Tag Archives: book recommendations

Books of the Year

It’s that time of year again, when things are drawing to a close and we’re thinking about all the things we’ve done (or not done), and all the goals we hit (and those we missed). I’ve been thinking about my year of reading, and how on earth to sum it up in a few short paragraphs.

So – as will surprise precisely nobody – I read a lot. Probably not as much as some people, but certainly more than average. I’m a fast reader; I get sent a lot of proofs (advance reading copies) from colleagues in the publishing world, and I like to be able to read them and get back to the person who sent them to me as quickly as I can, but sometimes being a fast reader can have its drawbacks – particularly at times like this, when you want to draw up your top ten books of the year, and you find you’ve got fourteen, and then you’ve taken the photo before you realise you missed a pile over here too, and oh! what about this one? And how could I have forgotten this one, etc.

So, basically, what I’m trying to say is: here’s a photo of my top ten fourteen books of the year, but they aren’t the only brilliant books I read in 2022. I’ll try to remember to mention them all.

So! Here we have, from the bottom up:


A prequel to the world-bendingly brilliant Old Kingdom books, bringing us back to the days of Sabriel’s parents. A must-read for Old Kingdom fans.

DAY OF THE WHALE by Rachel Delahaye

A thrilling eco-themed story about Cam and his friends, who live on Cetacea, an island where whales are worshipped like gods – but is the whale whisperer, Byron Voss, telling the full truth? A brilliant, unforgettable book.

FURTHERMOOR by Darren Simpson

Bren has lost his sister, and the only place he can find comfort and refuge is in Furthermoor, an otherworld where his sister is still alive – and where everything runs on clockwork. But when a threat arrives both in Furthermoor and Bren’s ‘real’ world, how can he survive?


Maggie sees her arch-enemy being taken into another world – and when she follows, Maggie realises she’s stumbled onto a plot to steal something precious from everyone on earth… unless she can stop it.


My favourite book this year, Katy Willacott follows our titular heroine on the voyage of a lifetime to the Amazon rainforest and beyond – and what she uncovers is truly life-changing. A must-read.

DEAD GOOD DETECTIVES by Jenny McLachlan (Chloe Dominique, illustrations)

Laugh out loud and zany, with a deep emotional heart, this brilliant new book from the ever-excellent Jenny McLachlan is a perfect 8+ read. Ghost pirates, a hapless (but courageous) heroine, and a race against the clock make this unputdownable.


With Traoré’s signature mix of modern-day life and folkloric myth, this Nigerian-set story is unique and gripping. It features genuinely spooky spirits, family dynamics, and a heart-pounding mystery to be solved.

FIRESONG by Vashti Hardy (George Ermos, illustrations)

The epic conclusion to Hardy’s Brightstorm trilogy sees her twins, Arthur and Maudie, off on an adventure to the volcanic North where they face the villainous Eudora Vane in a final showdown.


The perfect ending to Lapinski’s masterful Strangeworlds trilogy sees Flick and Jonathan unravelling the secrets of the Travel Agency – but can they do it in time to save the universe from collapse?


Zo is lost in the forest at night – and what was a familiar space now becomes a place of darkness and danger. She meets a boy, lost in mysterious circumstances, and together they must try to make sense of the terrifying truths they’re discovering.


A book that feels like a warm hug, this story has danger, adventure, intrigue, magic, and an abundance of tea and cakes. Perfect comforting holiday fare!


The second of Spel and Egg’s adventures, where they must delve into the depths of their magical potential to save the world – an absolute feast of imagination and storytelling skill.


A warm-hearted fairytale about a family of tailors with the power to stitch magic into the garments they make – but when a long-forbidden spell is uncovered, can Hen get to the bottom of the mystery, as well as save his family business?

THE CHESTNUT ROASTER by Eve McDonnell (Ewa Beniak-Haremska, illustrations)

Piaf is a girl who can’t forget – and when everyone else in Paris appears to have forgotten an entire year, it’s up to her, and her twin brother Luc, to unravel the reason why.

And absent from the photo – due to nothing more than my own innate bungling – are books such as:

LEGENDARIUM by Jennifer Bell


OUR SISTER, AGAIN by Sophie Cameron




BIG BAD ME by Aislinn O’Loughlin

THE BURNING SWIFT by Joseph Elliott



WAR OF THE WIND by Victoria Williamson



And, to be honest, so many more. This year (as is increasingly the case) was a brilliant year for books, stories, and reading (though not so much for bank accounts and shelf space). I’m always of the firm opinion that books are the best presents to get everyone during the festive season, if gift-giving is part of your traditional celebration (I mean, there’s a reason why books are so easy to wrap, right?), so I strongly urge you to go down to your local bookshop armed with this list of recommendations, and if you have anyone in your life who enjoys a brilliantly-written story, you can’t go wrong.

Happy Holidays – and, from me, a hearty Merry Christmas. I hope you’re taking some time off to relax over the next few weeks, and do make sure to find a quiet corner in which to curl up with a book.

I’ll be back in 2023!

