My love for Japanese mystery novels is well known and after finishing A Man by Keiichiro Hirano it joins the ranks of favourites.
In Japanese mysteries, I love above all the slow pace, the exploration of various themes, the philosophical exploration of life and all it entails.
I know for the Western mystery reader, Japanese mysteries can be a bit of a departure, but I wish more people would explore them. In many ways, I have begun to think of Japanese mysteries as mysteries for people who loath crime fiction and who-dunnits.
A Man is essentially an exploration of identity, the mystery at the centre is the suddenly missing identity of a now dead person: the people grieving the death thought they knew the dead person, but suddenly the dead person has no name, no identity. A lawyer takes on the case to deal with the aftermath of the discovery (family registers in Japan are a subject that forever fascinate me) and then begins to investigate who the man could have been. Kido, the lawyer, is someone who is at odds with his own identity and becomes fascinated in this man lacking an identity. This is partially due to his Korean heritage, and despite being a naturalised Japanese citizen still suffers from the racism against Korean Zainichi.
Where the novel really excels though for me is in the wider exploration of identity. Every single character in this book is unsure of their identity, struggling with it, trying to define themselves and this really pulled me into this novel. It made me contemplate identity as a wider theme of our lives, something that changes, can be burdensome and something that some of us at times may want to shed.
A lot of Japanese mysteries I have read over the years have this multi-layered aspect to it. If Western mysteries are pianos, then Japanese mysteries are organs full of registers and tones and require hands and feet to play them.
I cried at the end of this book. It was beautiful, touching, shocking, haunting… I really hope more of Hirano’s work will be translated soon, because if the rest of his books are like this novel, then I certainly want to read more of them.
Published June 1st 2020 by Amazon Crossing (first published September 28th 2018)
I am an incredibly nosy person. Most of my life I have to actively hold back asking questions. I have learnt (the hard way) that asking questions about personal matters is not a done thing. Don’t worry though, I have learnt to filter most of the nosy questions.
Yet, I am still nosy, or as I like to put it more gently these days: I am curious. I am curious about everything and so you’d think that memoirs would be a great way to explore what other humans do and think, what happened to them and how they dealt with it. Yes, you could think that but most memoirs leave me frustrated because they don’t answer my questions, they just add more questions and then, obviously, those remain unanswered.
Now and then though, a memoir comes along that just answers all my questions. A memoir that is honest and clear, straightforward (which I imagine comes at a cost) and beautiful.
How We Met is the story of how Huma, a Muslim woman of Pakistani heritage from Walsall, met Richard, an English man. I loved how Huma described her upbringing, a loving family, a tight-knit community, yes with its rules but also its comforts. Her education, her ambitions, her struggles, she did not hold back and laid it all bare in front of you. Like she did a big sweep with her arm and say: all of this made me the person I am today.
Often when we see stories of Muslim meets Non-Muslim, we expect fights, abandoning of faith and family, running away and the whole dramatic spectrum. I am not saying that these stories don’t happen, but I am very glad Huma wrote her story which had still its conflicts, pain and struggle but also showed the love and the concern of those around her, but also, as her friend, who encouraged her to write the story said: “Your happy ending.”
I can already hear the naysayers, who will say things like: why did she define herself for so long trying to get married, why did she not try to be a happy single. Nonsense of course, above anything else, beyond the cultural pressure, I got the feeling that Huma just really wanted a person to share her life with and I, for one, cannot see anything wrong with that. Feminism is also the ability of a woman to choose a union with another person as part of her fulfilment. Yes, of course, we should also be able to be alone, but I think for many of us, sharing a life with someone who gets us, is just something we aspire to and I am glad that Huma found that person in Richard.
I also loved the display of faith and religion in the book. Faith that is interwoven in daily life, a religion that is part of you and you are part of it. We are often confronted with the extreme ends of religion and faith, so it was nice to see how it is so different for most believers of any faith: it’s just part of who you are.
Needless to say that I loved this book. I read it in one sitting. Interesting to think that the main reason I picked up this book is because Huma is from Walsall and I have this urge to pick up West Midlands authors to support them (and I am not even from here, let alone from this country), but I just do. I have seen that Huma has another book coming out later this year and you can bet that I will pick it up, too.
