Book of the Week

Storm Whale by Sarah Brennan, illustrated by Jane Tanner


There are many sorts of picture books. The ones that tickle and inspire giggles, the ones that teach a lesson on manners, those with silly monster and toilet jokes, and those that are cute and fluffy, but every so often comes one with text that reads like grand poetry, illustrations that demand to be pinned upon the wall, and an ending that calms, but also brings tears to the eyes.

Storm Whale is one of the most sumptuously illustrated, quietly intelligent, and emotional picture books I have read in some time. It tells the simple story of a beached whale and three girls’ attempts to save it. In this way it perhaps invokes memories of The Snail and the Whale, and a picture book with the same name, The Storm Whale by Benji Davies.

However, this is set apart in that it meshes together the best from each aforementioned title. The text rivals that of Donaldson’s. Sarah Brennan’s text rhymes too, and reads even more lyrically, with a lilt that gives a nod to the rhythm of the sea.

“Bleak was the day and the wind whipped down
When I and my sisters walked to town.”

It begs to be read aloud, and paints a magnificent picture of the atmosphere and the power of the wind and sea. This may be summer, but it’s a wild shoreline here, no ice creams and sandcastles, but nature – birds, unspoilt coastlines, shells and seclusion.

Brennan has carefully chosen vocabulary to illustrate the sounds of her poem, from ‘wrack and wreck’ to “the waves slip-slapped,” and the imagery is pure gold, “seaweed, high as a mermaid’s throne…” but I think it’s more than the sum of its parts. For all that the words sing, they come together in a rhythm that lulls and pulls on the emotions.

But it is also the partnering with award-winning illustrator Jane Tanner that lifts this picture book into new territory. The illustrations have a distinctive style (vastly different from Benji Davies, but with their own inimitable grace). At first the images are pencil sketched black and white, and drawn with such dexterity that the image almost makes the reader believe that the wind is rushing through the pages. The girls’ faces are expressive, betraying their delight and innocence. Then, on discovery of the whale, the colour floods in, as the sea floods into the bay, and the angle zooms out, so that the reader sees the beach from a gull’s view. Again, the movement is sweeping. Zooming in again a page later to the girls, with an intensity to their body language that implies their desperation as they try to save the whale. The illustration is so detailed and packed with emotion that the sound of the ocean’s roar is loud in the ears, the girls’ futility against nature deafening.

And then, in perhaps the most startling illustration of the book, the girls are shown warm at bedtime, home in the sanctuary of their mother’s arms. Tanner has used a mass of yellows and oranges to contrast with the blues and greens of the sea, and the page feels alive with the flicker of fire and warmth. Again, the faces of the girls are illuminated, sharp and expressive. And the ending, back on the beach, when it comes, is uplifting with hope and sunshine after the storm.

Picture book of the year. It publishes 1st August, and you can buy it here.

The Ethan I was Before by Ali Standish and Truth or Dare by Non Pratt

It’s funny how books bucket together. In the past two months I’ve read three books with ‘dares’ as their theme – I Dare You by Reece Wykes, a picture book for the young at heart with a wry sense of humour, Truth or Dare by Non Pratt, a most excellent YA novel with some hard truths at heart, and The Ethan I was Before, a middle grade novel with a dare at its core.

In The Ethan I Was Before, twelve-year-old Ethan is moved with his family to live with his grandfather in Georgia, a far cry from the Boston he is used to. Allegedly the move is to help his grandfather, although it soon becomes apparent that his grandfather is an independent soul, and the move is to remove Ethan from an uncomfortable incident in his past.

Ethan’s relationship with his angry older brother, his new relationship with Coralee (an enigmatic girl he meets at school), and the exploration of his new town make up the bulk of the novel, but all the time the reader is aware of a past secret that Ethan is hiding.

Standish’s prose pulls in the reader from the beginning. There are some key phrases that show flashes of great writing, her similies are excellent and create an authentic sense of place: she describes the air at one point with “humidity like a wet fleece blanket”. Her characterisations too are neat and winning, from her portrayal of forthright and keenly intelligent Mack, who runs the local store, to Ethan’s Mum, who tends to burn food because she forgets having put it in the oven in an endearingly absentminded preoccupation. Standish also has a handle on the unsophisticated twelve-year-old way of trying to describe in words the complex emotions of guilt and anxiety. She also focuses on what Ethan’s therapist has told him to do, extrapolating the way Ethan is feeling without laying it too bare for the readership:

“It’s almost funny, that everything that would make a normal person happy is what makes me feel the most sad.”