It’s That Time of Year Again…

Many people are settling into the festive season at the moment, and whether you celebrate Christmas or not, perhaps you’re starting the shut-down that often comes naturally at this time of year. And, of course, often – particularly in the Northern Hemisphere, where I am! – the best thing, when the weather’s cold, is to settle into some comfortable nook with a great book.

If you’re looking for great books for your younger family members and friends, whether it’s for Christmas or just because, then you could do a lot worse than check out the #BookElves2021 hashtag on Twitter, where I and many of my fellow Book Elves spent a whole week giving fantastic book recommendations for all age groups, from birth to YA. Here’s one of my own recommendations:

You don’t need to join Twitter to search the hashtags – you can visit my Twitter page here, and then in the search bar, pop in #BookElves2021 and you’ll get as many recommendations as you could wish for.

Another amazing resource for those looking for brilliant book recommendations is this radio clip, taken from the RTÉ radio show Today With Claire Byrne, where the CEO of Children’s Books Ireland, Elaina Ryan, and librarian Tracy McEneaney put their knowledgeable heads together to come up with a tip-top list of great reads for 0-11. I was amazed to be included among their recommendations, and very grateful to Elaina for her lovely words about my book Skyborn – so, if you’ve got a reader of 8+ in your life, it would make my Christmas to know you’d gifted them a copy of my book (or, indeed, any of my books!) All the links you’ll need to purchase or find out more about Skyborn can be found here.

Books are the best present, in my humble onion. Whether you’re buying for a child or a slightly more grown-up person, there’s nothing better than finding them the perfect read, be it fiction or non-fiction or biography or history or whatever. So, instead of defaulting to electronics or toiletries or faffery that (let’s face it) nobody really wants, why not wander to your nearest independent bookshop, either virtually or in person, and pick up some magic for your loved ones.

And whatever December brings you, whether it’s your festive season or just another month, I wish you well – and the comfort of having a book to step into.

Fan Mail!

I recently received a really lovely piece of fan mail from a reader named Ava. Here’s her letter, with some identifying bits covered with stickers:

I was very happy indeed to receive this gorgeous letter, which arrived via email – the picture was taken by Ava, or one of her adults – and I would love to respond, but Ava didn’t leave me her full postal address. If she happens to see this, and if she’d like to ask a grownup to send me a message with her full postal address so I can write back to her, that would be great.

It’s now my policy (which I’ve fully outlined on my ‘Contact Me’ page) not to respond privately to anyone who is under the age of 18, in order to be compliant with the best Child Protection guidelines.

So – in the hope that Ava will see this! – I wanted to reply to her here.

For those who might not be able to make out my scrawl, here’s what I wrote:

Dear Ava,

Thank you so much for your very kind letter! It was wonderful to receive. I’m very pleased you found my book in your school library – libraries are the best! – and that you enjoyed reading it.

I enjoyed writing ‘The Eye of the North’ very much, and the scene where Emmeline falls off the ladder is one of my favourites, too. I worked hard to make sure every chapter had an interesting bit in it and that there were plenty of moments where a reader might have guess what would happen next. It’s brilliant to know you enjoyed guessing, and that you thought the plot was interesting.

I have written another book called ‘The Star-Spun Web’, about Tess and her friends who must save the world – and lots of other worlds! – from a terrible war. In June 2021 I have another book being published which you might enjoy if you liked ‘The Eye of the North’ – I hope you’ll check it out!

Until then, thank you so much.

Yours in stories,

SJ O’Hart

Ava also said she liked books set in the North, so I’d like to recommend some books to her. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy has a Northern setting for some of the story (and the books are amazing); you could also try Cathryn Constable’s The Pearl in the Ice, H.S. Norup’s The Missing Barbegazi and Claire Fayers’ The Accidental Pirates: Voyage to Magical North.

So, thanks to Ava – and thanks to all the children (and their grownups) who have ever been in touch with me regarding my books, my work, or anything else. It’s a great privilege to hear from readers, and one I never take for granted. Happy reading to Ava, and to everyone – stories rule!

Celebrating Ireland

Yesterday, among other things, it was St Patrick’s Day. I’m proud of my nation’s day, even though, truth be told, my nation itself causes me more problems than pride most of the time. I spent yesterday huddled indoors hoping it would stop raining for long enough to get to our local parade (spoiler: it didn’t), and so it passed mostly unremarked; this was a pity, as I love St Patrick’s Day parades with all their mismatched, homemade, amateur whimsy. They’re a true celebration of what living in a rural town in Ireland looks and feels like, and though some of it doesn’t deserve to be romanticised, some of it is pure fun. If you celebrated it, I hope you enjoyed yourself.

In honour of the national day, I wanted to spend a bit of time bigging up my fellow Irish writers, just because. There are a lot of them, so I’m beginning this post by apologising (which is, of course, the most Irish thing of all); I’m bound to forget someone, and I mean no disrespect. I put it down to my being old and grey(ish) and not having enough space in my brain-pan for everything that needs to fit into it. So, if you don’t see yourself here and you feel, all told, that you should be, do let me know. Also, I’m going to focus on kidlit/YA types, mostly because I’m lazy and this is the age-group I know best – but also because the best writing happens there, and because if I opened my focus to literary fiction I’d literally be writing this blogpost for the rest of my life. We Irish, we know our words.