Obviously, I am not really in Japan this January. It’s amazing how just one year into this pandemic how alien travel and the idea of travel has started to feel.
As much as there are restrictions on real travel, book travel can proceed without restrictions, quarantine and risk of catching Covid. So, read the world people. Break out of your British/US literature prison and go explore.
I have been reading Japanese fiction in translation for a long time. When I was 16, I became obsessed with Taiwan but there were precious little books available, so the librarian suggested I try some Japanese books in translation. That was over 30 years ago.
For Christmas, my husband got me the Japanese short story collection published by Stranger Press as individual chapbooks and so they underpin the reading for January in Japan this year. I also finally read Tokyo Ueno Station and I loved this novel so much. I think it will occupy my thoughts for a long time.
Yet, what I want to talk about today is Lonely Castle in the Mirror by Mizuki Tsujimura (translator Philip Gabriel – this information was way too hard to find and I find it awful that the publisher makes ZERO mention of the translator on the website. Can we make it a rule that both the translator and the cover designer are mentioned on the publisher’s website?)
I have seen a lot of discussion online about whether this book is Young Adult or not. There is always a part of me that is frustrated by this type of discussion. The wholesale dismissal of a book simply based on the age group it is apparently written for always seems ludicrous to me. Yes, I don’t read a lot of Young Adult myself, but if I find a premise interesting then I will pick up a book regardless.
So, yes, I would say this book is aimed at teenagers. The protagonists are teenagers, the issues that are dealt with are teenage issues (bullying at school, sexual violence against teenager, exclusion from education, fear of school etc.) and that to me makes it a book mainly aimed at teenagers.
We meet Kokoro, a young girl about 13 in her first year of High School, who after an incident that we slowly find out about, refuses to go to school. Her parents try to be understanding, try to figure out what is going on, but it is difficult because Kokoro only shares the physical symptoms – a terrible stomachache at the thought of going to school – with them and not the root cause.
It’s interesting how the author introduces us to Kokoro at a very slow pace. It’s like she is initially a bit out of focus and only gradually can we see her more clearly. A tremendous bit of writing to achieve that with such subtlety and grace.
One day, Kokoro’s mirror starts to glow and as she touches it, she moves through it into a castle where she meets a “wolf girl” calling herself the wolf queen and who promises her adventure and the fulfilment of a wish. Kokoro is freaked out and rushes back through the mirror into her room, but curiosity gets the better of her and she ends up returning to the castle.
The book moves at a slow pace which I thought was very apt for this kind of story. When you are so wrapped up in your head, your own problems, your own anxieties, it will take time to unravel what’s going on around you, it will take time to place trust in those you meet, it will take time to change. And so to me the pace of the book absolutely matches the story Mizuki Tsujimura is telling.
As a parent of a 14 year old girl, my heart was with the parents. Especially the mother. That was the part of the story that broke my heart repeatedly, because I understood how lost the mother was. Parenthood is uncharted territory and dealing with the pain of your child is something that you never get used to. And mental health issues caused by bullying at school, I mean what do you even do? It’s fraught with mistakes and poor judgement coming from a place of simply wanting to make it all better. This part of the novel hit me hard.
This is not a fairy tale, despite the premise and despite the reference to fairy tales. The castle is not a magical place where dreams come true and you fight dragons. The demons are you own, you have to deal with them in the real world. I love how subtle Mizuki Tsujimura used the purpose of fairy tales – giving children the ability to understand confusing and difficult emotions that they can’t really properly process in this safe space of a story – in her story. The castle was that safe space for the characters in this novel which equipped them to deal with the demons in their real life.
It’s fair to say that this novel touched me. It broke me, gave me hope, I cried, and I laughed. So this adult is glad to have read this young adult book. Maybe give it a try at some point.
I remember as a teenager, when I took a picture of a friend with a simple point and shoot, and she loved the picture so much because “it was the first time she liked herself in a photo”. The buzz was real.