And yet, it’s the not laying it bare that holds this book back from being as good as it should be. The ‘secret’ in the past is too often alluded to by Ethan’s family, and himself, and yet doesn’t feel real. Because they are all holding back so much, the constant nudges that there is something else going on, or something big that happened in the past, feel too contrived. Although in real life, we all do keep back parts of ourselves, even in some cases from ourselves, one feels that Ethan’s family would talk more frankly – particularly his brother – or that Ethan, who narrates the story in first person, would be slightly more honest with himself and with the readership. It doesn’t sit well that he hides the past from himself, because it doesn’t fit with his character.

On the whole this was a really enjoyable book; I just felt that it could have been bigger. With slightly more depth and more subtlety, the past could have been explored in more detail and led to a weightier novel. So the denouement, when it comes, feels half-hearted, and I wanted the ‘dare’ to be more dramatic. But for glimpses of what Standish can do, and with the possibility that there is better to come, this is an intriguing debut. It will fit the bill nicely for a summertime coming-of-age novel, and gives a great sense of small town America. You can buy it here.

For meatiness I’d go to the YA coming-of-age title, Truth or Dare by Non Pratt. Although the production at first seems gimmicky, in that the first part is narrated by main character Claire Casey, leaving the story on a cliffhanger, with the second part physically flipped over so that the reader has to turn the book upside down and start from the other end to read the other main character, Sef’s narration continuing the plot, the story itself is far from contrived. In fact, it becomes swiftly apparent reading part two that this consecutive narration adds depth and substance.

Kam Malik suffers a life-changing injury after a stupid stunt goes wrong. Claire, shy and unobtrusive, volunteers at his rehabilitation clinic. When she gets to know Kam’s brother, Sef, together they come up with a scheme to raise much-needed funds to maintain his rehabilitation. It’s a Truth or Dare YouTube campaign, but before long their truths collide and their dares take things too far.

Non Pratt has a magnificent turn of phrase that enables description without the reader feeling they’re reading any. The plot is deft and agile – the book skips along punctuated with accurate and authentic dialogue, and a look into the innermost thoughts of her narrators, which is, at times, devastating.

What shines through is the depth of characterisation, as at first the reader, through Claire’s eyes, really likes Sef Malik, but what soon becomes apparent through his point of view in part two, is that no one shows their true self to everyone, and that people aren’t kind or unkind throughout. Everyone has their motivations, demons, and selfishness. Pratt wheels through a host of issues including prejudice, fame, guilt, and love without once making this an issue novel. It’s a gripping read, as tumultuous as Claire’s relationship with Sef, and deeply satisfying. You can buy it here.

 

The Island at the End of Everything by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Crazily enough, this children’s novel is the second I have read in the last two months that is rooted in an historical leprosy colony, and explores the effects on families and society. The other novel is Lauren Volk’s Beyond the Bright Sea.

Millwood Hargrave’s second novel, The Island at the End of Everything, is set in Culion in the Philippines, which in 1902 was established by US forces as a leper colony. Ami’s ‘touched mother’ gives birth to her on the island, and they live fairly simple lives until Ami’s thirteenth year, when US forces take over the island and decree that it is to be home for the ‘touched’ only, and they ship in many more lepers, segregating them from the untouched. The new governor then strips the island of the disease-free children and ships them to an orphanage on another island, so Ami takes it upon herself to find her way back home.

The story is told in Millwood Hargrave’s lyrical style, with her zing of brevity that wings the reader through the book. She has a poet’s eye for relaying a scene swiftly without flowery embellishment, managing to write vivid descriptions that all strive for the specific. The Philippines lend themselves to this prosaic style, and their lush landscapes are brought sharply into focus – the scent of oranges and colour of butterflies remain long after the book is finished.