Irish Books

With apologies to Mr Walliams, who isn’t included in my Irish roundup! Photo: SJ O’Hart

Right. To begin at the beginning.

If you haven’t already made the acquaintance of the one-man wonder show that is Dave Rudden, I heartily recommend you do. His second novel, The Forever Court, is imminent, and as his first – Knights of the Borrowed Dark – was one of the best books I have ever read (and I have read many books, so this is A Good Thing), I fully expect the second book in this series to be stupendous. As well as that he’s one of the nicest people around, full of excellent writing advice and general nerdery/geekery on Twitter, and he sports a beard of wonder which deserves to be more widely admired.

I also kneel before the throne of Claire Hennessy, who has been around so long in Irish writing circles (despite still being a very young lady) that she practically functions as its fulcrum. She has a publishing record as long as your arm, having released her first book into the world while she was still in her teens, and her novel Like Other Girls is forthcoming from Hot Key Books in May. This is only the latest in a body of work which is noteworthy for its feminism, intelligence and social awareness, and Claire is one of the most interesting writers, speakers and  human beings I know. She’s also an awesome creative writing teacher with Big Smoke Writing Factory, as I can personally attest.

I am a Celine Kiernan completist, and I wait with bated breath whenever she mentions she has another book coming. Her Moorehawke Trilogy is world-class fantasy, and her novel Into the Grey is a stunning piece of work. My favourite of her works is Resonance, her most recent, which is an incredible piece of writing, storytelling, world-building and imagination, and I can’t recommend it more highly. She can’t write her next book fast enough for me.

Then there’s the one-woman powerhouse that is E.R. Murray, who manages – it seems – to constantly be writing four books at once, and all of them to an excellent standard. Her Nine Lives series about Ebony Smart, a young girl with the power to reincarnate, is published by Mercier Press. As if that wasn’t enough, her YA story about a young girl struggling to cope with the challenges of her family life with the help of her mother’s recipe book is called Caramel Hearts, published by Alma Press. E.R. is widely regarded as an in-demand speaker, creative writing teacher, and author, and she is a warm and welcoming presence on the Irish literary scene.

Kieran Fanning (who daylights as a teacher) is the author of The Black Lotus, published by Chicken House Books in the UK and Scholastic in the US, which is one of the best books for kids I’ve read in years. It encompasses adventure, martial arts, time travel, history, superpowers and an epic battle – and I loved it. He’s a supportive and helpful voice on social media, a source of huge encouragement for newbies like me, and an authority on making books and literature accessible and interesting to children. Anyone who writes for children in Ireland should be following his every word.

Nigel Quinlan’s The Maloney’s Magical Weatherbox stands, in my humble onion, shoulder-to-shoulder with Pat O’Shea, a legend of Irish children’s literature. When I read Weatherbox I was reminded of nothing more than O’Shea’s The Hounds of the Morrigana book which was a gigantic part of my childhood. In its zany humour, utterly Irish turns of phrase, and completely bonkers family, it’s a book which made me laugh while keeping me glued to the plot. I enjoyed it so much, and I can’t wait to see what Quinlan does next. Also, if you’re looking for bonkers zany humour on Twitter, Nigel‘s your man.

I can’t write a post like this without mentioning Louise O’Neill, who has – deservedly – enjoyed worldwide success with her novels Only Ever Yours and Asking For It, which tackle some of the most complex aspects of modern life as experienced, primarily, by young women. They are books which can be searingly painful to read, simply because they are so true, and so important. Her work has drawn comparison with that of Margaret Atwood, and the clarity O’Neill brings to her dissection of what it is to be female in a world which seems to hate women is utterly compelling.

There are so many more incredible Irish writers I could mention, including Sarah Webb, Sheena Wilkinson, Siobhan Parkinson, Deirdre Sullivan, Eoin Colfer, Oisin McGann, Derek Landy, Sarah Crossan, P.J. Lynch, Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick, Shane Hegarty (who has enjoyed recent film success with his trilogy of Darkmouth books), Alan Early (whose Arthur Quinn novels about resurrected Vikings and Norse Gods taking over Dublin city are fantastic), Oliver Jeffers, Máire Zepf, Tarsila Kruse (who I’m claiming as Irish!), and more who I’m sure I’m forgetting that I really would be here all day, so I’ll have to leave it at that. Ireland is producing some top-notch writing for children, teens and young readers, as well as its already enviable record in relation to literary fiction, and it’s a great time to be part of it.

So, Beannachtaí lá le Phádraig oraibh go leor, and take my word for it: the best way to celebrate St Patrick is to check out a book by an Irish writer. Maith thú, beir bua, is bain taitneamh as na leabhair!


#Bookelves16 (Or, the Best Book Recommendations Around)

Christmas, you may have noticed, has been and gone. The turkey has been gobbled (sorry, sorry), the decorations put away for another year (well, in some houses…), and the wrapping paper has well and truly been recycled.