I could not really take many photos as a teen and I only had a point and shoot camera, but I loved it. And I liked most of all taking pictures of my friends. Fast forward to the 2000s when I started to take portrait photography more seriously and foolishly decided to embark on starting a photography business specialising in portraits and weddings. In many ways, it was good that I tried, because otherwise I would have always wondered “what if”. I was successful, a fully booked wedding calendar, portrait shoots and some lovely projects for modelling shoots. Yet it was not for me and totally killed my love of photography for years. I gave up the business in 2014 and did not pick up a camera until this autumn. I mean I took photos with my phone, but deliberately not good ones, not caring what the pictures looked like.
Why did wedding photography kill my joy in photographing? I think first and foremost: I am not good at interacting with people. I mean of course, I can interact, and I sort of know how to do that, but because it does not come naturally to me it is super exhausting. So a wedding did not just leave my physically exhausted (and believe they do take their toll on your body) but also mentally. If I had two weddings on a weekend (which was often the case) I would need nearly all week to recover, but I could not because in between, you had to go out and meet people for more weddings, edit photos, liaise with clients, design albums, write blog posts. But here is the thing, if I am exhausted from human interaction I basically need to hide away from the world and cannot do anything until I recovered.
If this is not your world, it may seem strange to you, but for me this is my reality and something I just have to live with. Well-meaning people would say things like: You will get used to it. But trust me: I never did, and I still never do. It’s not that I don’t like people, it’s just that in order to not seem “too weird” I have to roll out all learned behaviours and trust me not doing that does not work, because only people who love me accept my weirdness. But I guess, this is something I must be grateful for that the photography business showed me this AND made me accept that this is simply who I am.
I mentioned before that a k-drama (Encounter with Park Bo-Gum in case you wonder) made me pick up the camera again. I mostly take street photos at the moment, all in black and white, but – and it’s not surprising – I still love portraits. Currently (hello pandemic) I am only taking the occasional portrait of my family, but I would like to do portraits of other people too. Looking at a good portrait brings me joy; I just have to find a way of doing it that won’t drain me. Planning portrait shoots or, goodness forbid, even a project seems a bit futile now, nevertheless my trusty old Leuchtturm is full of ideas. Occasionally, I go through the list and delete some of them for various reasons, I hope that at some point I have a list that is realistic, in line with my character and feasible. It may seem odd to most people that to me both can be equally true: That I like to shoot portrays and find human interaction difficult. The joy of portrait photography totally outweighs everything else if I handle it right and pace myself.
2021 might be the year for some more portrays, who knows. If you follow me on Instagram, you will find out.
December is always a time to reflect on everything that the year had in store and let’s face it: Reflecting on books will be most likely the reflection we can enjoy most this year.
Like in years before most of these books I could read thanks to Netgalley and I still love this service so much.
If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha (Published by Ballantine Books)
Set in Seoul, we follow several women who all live in the same Officetel in Gangnam and by learning of their lives, we find out the realities of being a woman in contemporary Korea. Recently I did a post on instagram about tropes I love and this book meets several of these tropes: Belonging, female friendship and the “fully-rounded” woman. What I loved the most about this books is how Frances Cha writes women with depth and complexity. So rare to find, so brilliant when you do.
The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (published by OneWorld Publications)
Kirabo is raised by her grandparents in rural Uganda. The older she gets the more she longs to know the mother who abandoned her or to at least understand why she was left with her grandparents. In its essence this is a coming of age story, interwoven with Ugandan myths and thus a strong magical sense, but it is also way more than that. It’s a truly feminist novel exploring themes of belonging and female connection at a time of upheaval and insecurity set to a backdrop of Amin’s regime in the 1970ies.
Braised Pork by An Yu (published by Harvill Secker)
This is a debut novel by Chinese writer An Yu and so many of the themes in this book deeply resonate with me: family, love, grief, belonging. Let me make it clear that if you don’t like magical realism then this book will not be for you. It is very dream like, almost like floating. Jia Jia finds her husband dead in the bathtub one day after breakfast. It was a marriage of convenience so Jia Jia is both grieving for something she does not really miss and also having for the first time in her life some space and time to ponder who she is and what she wants to do. I liked the imagery of opposites and the dream like nature of this book. A great debut and shall definitely look for more books by the author in future.