The prose is startlingly different from Lauren Wolk’s book. There are no truisms spoken here, although they do exist – they are more subtly buried in an undercurrent of the adventure. But Hargrave’s characters are equally impetuous – particularly Ami herself and her friend Mari – they do not stop to think or listen to the grown ups around them, but take matters very much into their own hands. This plays with a general theme in current children’s fiction in which children often try to please their parents, not realising that they have misunderstood the essence of what will make their parents happy.

Millwood Hargrave also brings in her now characteristic element of writing strong female protagonists, and managing to instill a slight feminist agenda –  in that she shows her protagonists’ ability to act equally to the boys around them, despite them often being belittled by older boys or men.

But above the layers of all this, is a page-turning adventure story, packed with verdant scenery, and a demonstration of characters’ defiance against hatred and judgement, and their defence of love and friendship. There’s a sort of ‘no man left behind’ feel to the adventure, which is populated by good people, especially children, who are all overcoming adversity and striving to do well.

I actually preferred its simplicity and pace to the Millwood Hargrave’s debut, The Girl of Ink and Stars, for which she won the overall Waterstone’s Book Prize. Island feels more effortless, as if it flowed from the pen more easily, and is a kind of flawless adventure that definitely fulfills the author’s aim in showing children how to wonder at the wonders around us. I can’t wait to see what she does next. You can buy a copy of Island here.

All The Things That Could Go Wrong by Stewart Foster


There’s been much talk recently about how reading can improve a person’s empathy. But few writers can see inside people’s heads as well as Stewart Foster, author of The Bubble Boy for children, and We Used To Be Kings (for adult readers).

His latest novel for children, All The Things That Could Go Wrong, deals with the topic of bullying in a terrifically empathetic way, alternating chapters between the points of view of the bully and the bullied.

Alex is struggling in secondary school. He has a lot of worries and his OCD makes doing the most ordinary things, such as leaving the house to go to school, very difficult. This term Sophie and Dan are picking on him, which makes life even harder.

Dan is not doing so well at school either. He’s angry because things have been different since his brother went away, and it’s easier to take out that anger on someone weaker.

So it’s mortifying for the both of them when their mothers, naïve to the ins and outs of school gangs and friendships, arrange for them to meet up outside of school to finish building the raft that Dan started with his brother.

The inevitability of the changing nature of their relationship becomes obvious from the moment that Alex’s and Dan’s mothers force them into spending time together, but Foster manages to eke out every single moment of tension between them, as well as realistically delineating exactly how their relationship changes, why, and at an honest pace. It’s not like they’ll be friends overnight.

The dual narrative works well here in a perfect equilibrium. The reader loves both the voices, so that, unlike some books in which the reader races through one narrative to reach their favourite voice, here, the scales feel well-balanced. What’s more Foster doesn’t insinuate more sympathy to or empathy with either character – they are dealt with equally but differently. Each boy’s perspective pushes the plot along, as well as revealing their gradual realisation not only of their own outward projection of how they want to be seen, but also how they are perceived. In the end of course, they have an insight into who they actually are, and how they can be the best part of themselves.

Alex is a fascinating character in that Foster makes sure that his OCD is not what defines him. He has many other interests and talents, which are easy to identify – it’s just that his OCD gets in his own way. What’s more, Foster doesn’t make the OCD the reason that Alex is bullied – in fact the bullies hardly seem aware of it – other than the physical gloves he wears. For Alex it is the preoccupying factor in his life, but for the bullies, they just pick on him because he projects weakness. In fact, they are satisfied to move onto bullying another victim when the time is right.

Also punctuating the story are Alex’s lists of worries, which he is encouraged to write down by his therapist, and the lists are both highly irrational and yet highly understandable. Written in a different typeface, the lists add yet another insight into his mind.

And Dan too is distinctly likeable, despite his bullying of Alex. He exudes a loneliness, anger and frustration symptomatic of many twelve-year-old boys struggling to understand their place in society, as well as struggling to make sense of a significant change in their home lives – in this case the absence of Dan’s older brother. Foster portrays Dan’s lack of communication with those around him, and as an extra insight into his mind, shows the reader Dan’s letters to his brother. They are immensely poignant.

Because of course, part of what defines us as human beings is our relationships with others – how we handle those around us, and as children not just the friends we make at school, but the changing family dynamic. The worry of Dan’s mother, and the portrayal of Alex’s father in handling his son’s illness, are both treated with brevity and yet clear intelligence. Alex’s frustration in not being able to be the big brother he’d like to be to his sister is also heart-breaking.

