Best Books: Young Adult & Children’s

I’ve become quite a fan of the readers’ social media platform, Goodreads. I like it for three reasons:

  1. It’s a great way to get to know readers and writers, and to make friends. You can even compare all the books you’ve ever read with them, and see how similar (or wildly opposed) your tastes are.
  2. As a writer, it’s a great way of seeing what readers think about your books. Most users rate their books as soon as they finish them, and some do written reviews. Because it’s a social media platform, you get more reviews than on Amazon or other retail sites.
  3. It’s a great place to find out about books, as well as to log all the books that you’ve read and want to read. A friend once said that she wished she could write just a few sentences of each book she’d read as she finished it, because it’s so easy to forget books after a while. And it’s the perfect platform for that.

You can check out what people think about The Secret of the Tirthas, compare your books with mine, and send me a friend request all on my profile page.

Anyhow, I thought I’d share some of the best books I’ve read over the last couple of years, which I’ve reviewed on Goodreads. In this first post: Young Adult & Children’s Books.

A Library of Lemons, by Jo Cotterill

A beautiful book about the mistaken routes we take to cope with grief and the long-term harm they do. Lovely, lucid writing – I particularly liked the image of the reclusive father receiving an invitation and looking like a hamster about to be plucked from its cage. Recommended for readers aged 10+, including grown-ups. 5 stars

Charlotte’s Web, by EB White

One of the best books I’ve read in a long time. I didn’t come across it as a child, but thankfully have had the chance to read it to my own children. The writing is wonderful, rendering the beauty and sadness of nature with almost perfect precision. The ending is, of course, heart breaking, and my wife and I had to take it in turns consoling our six-year-old. But he understood bravely the message that (paraphrasing Dylan Thomas) whilst friends may die, friendship will not. 5 stars

The Last Wild, by Piers Torday

Gripping, harrowing, comical, exciting… and with a very strong message about how much damage we do intentionally and unintentionally if we don’t remain vigilant about our connection to the natural world. This is a fantastic roller coaster of a book, with heroic children and animals, and the animal world’s version of the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in the form of Captain Skuldiss. 5 stars

Doctor Who: Ghosts of India, by Mark Morris

I really enjoyed this book. India just after the second world war is masterfully depicted, with the hope, mystery and exuberance nicely balanced against the ominous clouds of coming strife with partition. The adventure has a good blend of villains and monsters, from the ghastly white ‘half-dead men’ to crazed Army Majors, giant crocodiles and cobras. The meeting of Gandhi with the Doctor is wonderful, and it’s left to Donna to draw parallels – and the Doctor to highlight the one key difference between them. A fun ride, with a pointed note of sadness at the end. 4 stars

The Chicken Dance, by Jacques Couvillon

I love this book, it’s a fantastic take on the huge capacity for patience and acceptance that children have, and the things they’ll do to ensure that no matter what they’ll find a way to have fun and give their lives meaning. Don is a winning example of one of those kids who end up parenting their parents. His final act of kindness breaks your heart. My only criticism is that the book feels a little drawn out towards the end – but that’s not enough to knock it off the top spot. Surely the best book you’ll ever read about chickens, too. 5 stars


The Misadventure of Bolingbroke Manor: An interactive ghost hunting adventure, by Ellie Firestone

A great, well written interactive book, perfect for the creepy season! I’ve just read this with my son (age 7) and we really enjoyed it. Unfortunately, he came to a sticky end, but we will be playing it again soon. Recommended. 5 stars

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs

I loved the concept of this novel, in which the author draws on the fascinating power of old photographs to weave his fantastical story set between Florida and a wet and windy Welsh island. In the back notes Ransom Riggs explains how the creative process worked, with sometimes him hunting through thousands of archives to find the right picture and sometimes the story being pulled in a new direction by a chance find. With a big idea like this I’m sure there was a danger of things not working out. No fear. This is a masterful story full of strong characters, inspirational settings and a plot that keeps you gripped right to the end. 4 stars

Rooftoppers , by Katherine Rundell

Structurally, the book felt a little unbalanced, some bits were overly long – but somehow this added to its sense of originality and poetry. I loved the tangential metaphors, particularly as they illuminate Sophie’s inner life. And the ending leaves you in a perfect spin. 5 stars

We Were Liars, by E Lockhart

A stylish novel that messes around with your expectations. Set on an idyllic island, four privileged teenagers find their lives shadowed by an accident involving the narrator, which she is unable to remember. The story is pervaded by a sense of disturbance – brilliantly reflected by occasional, explosive images – and reproach throughout. Who’s the subject of this reproach – the wealthy patriarch, his money-grabbing daughters, the idealistic, enigmatic Gat? Given the unreliability of her memory, does the narrator even know herself? Well worth a second read, loved it. 4 stars