Berliner Briefe by Susanne Kerckhoff (published by Das Kulturelle Gedächtnis)
“Berliner Briefe” (Berlin letters) is a series of ficitonal letters written after WWII by a young woman in Berlin to her German-Jewish friend living in exile. She describes the situation of a post-war Germany where you did not see the guilt you expected, where there was no “oh no what have we done” but where life was dominated by annoyance of having lost the war, being occupied. Helene struggles with this, struggles with her own guilt despite not having been a Nazi. It really is not so much an epistolary novel more a monologue in which she explains to Hans what life is like in post-war Germany, her struggles with joining a political party, meeting her old classmates from school, the divide already forming between East and West, the fear of a possible new war… for such a small book it really packs a punch and it was an amazing, if depressing read. The postscript annoyed me. Let’s call it an unnecessary smudge. The book itself top, harrowing in how much you can see being repeated especially with the Brexit nightmare we are experiencing.
Trümmerfrauen: Ein Heimatroman by Christine Koschmieder (published by Nautilus)
That was a lot of book. Current, yet looking back on German history. Exploring what Heimat is to some and what it means to others. That German word that has so many translations into English but none that actually truly convey it. A word that lead to crimes being committed and a word much touted by those that want their “country back”. A tricky concept “Heimat” for a lot of us Germans. Koschmieder packs a lot into this novel and after reading it, I felt a lot like Lou: demons are descending on me and I have a lot of questions but really no answers whatsoever. And I have a hunch that was what she wanted to evoke in the reader.
Kim JiYoung Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo (translated by Jamie Chang) (published by Scribner UK)
Misogyny can drive you to a mental breakdown and the protagonists experience of it is harrowing to read. It begins while she is growing up with a brother who is favoured and spoiled through school right into the workplace. It’s relentless. So much was relatable, sadly. An important read, I hope particularly that lots of men read it.
The Address Book by Deirdre Mask (published by St. Martin’s Press)
I never really thought about much about addresses and what they say about about politics and our world. It made me understand aspects of equality, equity and racism from a completely fresh angle. Fascinating when you shift the lens slightly, how you can look at the same thing but see something completely different.
Almond by Won Pyung-Sohn (translated by Joosun Lee) (published by HarperVia)
I did not expect this to by YA, so that took me a bit by surprise, but it was a good surprise and one of the books both my teenager and I read and talked about. As a k-drama addict, this book had many elements you know and love from dramas. For example, the theme of Alexithymia is something, we encountered a couple of times in dramas before, so it was not an unusual concept to us. I liked the detached writing style, because it really felt we were in the characters head. What my daughter liked was that there was no “this is how you should think about this” forced on her as the reader, but that the writer allowed her the reader to let herself make up her mind. Something that is more important to teenagers than some authors think.
Poor by Caleb Femi (published by Penguin)
This was part of my favourite books in November post and so let me just repeat this: Best poetry collection this year. Handsdown! No argument, if this does not go on to win some awards, well then I am going to be upset. It should win all the things. All of them.
Terraformed by Dr. Joy White (published by Repeater Books)
In many ways, you should read Terraformed and Poor in conjunction, because they are the perfect book pair. I was overwhelmed by this book. I believe that if you work in any shape or form with “community” then book is a must read to prevent “good intentions” from pushing out Black and Brown members of the community. There is a lot more to say but really I just want every English person to read it. It’s a very well written book, incredibly accessible but absolutely important. I relate so much to her thoughts on austerity and predatory capitalism and their impact on communities like Newham.
Antlers of Water by Kathleen Jamie (published by Canongate)
In any normal year, my best lists will include several nature writing titles, so that this year there is just one is a bit of a surprise to me. Normally collections and anthologies never quite work for me, but this book did. I love that the remit was exploring what natural world means beyond the big wild spaces that may not be accessible to most, hostile to some and bringing up all sorts of issues for some. I hope this sets the tone for a new wave of nature writing, after all we are nature and we are part of it. My backgarden and the roads of my neighbourhood are just as much a “nature experience” then when I travel to the Scottish Highlands and hike there.