But as well as the prodigious character crafting, Foster supplies a page-turning plot, a constant anxiety about what could go wrong for the boys, and an excellent breakdown of bullying. The chapters are short and pithy, the prose perspicuous.

It’s an utterly immersive novel about learning to be yourself, and like yourself. It’s a book that I’d like to shove at primary school teachers to share with their classes because of its brilliant exposition of bullying, but also the kind of book children will read by torchlight under the covers because they need to find out what happens next. When they say ‘not to be missed’, this is the kind of book they mean. You can buy a copy here.

Running on the Roof of the World by Jess Butterworth

Another new novel for children (aged approx nine years and over) that seeks to explore an immensely difficult political reality, but without making it too complicated for children to understand or too upsetting to read. Instead, it uses adventure and ongoing hope in the face of extreme adversity.

Tash lives in Tibet, where her father works for the resistance in an attempt to keep his supressed religion alive, and to get word out to the wider world about the oppression of the Tibetan people by the Chinese occupation. When a man sets fire to himself in the village as an act of protest, the Chinese soldiers step up their curfews and subjugation. Tash’s parents are taken away, so she sets off across the Himalayas to India in search of help from the exiled Dalai Lama. The majority of the book tells the account of her trek across the mountains with her friend Sam, and two yaks.

What makes the book work is that this is a depiction of an ordinary child in extraordinary circumstances. At the beginning of the novel she is shown attending school, and yet she can’t run home through the fields as she’d like because the patrolling soldiers don’t allow it. The emotions and thoughts are those of a child, with hurts, guilts and worries explored, but all the time there are small nuggets that lead the reader to believe that being small doesn’t mean that you can’t make a difference.

The prose is simple too. Short sharp sentences in short sharp chapters, with distinct character development as Tash moves across the mountains. This gives the character a clear sense of purpose, but also makes the book a swift quick read, as if the reader too is running from danger. It also lowers the age range accessibility – meaning that a young confident reader can tackle the book because the vocabulary and sentence structures are kept easy and tight. However, in its brevity, the book glosses over some of the implausibility of the journey, and the action feels a little lacking in overall cohesion – almost as if the journey dominates the overall purpose – but for children this could be read less as a flaw and more as simply a sign of a pacey read.

As with many novels for children, there is a very positive, yet dependent relationship between child and animal, (in place of family), and so the yaks become very much characters on whom the children are reliant, and so for whom the readers feel passion. There is also a huge emphasis on friendship, loyalty and courage.

And lastly, the production of the book is simply stunning. With a cover that sings of sunrise and adventure, and inside pages that hold intricate print designs and hidden yaks, this is a beautiful book to own. An eye-opening and somewhat different read. Buy yours here.

The Norris Girls by Nigel Hinton

I remember searching for new Nigel Hinton books when I was in my teens, relishing Collision Course, The Finders and Buddy. So, when I was approached by an independent publisher to review a book they were calling ‘Little Women’ for the twenty-first century, I was a little surprised to discover the author was the very same. It’s a far cry from the broken father/son relationship of Buddy, or the guilt-ridden teenage angst of Collision Course. And yet, is it?

In fact, the book owes more to Hinton’s previous novels and his exploration of family relationships than it does Little Women, (although there is a Beth in both, and a tomboy, not called Jo, but Georgy). Hinton explores sibling relationships, guilt, and personal passions, which come together to form a rounded family portrait, in this delightfully vivacious novel for children.

The father in the Norris girls is working abroad, in dangerous territory. But life at home goes on. Beth is in her early teens, keen to shine in the school musical, whilst keeping her options open with potential boyfriends, Georgy is focussed on her running and trying out for the Inter-Counties competition, and Katie, the youngest, wants a pet.

The chapters move between the siblings, giving each their own perspective on the others at home, but also insight into their own preoccupations. What Hinton does here, by voicing so many points of view, is to show a typical family structure at work – each person enveloped within their own interests and individual lives, and yet also part of a whole – sharing relationships and worries and common goals. The reader gets a clear view of the girls’ individual passions and hobbies and friendships, yet also sees how that bounces off the conflicts and dilemmas within the family. The tension mounts as each faces a struggle on their own, which is all the time very much tied to the general conflict when their father gets taken hostage.

