Earthed by Rebecca Schiller

I do not know when or why, but one day I started following Rebecca Schiller on Instagram. I have always been drawn to people who garden, who move to the countryside for that smallholding experience, because at times I have toyed with that idea myself. I have mentioned before that I am incredibly curious about people’s lives.


Of course, I know that Instagram is a highlight reel for many of us, but something about her account always felt to me always more like “kindred” rather than just a random person to follow. So when I saw she had a book coming out, I requested it on Netgalley as soon as I saw it.


Now, I expected a story of her moving to the country, finding it a bit hard and how they overcame it together as a family. And yes this book is about that in a way, but it is also not that at all, because Rebecca has a story (or a multitude of stories) to tell about her move, what she feels is a mental health problem, you could say her unravelling, the stories she found in the land she inhabits and beyond, and the slow unveiling of a diagnosis and hopeful embarking on a way forward. (These are not spoilers.)


I grew up in the countryside and my grandmother had a huge allotment, I often joke I grew up somewhere between cabbages and runner beans as most of our life was spent on that allotment. So I have no illusion about the hard work it is to grow your own food and then like Rebecca must balance it with a career, a family, livestock and that nagging feeling of “What the hell is wrong with me? Why am I like this?”.


Writing about this book is a bit of a challenge if I am honest. Not because I did not love the book, heck, I love it a lot. So much. It is hard because I am trying hard to not make this about me, about how I felt while reading the book, what it made me think and contemplate. Staying with Rebecca’s story is so hard because a lot of it felt like mine. I read on Twitter this morning: “A story is not a mirror but a door.” And Earthed felt to me like a door. But talking about the door is for another day. Another time.


An aspect I loved is that Rebecca shared in so much detail how her brain works. How she will focus on something so much it becomes its own story; the brain leads to ever more detail about people and stories and it can be overwhelming but also incredibly calming. I just got her. Got all the stories. Got what she is saying.

I also loved that idea she contemplates a lot: that a smallholding is more than just a place where you grow food and keep a bit of livestock. It is land and that land has always been there, people have lived on it, passed through it, vegetation was there and then was changed, mostly by humans. A house is also a place where – especially in the UK – people have lived before us and that curiosity as to who they are and what they have been like is something I never knew other people thought about as well. In as much detail as I do.

Nature is naturally the biggest theme in this book, it is called Earthed after all. The earth, the garden, the land kept Rebecca tethered when she felt the ground was slipping underneath here and this not just in the proverbial sense. Growing flowers and food. Stepping outside to hug an oak when life inside gets too much. Marvelling at the flowers. Noticing. Observing. But never being quite still, just enought to keep going. I don’t think I have ever read a more beautiful metaphor for life. 

The structure of the book may feel experimental to some as we switch between memoir and narrative elements, yet, I don’t think this book could be any other way, since it would otherwise fail to convey the reality in which the author found herself in. 


I am going to grow some dahlias this year and when I look at them, I will think of this book and the door and be grateful it had been a book I did not know I needed to read, finding its way to me through just following someone on Instagram at some point.

A Man by Keiichiro Hirano (translated by Eli K.P. William)

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.

295 pages

Published June 1st 2020 by Amazon Crossing (first published September 28th 2018)

January in Japan 2021

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.

The lovely Lauren (https://www.instagram.com/end.notes/) and Rachael (https://www.instagram.com/anovelfamily/) are hosting #readtheworld21 and with it we are back to Japan this January.

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.

Best books I read published in 2020

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. 

 

If you like C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake (updated 11/12/2020)

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

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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.

Publisher: HarperCollins

 


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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

There are 3 books in this series.

Published by Arcadia Books.

Books I loved in November

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.”

Tessa McWatt

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.

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Middle-grade books – Christmas Gift Guide

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

Picture books – Christmas Gift Guide

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.

Historical fiction in Victorian (and Regency) times not set in London – 10 books on a theme

So much of historical fiction is set in London or the Home Counties, one could easily believe that the rest of the country did not exist in the past. And for no period is this more true than Victorian Britain. In fact, I struggled to find 10, so I included 2 from the Regency period as well.

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet


Set up as a true story, but being entirely fictional, we follow this grim, dark tale set in the Scottish Highlands. The sad thing is that stories like this did happen and worse as well. And it’s testimony to the authors brilliant writing style that I felt convinced that it must have happened just so.

The Strings of Murder (Frey & McGray #1) by Oscar de Muriel

Mystery series set in Victorian Edinburgh (and other parts of the British Isles). An English police officer sent to Edinburgh after falling into disgrace with his superiors has to work with Scottish police officer to solve crimes that may or may not have a super natural background. I love them.

Arthur & George by Julian Barnes

There is so little historical fiction set in the Midlands, it has to be celebrated. It’s probably my favourite Barnes. When Conan Doyle meets a young Indian man living in Staffordshire accused of a dreadful crime.