The Thief of the Winged Horse by Kate Mascarenhas
I loved Mascarenhas’ book “The Psychology of Time Travel” because she had the knack to create women characters that were complex and intelligent. So I had expectations for this book, big expectations for this book and by and large, they were met in this book. The author is just excellent at creating characters, I felt instantly interested in all of the characters introduced and wanted to keep reading to learn more about them. In this book, there are more male characters and I am pleased to say that especially Larkin and Briar were really fascinating. The secrecy of the eyot and the Kendricks business were intriguing from the first page and it was an absolutely entertaining read throughout, even if the ending fell short for me. Still, Mascarenhas has won me over and she has now become an “instant read” author for me.
A Pretty Deceit by Anna Lee Huber
I love a mystery and I am in the middle of many series (many of which are still being written). If I consider that I almost did not continue with the series after book 1… well, I am glad I did. This 4th instalment in the series is hands down the best book of the series yet: the characters are well established, we have a formidable enemy that always seems to be a step ahead, a main mystery for the book, riddles, dashing about, the aftermath of WWI… all in all just a jolly good read. The perfect book for locking reality out and disappearing somewhere else. It’s been a while since I was thoroughly entertained by a mystery, this one absolutely delivered.
It has been nice to see so many people picking up the Shardlake series recently on booktube and instagram. I remember when I first read Dissolution many years ago, I was so smitten with it, I immediately started looking for books that were similar. And this has continued to this day. So I thought I share today some of the books that I think may appeal if you like C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake series, set in Henry VIII’s England. (new edit: 11/12/2020)
S.J. Parris’ Giordano Bruno Series
The first book in the series is called “Heresy” and sets the tone nicely for the overarching theme of the book: Religious tensions leading to political intrigue. We are in Elizabeth I’s England and the religious situation for those of Catholic (or other faith’s) is difficult in England and all over Europe religious tensions are growing. Giordano Bruno was a real person and he really came to England and Parris weaves a wonderful fictional world around him. A former monk, he was on the run from the Inquisition in Italy and sought refuge in England. Officially, he is in England to take part in a debate about Copernicus’ findings, but then some grizzly murders happen and he starts to investigate.
There are currently 5 books out and book 6 is scheduled for publication later in the year.
PF Chisholm’s Sir Robert Carey Series
We stay in Elizabethan England for this series, but venture north. Sir Robert Carey is another real historical figure and with a modicum of creative license Chisholm brings him alive wonderfully in this series. I was instantly smitten with this daring, intelligent man – even though he is also a bit stupid. His father was the first cousin of Elizabeth, some rumours say half brother, Tudor family politics are nothing if not complicated. In 1596 towards the end of Elizabeth’s reign, Carey is appointed as Warden of the Middle Marches which is essentially the border region with Scotland. An area of great unrest at that time, skirmishes between Scots and English on a daily basis, chief amongst them cattle theft. In the books, Carey arrives into a badly managed fort with people on his forces that have rather different allegiances and priorities than serving their Queen.
There are 9 books in the series, the most recent one only published last year.
Published by Head of Zeus and Poisoned Pen Press.
Ellis Peter’s Cadfael
Before there was Shardlake, there was Cadfael. I discovered the Cadfael series as a teenager back in the 80ies and I was a loyal devotee from the first book. The series was hugely popular in Germany, Germans do love historical fiction set in the Middle Ages and you will find the historical fiction section full of titles like this. What I loved the most about Peter’s books was the sense of place. She evokes Shrewsbury of the 12th century so vividly, it is just such a joy to read. We follow Cadfael a Benedictine monk, a conversus who only joined the order in his 40ies and was a warrior in the crusades before. As someone who always has been interested in herbs and their properties, I loved the little side notes on Cadfael’s herbal preparations for healing. Peters sets Cadfael’s chronicles in the year’s of the Anarchy, 1137 to 1145, a turbulent time and in particular what is now Shropshire saw itself frequently torn between the factions. Needless to say that murders happen in each of the novels, but Peters skilfully weaves the wider historical aspects and conflicts into the story. A joy to read.