There is a lovely balance of supportive and friendly adults, as well as those who offer support in a harsher manner, with the petty jealousies, bickering, and upsets between peers. There are also strong friendships, as well as burgeoning boyfriend/girlfriend scenarios – but all on such a tame level that it’s quite suitable for a young audience. In fact, an older audience might be less taken with the chapters told from Katie’s point of view, endearing though they are.

There are ups and downs for the girls, successes and failures. Hinton captures well Georgy’s running abilities, and gives a real poignancy to Katie’s loveable ways. I wanted to feel Beth in a little more depth – she is at that perfect age where she’s struggling to identify herself as a girlfriend and as a teen within the family – she argues most with their mother, but I would have liked to see this more. Hinton also uses the first chapter to explore her texting with her friend, but this dies down shortly afterwards and it could have been embellished further – teens look to friends so much in the scenarios in which Beth finds herself.

But these small criticisms aside, this is a read to relish. As easy and breezy to read as a Jacqueline Wilson, yet filled with pathos and understanding. For me, it was less Little Women, and more like the Gemma stories by Noel Streatfield. The characters are fresh and sharp and have so much more to give – I would warrant this could be stretched to a series easily.

Hinton’s style and characterisations shine through, and he’s embraced the modernity of the girls’ lives, with video chats, phones at the ready, and media galore. He’s collided into the world of girls beautifully, with a soft ending that exemplifies exactly why his publishers have compared it to Little Women, or The Railway Children in fact. You can’t beat a happy ending for precipitating the tears. You can purchase it here.

 

 

 

Alfie and Dad by Shirley Hughes and The Dressing Up Dad by Maudie Smith and Paul Howard

In a media world in which fathers are often portrayed as useless and laughed at for their inabilities (yes, I’m talking about Homer Simpson and Daddy Pig), these two books show fathers who are anything but. They are involved, interested, capable and loving. Perfect for Father’s Day.

Alfie and Dad by Shirley Hughes
Even for those not involved in the children’s book world, Shirley Hughes’ illustrations are instantly recognisable. They paint a picture of childhood as it should be – children who are loved and given attention, who experience small moments of difficulty, but triumph through and end up being comforted, consoled and rewarded for their perseverance. You’d be hard pushed to find an adult who didn’t want to look back on their childhood and see it reflected thus.

Alfie and Dad is a collection of short stories, all illustrated in Hughes’ eminently recognisable style, which tell of Alfie’s relationship with his father. From reassurance during a sleepless night (the worry in Alfie’s expressive eyes is heartbreaking), to Dad sharing tasks with Mum and finding Alfie’s lost toy, to being a detective. But like all good picture books, the tale is so much more than just plot. For me, and many others, it’s the pictures that win over the reader with their vitality. Alfie’s family feels real – from the way Alfie’s Dad sits relaxing in his chair, back to the reader with mug in hand, to the scrunching of his jacket as it meets his trousers when he takes Alfie to the lost property office. The small inconsequential details are actually what count in all Hughes’ pictures – what makes the people feel as if they belong in our own memories.

The pictures feel nostalgic but also timeless – and the many instances throughout of small acts of kindness, especially from strangers, are what gives them the feeling that these are books to be cherished. Read it with your Dad on Father’s Day. You’ll see what I mean. You can buy your copy here.

The Dressing-Up Dad by Maudie Smith and Paul Howard
Something new for those who want, here’s a winning tale about a son and his father who both love dressing up. Coming from a family in which the men detest dressing up in costume, this rather tickled me. But of course there comes a time in which Danny (the boy) doesn’t want his father to dress up. He wants him to behave as all the other dads: and be ‘ordinary’. And yet, when he does, something doesn’t feel right to Danny.

As with Alfie above, the plot is secondary to the nature of the book, which is just as well as there’s nothing that original about our parents embarrassing us. But the illustrations bear out what the story is really about – and that’s having fun and spending time with family. Because it’s the exuberance of the father playing with his son that wins over the readership – not which costume they wear. Play-fighting ‘George and the dragon’ with the hoover (with the dog as a slain princess), playing sharks at bathtime, and particularly the scenes in which Danny’s Dad plays with Danny’s friends too. He’s the father that all the children gravitate to, because he engages with them and they can feel the enthusiasm spilling over.