So, why am I blogging, you may ask, about #Bookelves16? Well, because books are for life, not just for Christmas. And it’s always a good time of year for great book recommendations, am I right?

Of course I am.

In case I’m talking utter nonsense to some of you – those who don’t follow me on Twitter, f’rinstance (and if this is you *makes stern face* rectify that situation as soon as possible, please) – I’d best explain what #Bookelves16 is all about. So, during the month of December, a bunch of great people who love children’s books, led by head elf Sarah Webb, took to social media to promote, recommend and prescribe children’s books to those who were looking for gifts, or just for something wondrous to read. All through the month people who know their onions when it comes to kidlit took the time to give personal recommendations to those who needed them, and/or just to talk about their own favourites. I’m proud to say that I was a Bookelf, and that it was huge fun.

Today’s blog, then, will be a quick recap of some of my favourite #Bookelves16 recommendations, and if you want to check out all the recommendations on offer, simply head to Twitter and stick ‘#bookelves16’ into the Search box, and Bob’s your mother’s brother. Simple!

My first recommendation was for Jennifer Bell’s THE UNCOMMONERS: THE CROOKED SIXPENCE.


Cover image for Jennifer Bell’s THE UNCOMMONERS, art by Karl J Mountford (Corgi Children’s Books, 2016)

I reviewed this book last year, and I don’t think I’ve read a book I’ve loved quite so much in… well, in forever. It’s wonderful, and one I will treasure and reread with great joy for years to come. Happily, a sequel, THE SMOKING HOURGLASS, is imminent – I’ll be top of the queue to buy it.

I also recommended, to great interest, a sequence of books by Kevin Crossley-Holland, which reimagine the world of King Arthur through the eyes of a young boy who shares his name and possesses a ‘seeing stone’ which allows him to look into the world of the legendary king. Anyone who needs proof that children’s books can be powerful, meditative, intoxicatingly well-written and an amazing story on top of that need look no further.


Spines for Kevin Crossley-Holland’s Arthur trilogy (plus the fourth book, ‘Gatty’s Tale’), Orion Children’s books

My recommendations also included the work of Diana Wynne Jones, Alan Garner, Norton Juster (whose THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH is one of my all-time favourites; I can’t wait to read it to my own child in a few years’ time), Madeleine l’Engle, Terry Pratchett, Allan Boroughs (IRONHEART is a particular favourite round these parts), Peter Bunzl, James E. Nicol, Christopher Edge, Lucy Strange’s THE SECRET OF NIGHTINGALE WOOD, everything by the unstoppable, wonderful Abi Elphinstone and everything by the lyrically perfect Frances Hardinge, the monumental KNIGHTS OF THE BORROWED DARK by the magical Dave Rudden, along with books by Kieran Fanning, Nigel Quinlan, Eva Ibbotson, Horatio Clare, S.F. Said and Andrea Beaty (whose ADA TWIST, SCIENTIST and ROSIE REVERE, ENGINEER are major hits in my house). The interested reader might also like to check out this article from a recent edition of The Irish Times, in which yours truly recommended some great reads along with a host of other kidlit-types – there are enough book ideas in that article alone to satisfy anyone’s cravings.

But because a bookelf never really hangs up her pointy hat, no matter whether it’s Christmas or any other time of year, I’d like to say this: I’m on hand, 24/7/365 (or as near to it as I can manage) to recommend, give guidance on, and enthuse wildly about – I’ll warn you now, there will be flappy hands – children’s books, from picture books to upper MG, and I may even set my tremulous toe into the waters of YA. I’m not much of an expert on books for teens, but I do have a fair knowledge, and if I don’t know the answer to your question I will know someone who does.

So, I’ll leave you with this: read often, read well, expose the children in your life to as many books as they can carry (don’t forget the library!) and never deny them reading material if it’s at all possible to provide it. If they enjoy reading, rejoice, for you never know the worlds which will open up before them and the thirst for learning they will develop. And, importantly, let your children read whatever they want to read.  Anything else will induce stress palpitations, frankly, and nobody needs those.

And on that note, I’ll leave you in peace. I’m sure you have reading to be getting on with…



Best o’ the Year: A Roundup Post

This year has been a good one, reading-wise. Anyone who follows my book reviews (hi, Mum!) will be aware I try to read at least one book a week (usually it’s more than that), and this year I re-read a lot of my old favourites. I had a bit of an Alan Garner-fest, which is never a bad thing, and I revisited A Wrinkle in Time, which was definitely overdue. But, of course, there were some books which stuck out from the rest, and to which I feel I should pay a little homage, now that we’re at the end of the year.


Photo Credit: DG Jones via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: DG Jones via Compfight cc

My goodness! What a dreadful noise. Anyway. Let’s carry on, shall we?

Of course, I read more books for children and young adults than the average person, and so I’ve divided up my list of ‘Bests’ to reflect that. I’ll take the books I read for adults first, just because.