There are 20 books in the series and some short stories.
Publisher, various imprints, now Macmillan
SG MacLean’s Alexander Seaton series
We are leaving the Middle Ages behind and move to 17th century Scotland. Alexander Seaton is set to become a minister of the Kirk, but due to a revelation of an event in his past, the Session rejects his application. Set in Banff in the 1620ies, Maclean masterfully brings Scotland alive, no dashing Highlanders sweeping time travellers of their feet, but a young scholar plagued with guilt desperately trying to redeem himself and to get a grip of his guilt. When one of his last remaining friends is accused of murder, Alexander tries to prove his innocence. I have rarely read a book that both gave me such insight into events of a historical period I had little idea of, but at the same time also really made me understand how people thought at the time. I read all the books in this series in short succession and then moved on to her next series (which you will find below).
There are 4 books in this series and the series is complete.
Published by Quercus
SG Maclean’s Seeker series
Yes, I mention the same author twice, because I truly love her books and in my personal opinion her books are far too underrated and deserve a wider audience.
Damian Seeker is an officer in Cromwell’s army. The series starts in 1654 during Cromwell’s Protectorate (which ends in 1660 with the Restoration of the Monarchy) and a murder happens in one of London’s new coffee houses. Seeker investigates as it may be linked to a wider conspiracy to bring back the King. Intrigue, betrayal and murder. I love how we get to know Seeker slowly, he is a mystery that needs to be solved as well, some excellent female characters in this series too, in particular a female villain, we love to hate.
There are currently 3 books in the series and book 4 (The Bear Pit) is coming out in July 2019
Published by Quercus
Ruth Downie’s Medicus series
I am currently listening to this series after having read them a few years ago. Highly addictive material. Ruso, a doctor with the Roman Legions, arrives in today’s Chester virtually broke, just having lost his father and divorcing his wife. He was not particularly keen to end up in this outpost of the Roman Empire, but needs must. Within days of his arrival, he finds a female corpse that no one wants to deal with and then he saves a slave girl and that adds to his troubles. His boss, Deva is also constantly on his case and, yes, he continues to be broke. I absolutely love this series and how Downie imagines Roman Britain.
Currently 8 books in the series, the most recent one published last year.
Published by Bloomsbury
Abir Mukherjee’s Wyndham and Banerjee series
Instantly won over by this historical mystery series set in 1920ies India. Sam Wyndham is a newly arrived English police captain working for the Imperial Police Force. He lacks understanding of India and despite being clearly able to spot injustices, unfairness and racism, he does not really do much because he is one of those infuriatingly loyal men who by trying to do the “right, correct, proper” thing ends up doing mostly wrong things. I am curious to see how this continues, but already love it and it has to be on this list.
There are more books I could talk about, but I think I keep it at this length for now. Any books you want to add? Any series, I should be aware off? Any great new first book in series coming out? Please let me know in the comments.
There are currently 4 books in the series.
Published by Vintage
Cay Rademacher’s Frank Stave series
Translated from the German by Peter Millar, this series startes in the coldest winter of 1947. Frank Stave is a re-instated police detective trying to solve a murder while negotiating the “red tape” of British occupation, a city in ruins and full of refugees and displaced people whilst surviving himself. There is one thing knowing what post-war Germany must have been like, there is another thing reading it so brilliantly conjured up. I was told the translation is excellent, since I obviously read it in German.
I read 16 books in November and that is nearly back to the level of reading I did pre-pandemic. And I don’t think it is a coincidence that I read more in November because weirdly this second lockdown had a more of a routine feel to me than any of the months before. Maybe it’s because Covid has become normal and I have created new routines that I manage to feel a bit more me.
This year has taught me that I am a very routine-driven person. I need to know what happens when and how and, yes, I can be flexible and stuff, but only within that framework. Take my framework away and I flail big time.
I am not going to talk about all 16 books but just those that were highlights, however, there were many, so let’s get going.