All Aboard the London Bus, by Patty Toht

Can’t fault this lovely book. Excellent illustrations and poems, and a great introduction to London. 5 stars


Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! , by Mo Willems

This has got to be one of the best picture books ever. The only time you will love hearing your children shouting ‘NO!’ 5 stars

The Dog in the Diamond Collar, by Rebecca Lisle

Read this with my boys aged 6 and 8 at bedtime. It’s a great story, full of laughs, with wonderful illustrations. The youngest couldn’t get over the name the three boys called the dog, Clinky Monkey (‘he’s not a monkey!’). I particularly liked the scene where they put the dog in a babygro and then wheel him around in a pram to get him into the zoo. When we finished, I asked the boys to mark it out of 10. 10 and, to quote, ‘Googol’ (10 to the 100th power) were the answers. 5 stars

Locked in Time, by Lois Duncan

I was drawn to this book by I Know What You Did Last Summer and the atmospheric Louisianan plantation setting. The story is enjoyable, with an engaging heroine who has to deal with the challenge of her father remarrying into an enigmatic southern family. The suspense is there, although perhaps not taut enough by today’s standards. 3 stars

Closer

When I was a boy, I remember having moments of flooded awareness, a sense that, whilst I was an innocent before, now I was fully sentient, someone properly aware of who I was and where I was going. I remember it occurring every year or two.

A while ago I tried to capture that sense of lucidity – long since lost – in a poem.

Closer

The school’s tapering windows turned golden
and I remember, after lessons one day,
when I was eight, or maybe nine,
and then again nine-and-a-half,
and probably ten –

a sense of arrival,
of no longer becoming,
of finally cutting loose
from that fine-but-somewhat-lacking
changeling of seven, eight, eight-and-a –

Now I was grown,
grounded in sentience,
one of those I’d always wanted to be –
finally, gazing through glorious Victorian windows
I was me.

I was almost right.
There was plenty more to come –
the simple discord of things devouring things,
of lust, love, faith, and Earth’s indescribable place –

but I’d had the thread,
realised that only with an attack of thought
could I pierce the realm of being
and get me nearer to me.

And now I’m closer still,
so close I swear
I’m almost there.

 

In praise of… independent bookshops

I’ve just delivered a few copies of The City of Light to Barton’s Bookshop in Leatherhead. This independent bookshop has been fantastic for me as a local writer. The owner, Peter Snell, and his staff (especially Cameron) have been incredibly helpful and supportive. I’ve done two signing sessions there and we’ve now got a third scheduled for Saturday 2nd December. They’ve sold over 60 books, with all four ‘Secret of the Tirthas’ novels on permanent display. And they’ve also put me in contact with the excellent Jane Dixon-Smith who designs my book covers. So if you’re anywhere nearby – go in and buy some books, and keep your local independent bookshop thriving!

Jack

Jack in the dark, fishing the Wandle with Dad.
Some numbers of Jack:
2 (haircut), 11 (age), 7 (fags per day);
3 (Mums, if Edyta has her way).

Jack’s dad rolls a smoke,
pulls up his tracksuit neck,
but there’s no keeping out that damp.
Fetch us that box of bait, Jack…

In the moonlight Jack watches
dimples on the river’s surface –
how far they go, spinning,
till something below changes.

Jack might be young,
with a life nobody’s after,
but he knows something most
take a long time to discover –

impatience is pointless.

Jack waits in the dark,
time unregistered, and ready,
for what might,
or might not, happen next.

Mimi – a short story

Time for another first on my website. Having just read Robert Aickman’s fabulous collection, The Wine-Dark Sea, I went through my old files in search of some of my own ‘strange stories’ (as he called his dark, often haunting short stories). This story is based on a true incident that happened to one of my friend’s colleagues, who was working for an NGO in Zambia.

MIMI

1. Five Months Ago

Mimi loved the Munyati’s plump black dog Baba with its stumpy uneven legs, which made it waddle when it walked.

She and Zabaida did funny impressions of it, swinging out their hips and bending over and folding their arms over their heads like ears. Mimi thought Zabaida was the best, she could tip her head down and make a deep little woof just like Baba, but Zabaida thought Mimi was better, she did the lazy roll of the eyes just right.

So when Mimi spotted Baba snuffling through the gutter across the street she shouted the dog’s name and ran out towards him.

And got hit by a car, one of those big four-wheel drives made by a Japanese company.

The four-wheel drive is deemed the car of necessity for those businessmen, safari operators, and aid workers who must traverse the poor infrastructure of Zambia. The roads are too rough, too gouged by potholes and scoured by the rains for the low chassis of normal cars. It is too easy to become grounded, too easy for weedy tyres to blow out on sharp stones. A four-wheel drive, with good air-conditioning and tinted windows to stop the sun’s glare is best. With a cattle bar to protect your radiator from collisions with livestock in the countryside, and fenders in Lusaka.