Most Beautiful Book (for Adults) read this year: The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, by Leslye Walton. Now, this book was marketed (and I bought it) as a YA story, but I really don’t think it is, actually. I think Ava Lavender is quite definitely a grown-up fairytale about love and loss and mortality, with a beautiful magical-realist feel and a wondrous style all of its own. Plus, that cover. It’s the most beautiful thing, particularly in ‘the flesh’. I urge you to go out to your local bookshop/store/purveyor and just pick up a copy and stroke it. If you don’t want to buy it after that, I despair of you.

Favourite Historical Novel for Adults read this year: Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent. A masterful retelling of the last execution to take place in Iceland, this is a gripping, semi-fictionalised tale which lingered in my mind for weeks.

Best SF/Fantasy Novel for Adults read this year: The Girl with All the Gifts, by M. R. Carey. Chilling, meditative, profound, loving, terrifying and moving – all at the same time – this book took me by surprise. I didn’t expect to love it as much as I did.

Best Literary Fiction of the year: A tie between Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests. Two very different books, written by two exceptional authors, I loved both of them (except, perhaps, for the very end of Goldfinch). Books like these make me glad to be a reader.

Now, on to my lists for the younger readers:

Top Idea for a Christmas Gift (or an ‘any time of the year’ gift): Beyond the Stars, edited by Sarah Webb. Twelve amazing stories, all illustrated, and all written by children’s authors at the top of their game, this book is a real treasure. I hope it will feature in many little Christmas stockings this holiday season.

Best YA book read this year: Without a doubt, Louise O’Neill’s stunning début Only Ever Yours. This book left me an emotional wreck, in all the best ways. It’s not only an incredibly accomplished piece of work, but an important story. It needs to be read. I can’t recommend it any more highly. (Also high on this list are Half Bad and The Witch of Salt and Storm, both of which I loved and I’m delighted to have discovered their authors).

Best historical-themed children’s book read this year: This one was a closely drawn contest between Frances Hardinge’s Cuckoo Song and Emma Carroll’s Frost Hollow Hall. I honestly loved them both, but Hardinge just shades it, for me. That’s more to do with the fact that I adore Frances Hardinge in all her incarnations than a criticism of Frost Hollow Hall, which is an amazing book, wonderfully well written. I heartily recommend it. Both these books showed me, as if I needed it proved, that the world of children’s writing is a wide and wondrous one.

Most beautifully written children’s book read this year: Rooftoppers, by Katherine Rundell. I had some tiny quibbles with the plotting in this book, but one thing I can’t fault is the author’s use of language. The book is written so perfectly, with every word judged just right, that it left me in awe.

Favourite ‘classic’ children’s book read this year: Journey to the River Sea, by Eva Ibbotson. As I said in the review I wrote for this book, I can’t quite believe it took me so long to get around to reading Eva Ibbotson, but now that I have, I don’t intend to stop. This is a marvellous book, and would make a beautiful, and treasured, gift.

Most beautiful book of the year: Most beautiful in terms of its production, and its illustrations, and the feel of it in my hand, and the heft of it as an object, was Sally Gardner’s Tinder, illustrated by the incomparable David Roberts. I wasn’t as enamoured with the story as I was with the drawings, but that still hasn’t knocked this book off its top slot as ‘most beautiful’. It truly is a work of art.

And, drumroll please…

My favourite book of the year is The Skull in the Wood, by Sandra Greaves. It was one of the first books I reviewed this year, and I said even then that it would be hard to beat. It wasn’t, of course, published in 2014 but it’s still a ‘new’ book, and if you’re looking for a decently scary, magic-tinged, emotional and exhilarating story, look no further than this book. I loved it.

So, there you have it – the best of what I read in 2014, all totted up for your viewin’ pleasure. I hope, if you’re looking for some bookish gifts, that this list is useful, but even if you’re just looking for suggestions for your next great read (or you’re merely a statistician, coolly collecting votes and numbers), I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. Happy Read-mas!

Continuing Tradition – Review of ‘A Face Like Glass’ by Frances Hardinge

Regular readers, you’ll know what to expect…

Image: franceshardinge.com

Image: franceshardinge.com

Yup. It’s a book review. This week, it’s the turn of ‘A Face Like Glass’, by Frances Hardinge.

I have to admit, right at the start, that I’m a huge Frances Hardinge fan. She’s an amazing writer, who knows how to use words and who’s not afraid to make them work hard, a writer who doesn’t shy away from language just because she chooses to write for younger readers. Coming to her work was, for me, a revelation. It showed me just how good and how exciting children’s books could be.

‘A Face Like Glass’ is an excellent book, in keeping with its shelfmates ‘Fly By Night’, ‘Twilight Robbery’ and ‘Gullstruck Island’ (I have yet to acquire ‘Verdigris Deep’, but I will do, just as soon as funds allow!) It’s a book filled with such leaps of imagination that reading it can leave you feeling breathless and incredulous, wondering how on earth one brain could possibly hold so much wonder. It tells the story of a vast (and notoriously unmappable) underground city named Caverna, which houses a collection of eclectic and unusual inhabitants. As well as Cheesemaster Grandible, with whom our heroine Neverfell makes her home after she mysteriously turns up in one of his vats, we meet the powerful Childersin family, who are hiding an immense secret, and Madame Appeline, the famous Facesmith.