How to Live Korean by Soo Kim
I am still (and probably will for decades to come) get every book by a Korean author. Once I am obsessed, I am obsessed. The book pretty much does what is stays on the cover, it deals with all aspects of Korean life such as traditions, family, food, culture. I knew a lot of it, but there were still a few things in there that I had not heard before. Naturally, this kind of book is just a general type of overview, never make the mistake of looking at any place or country as a homogeneous entity. If you are interested in Korea and don’t know where to begin, this is definitely a good start.
Death and the Brewery Queen by Frances Brody
To think that I almost did not read on after reading the first book in the series! I love this series so much and look forward to every new installment. Set in Yorkshire in the late 1920ies, Kate Shackleton investigates crimes of any nature for her clients, such as possible fraud, threats etc. So much of historical mystery writing is focussed on London, let me tell you, it’s fab when there is a series that is set somewhere other than the capital. My love for mysteries will never stop (see above with regards to obsessions).
The Biscuit by Lizzie Collingham
This is my 3rd book by Lizzie Collingham and I have no regrets whatsoever. I do love a good social history book and especially “food and history” is my favourite combination. Lizzie Collingham takes us through the ages with the help of biscuits and let me tell you: it’s fascinating.
Antlers of Water by Kathleen Jamie
Nature writing has been a favourite of mine for a long time and Scotland is a particular love of mine, so a combination of the two will always end up on my TBR. Canongate kindly sent me a copy and I devoured it in a few sittings. I love books that stretch the definition of nature writing and I hope we see a lot more. Not all of us can wander “wild, remote places” but we are all beings in surroundings and to write about it is nature writing. We are nature, all of us and I love this collection – beyond the wonderful writing – for allowing voices to emerge that take that into consideration.
A Little Annihilation by Anna Janko
Anna Janko’s mother witnessed the murder of her parents, her entire community at the hands of German soldiers in their Polish village. Now that Janko’s mother is starting to forget, Anna Janko is remembering for both of them. She talks about the inherited trauma, the forgetting of history, the ranking of horrors and what is remembered and what is not remembered. An important book, a difficult read, but I am grateful to my Read Around the World people for voting for this book, as I am not sure I would have picked it up otherwise.
Poor by Caleb Femi
Best poetry collection I read this year and also, let me mention the amazing photography within the collection. Themes centering around growing up on a London estate and all growing up entails: Love, friendship, pain, grief. Loved it.
Shame on Me by Tessa McWatt
If you have known me for a while you will know that books about belonging are something I will always choose. And for Tessa McWatt belonging has always been a difficult question considering her multi-racial background. I loved how she explored her own belonging through parts of her body in a conversation with herself and her ancestors. The writing is so beautiful, her search for answers to her own questions often very painful but also so deeply insightful. There are so many sentences that keep spinning in my head like this one:
“I hold on to the image of my Indian ancestor squatting not because I don’t trust the science of DNA, but because it doesn’t account for all the songs or symphonies we are, or for literature, or for out of body experiences, for my father in the birds, my mother’s awe of the trees, for the perfection of being in the right life, the right body.”
Give the Devil his Due by Sulari Gentill
Book 7 in one of my favourite mystery series, set in 1930s Australia. I love how Gentill weaves together actual historical figures and events with her mystery plots… so seemingly effortless, so brilliant. I have learnt so much about Australian history, social issues and the viewpoints of what was going on in Europe at the time through this series. And yet it never once feels like an information dump, no they are just brilliantly plotted novels. Every single one of them.
Not like a Native Speaker by Rey Chow
Academic essays about the impact of colonialism and post-colonialism on language. If you are interested in language, then this is a must read.
The Boy At The Back of The Class by Onjali Q. Rauf
Ahmet is a refugee and new to class, at first the kids find him a bit weird, but then a friendship is formed. A lovely story and also very funny, despite the subject matter. I have always been fond of stories where differences are overcome and a friendship is formed. I love that in books and movies.
The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
I love Kiran’s books, she certainly knows how to rope you in and create something special. And this novel is no exception, magical story, great setting. Perfect book to curl up with over Christmas.
