Here, in no particular order, are this summer’s personal highlights.
Malcolm Duffy, Me Mam. Me Dad. Me. (Zephyr)
Danny is a fourteen-year-old Geordie lad, son of a single mother, living in a run-down social council flat. He has a great relationship with his mother – and his extended family – and is a normal, happy, football-playing boy, until the two of them move in with Mam’s new boyfriend. Callum’s is both boastful and cringingly ingratiating towards Danny, while towards mam his domineering behaviour soon turns into physical abuse and coercive control. It’s a very dark theme, but told with a straightforward grace and a lot of humour.
The writing is pitch perfect. Danny’s inner monologue is so convincing, and he is just so likable. He makes some huge errors of judgement, and veers maddeningly from thoughtful insight to childlike credulity – as do so many fourteen-year-olds – yet the reader can understand and empathise with his motives.
Danny and his girlfriend, Amy, each have their own problem to deal with. Initially each of them thinks they can deal with it themselves. Amy eventually realises she needs to confide in a trusted adult. Danny continues to search for his own solution – with disastrous consequences. Why do some children not ask for appropriate help?
I couldn’t put this book down – this is right at the top of my summer recommendations. ‘Touching and compelling to the end… it has a sweetness and comedy, despite the gravity of its theme.’ (Sunday Times)
Sharna Jackson, Mic Drop (Knights Of)
Publishing hasn’t got a great track record with diversity – on the shelves or behind the scenes. The new publisher, Knights Of, was set up with the express purpose of working with writers, illustrators and retailers to make this better.
The second of Sharna Jackson’s High Rise Mystery books, Mic Drop is set among inner-city London tower blocks, with black, female, working class protagonists. The main characters, sisters Nik and Norva – and their sidekick, George – are brilliantly drawn, with their different personalities bringing complementary strengths to the investigation. It’s a ‘Whodunnit’ detective story, with lots of plot twists and red herrings. At 362 pages, this hefty book may look daunting, but the short chapters and fast-paced plot make it an easy and engaging read. Despite having a murder at its heart, it’s a light-hearted and joyful page-turner. Recommended to anyone from nine to ninety nine.
Sophie Anderson, The House with Chicken Legs (Usborne)
‘I just want one life. My life. And I want to be able to choose what to do with it.’
The folk tales Sophie Anderson heard from her Prussian grandmother inspired this wonderful novel, which I had been meaning to read since it came out a couple of years ago. Twelve-year-old Marinka lives with her grandmother, Baba Yaga, in a sentient house that travels the world on its long chicken legs. Baba Yaga features widely across Slavic folklore: an ambiguous, enigmatic character, in some tales a malevolent hag, in others a benevolent earth mother, and closely associated with the passage from life to death.
In this story, Marinka has a warm and loving relationship with her Baba, and loyal playmates with the chicken-legged house and her pet bird, Jack, but now she’s getting a bit older, and she longs for human friendship and to spread her wings. ‘My gaze is drawn towards the lights of the town glistening far below; a universe of possibilities.’
Combining fantasy and folklore, this is a coming-of-age tale. There are elements of magic realism: their world is different, but the characters are real and warm. The writing is visual and evocative; the description of what happens when Marinka goes through The Gate sets the heart racing – intense, mesmeric, dreamlike, nightmarish, hallucinogenic.
As well as the transition from childhood, the story deals, sensitively, with life, death and the journey between them. It’s also about love and friendship – the unconditional and self-sacrificing love of Baba Yaga, Jack and the house for Marinka, contrasted with the need of a twelve-year-old girl to find her own friends, of her own age, and the difficulties of finding the right ones. It is about choices – between tradition, loyalty, and predestination versus independence, freedom to forge one’s own path, and freedom to make mistakes. The very end of the story I personally found a bit of a fudge, although another reading may celebrate Marinka’s growing maturity and discernment in choosing the best bits of both worlds. But this book is very much about the journey rather than the destination.
Jack Noel, Comic Classics: Great Expectations (Egmont)
This is a really good idea. It takes Dickens’ own words, considerably abridges them, and allows a wide range of readers to enjoy the cracking good plot. Jack Noel’s ‘doodles’ break up the text and carry the story along. They are especially useful in explaining older, niche vocabulary.
Some of the humour in the doodles didn’t hit the mark for me, but I am not the target audience, and I am sure they will engage a range of younger readers. This format will open up Dickens’ fantastic story-telling to a younger audience, and teachers have used it successfully with dyslexic readers, and with speakers of other languages. Much credit is due to the abridger, Liz Bankes, for presenting Dickens’ rich way with words in such a pared-down, fast-paced retelling.
There are plans to give more classic texts the same treatment. I am looking forward to revisiting Treasure Island.