A Facesmith? What on earth is that? Well… it’s hard to explain.

Caverna needs Facesmiths because it is a world in which people are born without the ability to form facial expressions. This doesn’t mean they don’t have feelings – they are just rendered unable to show them to others. Everyone in this world is taught, from a young age, the basic expressions, but of course there are those for whom this limited repertoire is insufficient. Facesmiths, then, design expressions, and bring out ‘ranges’, like fashion collections, of trademarked (and viciously guarded) Faces. They employ Putty Girls, young women with particularly pliable facial muscles, in order to display their wares to potential clients. People ‘of quality’, with plenty of money, can afford to buy several hundred Faces, whereas those of lower classes are taught the bare minimum of expressions as children – ones which will serve their station in life, expressing their acquiescence and their eagerness to obey orders.

If all this sounds rather strange, then think of this: how can you tell if a person is lying or telling the truth, if their face is a static mask which betrays no emotion? How can you gauge how another is feeling, if their expression doesn’t give it away? How – as Hardinge explores at the end of the book – can people feel part of a shared community if everyone wears the same neutral expression, if nobody can look at their neighbour with sympathy, understanding, love, or even compassion? If your feelings are constantly locked up inside you, with no way to be expressed? She takes the idea of Faces and makes it so important, so vital to understanding what it means to be a human being, that I was left staggered by her worldbuilding.

Caverna is underground, and the people who live there have a profound fear of Outside. They live in terror of the sun, which burns off people’s skin and leaves them blind (so they have been told), but Neverfell – the deliciously, lovably eccentric protagonist of this tale – has memories, or flashes, of things she can’t explain, things like the wind, and the feeling of being beneath nothing but the sky, and birdsong. Nobody can explain how she ended up falling into Cheesemaster Grandible’s life, but he takes her in and makes her his apprentice, and pretty soon she’s as accomplished a cheesemaker as anyone could be. She has to turn her back on this quiet, but safe, life, however, when she gets herself mixed up with Madame Appeline. This intriguing figure has made her name as a Facesmith with her Tragedy Range, a collection of Faces so heartrending that every lady of quality has to own it; Neverfell feels an inexplicable connection to this grand lady which she must uncover. In the process of trying to do this, she manages to inveigle herself in the affairs of the Childersin family, who are favourites at the court of the Grand Steward, the notoriously unstable leader of this underground world.

The most amazing thing about Neverfell, though, is this: she has a face which isn’t constrained by Caverna’s strange lack of expression. She has, as the title says, a face like glass – a face so clear and honest that you can look straight through it to her heart, and her emotions are displayed for all to see. Grandible has kept her masked all her life, until she’s about thirteen or so, and because of this Neverfell believes herself to be grotesquely ugly. The real reason, of course, is that Grandible can’t bear to look upon her because her face is natural and free, and not constrained by any of the official Faces. Neverfell cannot lie, and that’s something the people of Caverna can’t understand – and it makes her both dangerous and desirable. At court, she is completely natural, too, which means she blunders her way through proceedings, offending all around her, and creating ructions in the delicate structures of etiquette and protocol, to which she’s oblivious. She puts the Childersins in danger, and has to escape in order to save her own life.

But, in an underground city, how far can you run?

This book is, like all of Hardinge’s novels, big and meaty and wordy and complicated, and so full of imagery and description and language that I wish I could have read it as a teenager. It would have given me an even deeper love for words than that which I already have. It tackles a complicated Court structure – imagine pre-Revolutionary France, but even more unhinged – as well as social class, the oppression of the poor, the absurd privilege and entitlement accorded to those who can afford it, notions of humanity and identity and freedom, questions about mental health and delusion, how treating people like objects leads to terror. It introduces us to the most endearing and unique heroine I’ve ever come across in children’s fiction, a young girl who has courage, intelligence and self-belief, and who – once she discovers what is wrong with the heart of her world – has the conviction to do something about it. It’s deftly plotted, expertly written, and handled so well that the reader never feels lost, or confused, or has to wonder what’s going on. This is a story which sucks you in and spits you out when it’s done with you; you’ll be a changed person, but you’ll be glad of it.

In short, it’s marvellous.

It’s a children’s book, but at nearly 500 pages, it’s a story for everyone masquerading as a children’s book. I hope you try it. I challenge you not to be astounded.

Happy weekend – may you read widely and well!

Saturday Sun

It’s almost become tradition around here to do a book review on Saturdays, and I’m all about tradition, as you know. So, in keeping with that, today’s blog is going to be about one of my recent reads.

However, because I like to mix things up a little, too, this book isn’t written for children. It’s not even YA. It’s an honest-to-goodness book written for grownups – so long as they’re grownups with dreams and imaginations and the ability to allow themselves to be charmed and carried away by a story.