You can tell it’s a modern picture book – the Dad even sports a beard, and there are party bags and posing for a photo, but it’ll have timeless appeal for its beautiful depiction of a father and son relationship. You can buy your copy here. Happy Father’s Day.

King of the Sky by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Laura Carlin


An exquisitely moving picture book for an older age group that displays extraordinary depth in an ordinary tale of a boy moving to a new place and trying to make it feel like home.

Atmospheric from the start, the reader learns that the setting is a place in which the rain falls relentlessly, and the landscape is strange for the narrator – grey, and noisy:

“Little houses huddled on the humpbacked hills. Chimneys smoked and metal towers clanked.”

In fact it is Wales, and an Italian immigrant boy’s interpretation of his new surroundings.

This is a poetic reading, of a place our narrator feels is bleak. The text informs that he feels alone, and the accompanying evocative and dreamy illustrations tell the same story, with an emphasis on work and hollow spaces, faceless houses, and isolation. The boy remembers the contrast of the different smells and tones of the place he calls home – the Italian vanilla smells, yellow backgrounds, ice cream. The boy’s memory of home has been sparked by the sound of the Welsh pigeons cooing. In fact, his ensuing hope and salvation come not from new friends at school, but from a friendship with an elderly man and his hobby of pigeon racing.

This boy isn’t a toddler – again showing that this picture book isn’t for the very young, but for those who are able to fully utilise the given visuals to embellish in their own mind the narrative that is written on the page, and for those who can probe a little deeper into the emotion and meaning behind the text.

There are many layers to explore in the text, such as the boy’s ability to understand a different language through the soft speech of his new friend, the different foods he eats, and the growing friendship with the old man. But the illustrations bring out so much more, not just the contrast between the landscapes, but the change to the landscape as the boy settles; the intimacy between the man and boy that extrapolates the teaching and wisdom being imparted; the industrious town in which the boy has settled and all the different characters who populate it, from the farmer on his wagon to the mother hanging her washing; the memories of fighting in the war;  the different modes of transport and communication depicted; and finally the flight of the pigeons and the warmth that they exude.

This is an unusual story, timely indeed, although the pictures of war and the landscape make it seem historical. It is about memories of war and conflict, the settling of a newcomer in a town, as well as old age, and ultimately hope and friendship.

The depiction of the landscape’s industrialisation creates a nostalgia for a time past, as well as a nostalgia for the glowing images of Rome, as if the sun is just setting across the pages of the book with its orange and pink glow. But it ends with a look to the future, as the boy realises that home is where the heart is. You can buy it here.

Troublemakers by Catherine Barter

Astute, intelligent, gripping, and thoroughly enjoyable, this is the best YA novel I’ve read this year.

Fifteen year old Alena has been happily brought up by her older brother, Danny, and his boyfriend, Nick, since her mother died when Alena was a baby. But nerves are now on edge as London is threatened with a bombing campaign. Danny starts work for a controversial politician who promises to protect London, at the same time that Alena discovers that her mother was a political activist, and that her history may not be all that it seems.

When she attends Danny’s place of work, and sees something not meant for her eyes, Alena faces a small dilemma, with seemingly huge consequences.

I can’t work out if I loved this book for the fact that it was like no other YA I’ve read, whether the depth of the characterisation is so perfect, or whether the book whips along with clear succinct prose at a lively pace, or possibly just all three.

Alena’s voice is likable, sympathetic, startlingly real and full of emotion without once resorting to melodrama, but it is the fully-fleshed out surrounding cast that blew me away. Danny and Nick are both lovable despite their flaws, both intriguing characters, written with understanding, depth and a clear view of their motivations and desires, so that although the reader only hears Alena’s voice telling the story, we fully understand everyone around her too. This takes some skill.

What’s more, published at the most relevant time – did Andersen Press know about the election before Theresa May? – this is a political novel for our times. It manages to capture a mood of a resilient yet frightened city, constantly threatened by terrorism, as well as delving into the world of politics and journalists – exploring theirs and our sense of morality, and finally looking into the world of activism – questioning the strength of ordinary people – what change can the public effect, what issues matter, and what can one person do about it?