Crocodile on the Sandbank (Amelia Peabody #1) by Elizabeth Peters


They are silly fun mysteries usually set on archaeological digs somewhere in Egypt. Now and then I read one as a bit of a palate cleanser after reading something harrowing. Works every time.

The Anatomist’s Wife (Lady Darby Mystery #1) by Anna Lee Huber

Set in 1830ies Scotland and Northern England, I love this series! Solid mystery adventures.

The Black Country (Scotland Yard’s Murder Squad #2) by Alex Grecian

I live on the edge of the Black Country, another Midlands set book and despite the fact that I rolled my eyes at times, I still liked it enough to recommend.

The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo by Catherine Johnson

This YA book is set in 1819 but I thought a historical romance would fit the bill quite nicely. Set in the area around Bristol it is a fabulous tale of mistaken identity.

The Strangler Vine (Avery & Blake #1) by M.J. Carter

What I like the most about Carter’s books is how she shatters one of the protagonists rosy-tinted view of the British Empire. Slowly, surely. This one is set in India.

Gaslight by Eloise Williams

Eloise Williams writes absolutely enchanting books for young people, without sparing them the grizzly reality of life back then. Older middle-grade, young YA book set in Cardiff in 1899.

The Convictions of John Delahunt by Andrew Hughes

Mystery set in 1840s Dublin based on true events. Victorian Ireland was shaken by the events and I can honestly say, so was I reading this book.

Cloak and Dagger Christmas Readathon TBR

The past few years, I have co-hosted this readathon with Kate Howe and others and despite the fact that I am not co-hosting this year, I am still excited to take part.

Christmas and reading mysteries goes hand in hand for me and I tend to get through quite a few during Advent. This year the prompts are inspired by a country house mystery setting.

I occassionally make book lists on bookshop.org. I will get a small comission if you buy any of the books.

The first prompt is Study and I chose The Law of Lines by Hye-Young Pyun (translated Sora Kim-Russel) for it. There is never a shortage of Korean books on my TBR and over the last year, I have particularly loved some of the slow burn crime/thriller type books from Korea. I loved The Hole a lot, so I am curious and excited for this one.

My library has been shut since March, so no chance to borrow anything, so I chose to interpret this as reading a book from my own library and Kwei Quartey’s book has been waiting for my attention all year. It’s the first novel in the Darko Dawson series set in Ghana and it sounds absolutely fantastic. Quartey is a Ghanaian-American writer and he writes character-driven mysteries.

I have read a lot of Japanese crime fiction over the years, but I have not yet read anything by Keiichiro Hirano (transl. by Eli K.P. William) since this is actually the first book of his to be translated into English. A Man sounds intriguing. We follow Akira Kido, a divorce attorney whose own marriage is on the rocks. One day a former client shows up to ask him to investigate her recently deceased husband who seemed to have lived a lie. I don’t need to know anything more about this, this sounds 100% my cup of tea.

This will be the 3rd (of 4) Blanche mysteries. I am spreading them out because once I am done, I am done and I love them. Blanche is a Black woman, a housekeeper, raising her sister’s kids and just really trying to make ends meet, but mysteries just keep coming her way. I love her snark, her personality and quite frankly Blanche is one of the best female characters to ever been written. The books are not just fab for the mysteries, they are also brilliant for the observations on society and people in general.

I love mysteries and Argentinia has a great tradition of mystery writers. There has even been the term of Buenos Aires Noir thrown about. I am glad that Bosco is now more widely available and I cannot wait to read her novels. Most of her novels were originally published in the 1950ies and she was a bestseller at the time. This one is about a death in an elevator in a posh apartment building. Translated by Lucy Greaves.

It’s finally time to pick up Ovidia Yu’s mysteries. I have been wanting to read this Singaporean writer for a couple of years but things always happen and other books come along. I am a big lover of food based mysteries and I love Singapore, so it’s going to happen, I am reading this December.

When people think of closed circle mystery, they think of Manor House mysteries, but I wanted something else and The Investigation by J.M. Lee (translated by Chi-Young Kim) set in a prison sounded intriguing and very tense.

I love Sulari Gentill’s 1930ies set mystery series featuring Rowland Sinclair so much, it’s another one that I am spacing out so I don’t run out too soon. This is book 7 of 10. There are historical mysteries that are just fun to read but the historical bit is a bit on the sidelines and then there are those like this series where you find out loads about the historical period while a mystery is going on. I had no idea about the 1930ies in Australia before, I love in particular getting the Austrialian gaze towards Europe and the rise of Hitler (one of the books plays in Germany, that was tense) as well as the own issues of fascim in Australia at the time as well as all sorts of other societal contexts, I had zero clue about.

Book 5 of 8, as you can tell, I am reading a lot of series and I love Anna Lee Huber’s mysteries a lot (also her Verity Kent series). I class these books as comfort reads, when I want to just forget about the world, I pick one of these up and it never fails to do its magic. I emerge oddly comforted which may sound weird considering they are murder mysteries. I also like Huber’s ability to write about women who develop as characters throughout the series. She is really, really good at doing that.