Anisha, Accidental Detective by Serena Patel
This one is dear to my heart because for one, I do love a mystery and and also she is a local-to-me author (she is from Walsall). A great mystery for younger readers or readers who still develop confidence in their reading. So funny as well.
High-rise Mystery (High-Rise Mystery #1) by Sharna Jackson
Did I say I like mysteries? Are you a bit tired of mysteries set in country houses and fancy parties? I always wondered why there are not more who-dunnits in other settings than just posh surroundings. Such a great mystery which reminds me I must read the second one soon.
Artichoke Hearts by Sita Brahmachari
This is on the cusp between middle grade and YA. This book deals with everything from death to first crushes. I know a lot of parents are reluctant to let their children read books that deal with issues, but I would urge you to not direct the reading of your children too much and also let them read about things like death and family problems. A book gives us an opportunity to experience something beyond our own world and also can be comfort if we see something in writing we may have experienced ourselves.
Boy in the Tower by Polly Ho-Yen
This is a sci-fi/dystopian book about an impending disaster threatening this version of London. Bit like a thriller with a super fast moving plot and brilliant characters. What is really so brilliant is that we are in Ade’s (the main characters) head and we experience everything through him and we don’t know anymore than he does. It’s also just extremely well plotted and such great characters.
Asha and the Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan
This was an early lockdown book for me and it was perfect for that. Fantasy/magical realism book set in the Himalaya’s, I love this almost fairytale like book about strength and courage, full of adventure. Loved it.
On Friday, I was getting annoyed about “diverse” book lists featuring kids’ books where most (in some cases all) of the books were written by white authors but featured a Black or Brown kid on the cover. That’s not “diverse” publishing. Britain (like most of the world) has to go a long way in truly equitable publishing.
Anyway, I thought I write a gift guide of my own. Picture books were the hardest since I don’t read that many these days, but I do usually buy Xmas gifts for a local charity each year and so I read a few each year to make a decision… in the last 5 years, I have made the concious decision to only donate books written by Black and Brown British authors. So this list is based on that reading.
I would also like to announce that my local area now has a bookshop again. I cannot begin to express how grateful I am for this. It is a children’s bookshop in Bearwood (on instagram: @bearbookshop) (also ships books) and she is happy to order any books (even adult) in. So please gift books this Christmas and buy them from a bricks and mortar bookshop, a real bookshop is something to treasure in any community.
All these authors are Writers of Colour, three of the illustrators are Black illustrators. Most of the books are by British author with one exception but the exception is worth it.
1. Kechi’s Hair Goes Every Which Way by Tola Okogwu and illustrated by Naomi Wright
Tola Okogwu is a British journalist, writer and blogger and I loved this story. Quirky and cute and I imagine fantastic to read out loud (my teen refuses to be read picture books…).
2. Baby Goes to Market by Atinuke, illustrated by Angela Brooksbank
Atinuke is a Welsh-Nigerian author and we loved the Anna Hibiscus books when my kid was younger. This is a more recent book and is a counting story. The illustrations are wonderful as well and there is plenty to see and point out.
3. Come All You Little Persons by John Agard, illustrated by Jessica Courtney-Tickle
I have been a huge fan of John Agard’s poetry and this picture book is naturally a poetic one. If you never read his poetry, this picture book may be a good place to start.
4. The Proudest Blue by Ibtihaj Muhammad, illustrated by Hatem Aly
This is the only American book on this list but I liked this picture book so much and I love that Ibtihaj Muhammed is an American sable fencer, what a woman. This picture book deals with “firsts”, first day at school of the younger sister and first day of wearing a hijab for the older sister.
5. Get a move on! by Ben Bailey Smith (aka Doc Brown) and illustrated by Mette Engell
Doc Brown is a British rapper, writer, actor… he does everything basically. I loved this story of a family getting ready for an outing and everything going wrong. It’s a picture book on the cusp to “first reader” book, so a brilliant addition to any kid’s library.
6. Rocket Says Look Up! by Nathan Bryon, illustrated by Dapo Adeola
Nathan Bryon is a British actor and now also writer. Rocket wants to see a comet and asks everyone to go and see it with her. Lovely story about how things experienced together are so much better.