The book I’d like to look at today is one of the most wonderful books I’ve ever read in my life. It’s ‘A Tale for the Time Being’, by Ruth Ozeki.

Image: morebooks.de

Image: morebooks.de

This book, this beautiful book, hooked me from the very first page.

You’ll often read, on agents’ and publishers’ websites, about the importance of grabbing your reader from the first line, the first page. For me, the opening lines of ‘Time Being’ are a textbook, if you’ll pardon the pun, example of how to do that. The novel opens with a direct address to the reader, written in the voice of Nao, a Japanese teenager, who is eager to tell us all about what it means to be ‘a time being’, or – simply – a being who lives in time. Her voice is bright, energetic, full of life and spark; she feels real enough to touch.

You can almost see her as she sits in Fifi’s ‘maid café’, a seedy-sounding coffee shop in Electricity Town, in Tokyo. She writes copiously in her journal, which is fashioned out of a cannibalised copy of Proust’s ‘Á La Recherche du Temps Perdu’. She mentions her ‘granny’, who is an extremely elderly Buddhist nun living in an isolated hilltop monastery, as well as her parents and the other children who attend her school. Her life is constrained and, at times, brutal; for instance, her classmates enact a funeral ceremony for her, despite the fact that she is not dead, because they wish to exclude her so thoroughly from their society. She is a lonely girl, one who feels her only friend is the pages upon which she pours out her heart.

This diary ends up wrapped up securely and placed into a Hello Kitty lunchbox, and thence to the sea, from which it washes up on a beach in Canada. From there, it’s found by a woman named Ruth, a blocked writer, who lives with her husband on an island where everyone knows everyone else, not to mention their private business. One character, for instance, a recovering alcoholic, attends the local ‘A’ meeting – so named, we’re told, because there’s no point having an ‘AA’ meeting, as nothing is anonymous on the island. The novel swaps between Nao’s narrative voice (which I loved), and Ruth’s, and each of them tells their story as the book unfolds. Ruth reads Nao’s diary one entry at a time,  in ‘real time’ as she describes it, and the complexity of Nao’s situation deepens with every chapter told in her voice.

It becomes clear to the reader that Ruth fears Nao’s diary entered the water after the devastating earthquake which destroyed the Fukushima nuclear power plant, and the subsequent tsunami. She is terrified, for a large part of the novel, that Nao is in danger, and that her family may be at risk. For some reason, she doesn’t seem to realise that if Nao was in the path of the tsunami, she has already been swept away by it; her need to read the diary one day at a time has somehow sucked her into the timeline of Nao’s life. She tries to find Nao, to contact her and warn her about the danger, despite the fact that she knows on some level that it’s impossible. Strangely, despite all the details Nao mentions – including her family and their names, her father’s employment, her ‘granny’ (actually, her great-grandmother), who published a book about Zen Buddhism, her school – Ruth can find no trace of Nao on the internet. Nao’s diary begins to mention her father’s mental health struggles, and his attempts to commit suicide, and Nao (after a particularly horrific bullying experience at school), begins to talk about suicide herself. The quest to find her becomes desperate.

Reading about Nao, trying to help her and find out who she is (or was), gives Ruth back her energy and her love of research and words. In an odd way, reading about what may be the last days of Nao’s life seems to revitalise Ruth’s. I found myself missing Nao’s voice while Ruth was narrating, and missing Ruth’s while Nao was narrating, such was the skill with which Ozeki weaves their voices together while ensuring at all times that they remain completely distinct.

I adored Nao’s exploration of her own history, including the uncovering of her great-uncle’s role during World War II (the sections written in his voice, telling us about his training as a kamikaze pilot, and his final choice, are unspeakably moving); I found Nao’s relationship with her father deeply touching, too. I loved the hazy feeling the whole novel creates, the sense that we don’t know where we are in time – we don’t even know if Nao is real, or merely a symbol (try saying her name out loud and you might see what I mean) – and the fact that despite Nao and Ruth never meet, their lives and destinies are intertwined, just as the lives of everyone who lives in time are intertwined.

It’s a dreamy, shimmering, not-quite-pinnable-down sort of work, a meditative and philosophical novel, a story which takes in Zen Buddhism, quantum physics, Japanese culture and subculture, language, meaning, identity and time. Nao’s voice is utterly charming, and the gradual flowering of Ruth’s seemingly arid existence is wonderful, if at times unsettling, to witness. If you think you’d like a book told through two vastly different lenses, and one which never lets you know quite where you are as you read it, then I can’t recommend ‘A Tale for the Time Being’ highly enough. It’s beautiful, meditative, and utterly engrossing.

Happy Saturday! Happy reading… what’s tickling your eyeballs these days? Any recommendations?  Do let me know!

Recommended Books (Vol. 1)

The other day on Twitter, a very kind lady named Steph asked me if I’d ever blogged a list of books I’d recommend. I thought about it, and realised that I hadn’t, really, ever written a post like that. I do random book reviews, and I’ve talked a bit about why I buy certain books and not others (which, no doubt, you’re aware of if you’ve been hanging out here for a while), but I’ve never put together an actual list of books I would recommend to others.