Of course there are insightful touches about Danny and Nick’s relationship – seeing how a parenting partnership works from the teen’s point of view, as well as the prejudices Nick and Danny come across as gay men in contemporary London.

Added to this is Barter’s emotionally intelligent writing of Alena’s investigation into her past. The poignancy of her grief for her mother, and her questioning of whether you can miss something you didn’t have in the first place.

And what Barter does with aplomb is to develop the idea of a mass crumbling of everything that you’ve held dear from one tiny split-second decision. By having Alena’s dilemma buried right in the heart of the novel, the reader already has a bucketful of feelings about the characters, so not only does it explode the text, but also subtly makes the reader wonder what they would do if put into the same situation.

The book made me nod in agreement, sigh with exasperation at some of Alena’s actions, laugh, cry and desperately want the characters as my friends. We all need a Nick in our lives for sure. This is an excellent pertinent coming-of-age book for our times, written with masses of empathy and pathos and, to my delight, sprinkled with a few Bob Dylan references.

Buy it, read it, then give it to everyone you know. This is what reading is for. You can buy it here.

Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk

Lauren Wolk’s much anticipated second novel for children, after the phenomenal Wolf Hollow, does not disappoint. Set on the Elizabeth Islands off the coast of Massachusetts, Beyond the Bright Sea also features a young girl coming of age, but in a different time and in a very different way. This is a book about finding out who you are, and what defines the self.

Crow was taken in as a baby by her adoptive father Osh, when she was found in a boat washed up on his island. They live a simple life in a simpler time – the book is set in 1920 – their house is made from assorted remnants of shipwrecks and they spend most of their days in the pursuit of survival – fishing for food, drying their bodies from the sea and sand, keeping warm. Osh also paints, and sells his paintings to the tourists who frequent the islands in the summer months.

But Crow knows that there is much mystery surrounding her origins. Local people shun her, believing that she arrived when her boat was set adrift from nearby Penikese Island, which used to house a leper colony. When she spies a strange fire alight on that long-abandoned island, it sets her on her quest to discover where she really came from, and why she was cast away.

The plot itself unfurls at a steady pace, each chapter posing a new element to the mysteries in question, although all are answered fairly swiftly. But it is the poetic intensity of the prose that fires the reader, as well as the impeccable characterisation of Crow herself – a resolute, vibrant, curious and yet thoughtful heroine – and the two adults who orbit her – Osh (a loner and thinker), and Miss Maggie, who both provide Crow, and by default, the reader, with a library of quiet wisdoms.

“an island is one thing when a man has a boat, quite another when he doesn’t.”

Wolk has a way of crafting her sentences like a balancing scale, they sit calmly on the page, and yet have the slight rhythm and undulation of the sea. Although the book is layered with such phrases, Wolk never stoops to sentimentality or preaching.

“I was learning that some things take time, and worrying wouldn’t change that.”

She writes of simple people living a minimalist way of life by the sea, and she echoes this in her precise vocabulary, which feels of the landscape (and new to an urbanite such as myself), with words such as skiff, bluff, and kettle ponds. But all the time, it is precise and economical and sparse – Wolk pursues specificity, and describes things in just a few words, making the prose all the more powerful for its simplicity, just like Osh’s painting:

“sometimes Osh painted a single yellow flower in a pale green marsh, and it was all the better for being just one.”

The nationality and skin tones of Osh and Crow are unclear, although Wolk shows the reader that they are different from each other and the rest of the islanders, but that is part of the beauty – her vagueness in this matter lends the text a feel of the everyman.

The book does dip slightly in the second half. As Crow’s mysteries were solved fairly easily, I became frustrated that deeper questions I had about Miss Maggie and Osh were left cloudy, but then one could argue that the writer always leaves some gaps for the reader to paint in themselves. I also query the slight overuse of foreshadowing, which tends to interrupt the flow, but these are minor criticisms – if all writers could write half as well as Wolk, we’d have a phenomenal literary party.

There is no moralising in this tale, just a simple message of people and their actions: family is the one you choose yourself, not that which you are born to, in the same way that who you are is what you do, not where you come from. You can buy it here.