adult Fiction

Ghost Bird by Lisa Fuller is unlike anything I have ever read in all my (many) years as a reader. I actually haven’t written my full review yet as I am still trying to process the insight that author Lisa Fuller has generously provided into her cultural beliefs. I did find some aspects quite frightening, so would certainly say that this is a book for over 16s and not those of a nervous disposition but I’m sure it will also be of great interest to adults who wish to gain some understanding of the culture and spiritual beliefs of First Nations Australians.

I am Winter by Denise Brown is a beautifully written, gritty, and compelling whodunnit perfect for readers of 15+ .