It’s been on my mind for a few days now, and I think I’ll give it a go.

It’s a bit scary, though, in some ways. It’s sort of like opening the door to your mind and showing people around, hoping they won’t turn their nose up at your choice of curtains or finger your upholstery in a derisory way, going ‘Really? This fabric? Couldn’t she afford anything better?’

'Well, I never! How *could* she choose that colour for the walls? Has she *no* decorum? You wouldn't see that at one of my candlelight suppers!' Image: politicsworldwide.com

‘Well, I never! How *could* she choose that colour for the walls? Has she *no* decorum? You wouldn’t see that at one of my candlelight suppers!’
Image: politicsworldwide.com


So, the list of books below are some of those which I found world-enhancing, life-changing, utterly wonderful in every way, and which I’d recommend everyone reads as soon as possible. Here goes. Be gentle.

The Silver SwordIan Seraillier. I first read this book in first class at primary school (so, I was about seven or eight); we were going through a World War II phase, wherein we read this book, ‘The Diary of a Young Girl’ by Anne Frank, and another book I adore called I Am David by Anne Holm.  Everyone in the world has heard of Anne Frank, but not everyone has heard of the others. So, that’s why these ones are recommended.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine l’Engle. I brought this book on a family holiday when I was about ten, and I lost it. I almost lost my reason, too. The strop was almighty and unmerciful, and nobody escaped my wrath. I actually found it again years later, after I’d already bought myself two replacement copies, but I didn’t apologise to my family for the temper tantrum. So it goes.

Speaking of l’Engle, though – as much as I adore A Wrinkle in Time, I’m not completely sold on the other books in the series of which this book is the first volume. As they go on, they get a bit less interesting and a bit more ‘preachy’. But Wrinkle is definitely worth reading.

I’ve already wittered on about The Little Prince and Elidor before, so I won’t do it again.

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath, and The Owl Service, all by Alan Garner, are so amazing that I don’t have a word to describe them. Just read them, as soon as possible, and then read everything Alan Garner has ever written, including Boneland, Strandloper, Thursbitch, The Stone Book Quartet, The Voice that Thundersand anything else I may have forgotten.

I need to go and have a lie-down now, after thinking about Alan Garner’s books. They’re that good.

Right. Next, move on to Susan Cooper, and her magnificent The Dark is Rising sequence of books; once you’ve read them, try Victory for size, a story which links the modern day to the Battle of Trafalgar, and which is one of the most moving stories I’ve ever read. I read the last fifty pages of it through a veil of tears. Just a fair warning.

Then, there’s Jenny Nimmo, and her Snow-Spider Trilogy, which is fabulous.

There’s also John Connolly, who has written for children (beautifully), but who also has the marvellous Charlie Parker detective novels, all of which are worth reading; my favourite is Bad Men.

I’ve spoken before on this blog about Jeanette Winterson. To be honest, I’d find it impossible to recommend one of her books above any of the others, but if I had to, it’d be Sexing the Cherry. Or The Passion. Or The Power Book. Or Written on the Body. Gah! I can’t choose. Read them all, and you decide.

Margaret Atwood. What can I say about her? Read The Edible Woman, and follow it up with Surfacing, and then let me know if your mind is blown. Because mine was when I first read these books. I was the same age as Atwood had been when she’d written them, and I went into a funk of ‘what on earth am I doing with my life?’ that lasted about four years.

It’s pretty unfashionable not to read and love Neil Gaiman these days; I’m no exception to the rule. Pick anything he’s written and give it a go, and I’m pretty sure you’ll love it. I recommend all his novels (perhaps not Anansi Boys as much as the others, for some reason), but my absolute favourite Gaiman is Sandman, his graphic novel. Genius.

I love Garth Nix. I read The Abhorsen Trilogy several years ago, and was astounded. Those books inspired me to write more than (I think) any other young adult/children’s book I’ve ever read. Give them a whirl, if you haven’t already.

When it comes to Ursula le Guin, everyone recommends The Earthsea Quartet. Of course, I do, too. But there’s so much more to her than that. The Left Hand of Darkness, The Lathe of Heaven, and The Word for World is Forest are also amazing.

I’ve just finished reading A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, and I couldn’t recommend it more highly, either. I took a chance on it, as I’d never read anything by the author before, and I was richly rewarded for it. A beautiful, completely unique book, it’s great and should be widely read.

Virginia Woolf’s Orlando changed my life when I first read it. It showed me what a novel can do, by breaking every single narrative rule in the universe and then making a brilliant story out of the shards. Incredible.

Also, Sylvia Plath’s Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, which isn’t a novel (it’s a collection of stories). This book left a lasting impression on me. Everyone has read The Bell Jar (also wonderful), but not as many people have read Plath’s stories. So, do it.

I reckon that’s enough for one day. I have a feeling I’ll revisit this topic, because I’ve really enjoyed taking a stroll through my bookish memories.

Have you read any/all of the books I mention here? What did you think? Would you agree that they’re worth recommending to others, or am I off my trolley?