The cattle bar struck Mimi at a speed somewhere around twenty miles per hour. There was a loud crack and the child bounced loosely back on to the side of the road.

The driver of the car, an aid worker named Joseph, screamed and slammed on his brake. The tyres bit deep into grit, sending out billows of brown-red dust. Joseph looked into his rear-view mirror, instinctively turning down the tape of UB40 that filled the cabin with a bass-heavy thump. Through the swirling dust he could see the child lying still on her back.

‘Oh Lord, no, please…’ he whispered.

He looked across at the glove compartment, but it took a few seconds before his confused eyes focused on the white cross in a green circle.

Joseph reached over, unfastened the latch, and pulled out the First Aid kit. He drew the kit across, grabbed the door handle, and turned to open the door –

And stopped, confronted by a large face barely an inch away from his own.

Oddly, the first thing he noticed was a series of beige blemishes and pocks on the man’s cheeks. Then he saw the eyes, which appeared to be making small circular movements, like a high-powered drill. For a moment Joseph was fascinated, almost hypnotised, like a snake before a mongoose. The man’s eyes were amazing, the most amazing colour – almost yellow, sand-yellow, with a band of green around the edge of the iris.

Then Joseph’s foot crushed the accelerator down on the floor. With a crunch and squeal, the car surged forward.

The man at the window shouted in surprise, but didn’t let go of the door handle. Instead he began to run alongside the car, trying to yank the door open. But the motion of the car meant that, wild with anger as he was, the man could not pull it outwards.

Joseph checked the rear-mirror and found his fears confirmed by the sight of at least a dozen men and women running out from their huts to pursue the vehicle. He shouted, some garbled sound, and shouted again when he looked back at the road and saw an elderly villager in front of him, spreading his arms as if to catch the car like a cow.

Joseph braked and swerved, narrowly missing the man, then threw all of his strength into wrestling the door shut because his clinger-on had used the moment of deceleration to widen the opening.

‘Get off!’ he shrieked, once again flooring the accelerator.

This time the crazy man could not hold on and, in the mirror, Joseph watched as in the midst of the dust cloud he nearly fell over himself trying to slow down. And then Joseph was out of the village, speeding along the open road.

*

In Zambia, due to the not-so-infrequent incidents of drivers being pulled from their vehicles after such occurrences and pummelled to death, it is perfectly within the law to drive on and report the accident at the next settlement. So when Joseph presented himself at the local police station, the superintendent calmly proceeded to take his details. Then, after allowing Joseph a call to his employer, the policeman locked him in a cell for the night.

*

He thought he’d been awake all night, rotating the furious faces of the villagers round and round in his mind, but the sudden start Joseph felt upon hearing shouts outside made him realise he must have slipped off for a short while after dawn.

The hatch in the door allowed the only light into the dim cell. Hearing shouts again, Joseph rushed to the door and looked out through the small opening.

Outside a policeman whom he had not seen before was in front of the door, bending over and calling for help.

‘What is it?’ Joseph whispered.

The man looked up at Joseph’s face, which was pressed against the single bar that divided the hatch. The policeman’s face was ashen.

‘Look,’ he said, and stepped out of the way so that Joseph could see what he had been leaning over.

For the second time, Joseph saw Mimi.

Below her small face, so gentle she could be asleep, her body was twisted sideways into an impossible position. Her legs and arms flayed out at differing angles, making her look inhuman, like some huge flattened spider.

Joseph’s vomit came mostly through the window, spattering the man’s shoulder. ‘Sorry,’ he said, as he stumbled back into the cell, wiping his mouth.

The superintendent arrived, and the two men carried the child’s corpse into one of the other cells.

‘Who did this?’ Joseph heard the superintendent ask.

‘The villagers must have brought her over in the night,’ said the other man.

‘They’re going to make him pay for this.’

*

Joseph’s employer Sarah arrived later that morning with a lawyer.

At a meeting in the police offices, the superintendent explained that Joseph was free to go but, as was usual in these cases, he would have to pay compensation to the family of the dead child. He would be summoned to a local tribunal to establish how much within the next few weeks.

As they were leaving, the man who had discovered the child came up to Joseph.

‘I found this on her body,’ he said, pressing something into his hand. ‘I’m sorry.’

Joseph looked at his hand and felt his stomach spasm with fear. It was a snake’s skull.

 

2. Five Weeks Ago

Sarah sat at her desk staring blankly at the computer screen.

It was past sundown and the heat in the office was unbearable. She stood up and went over to the window, but the air coming off the street was thick with diesel and she felt her chest constricting, not expanding. She decided she couldn’t work much longer, she would have to get up early to finish her report.

As she was turning away from the window, she noticed a man coming down the street in a strange fashion, shuffling and hunched up as if he were carrying more than just his head on his shoulders. He was scurrying left and right, keeping as much space between himself and passers-by as he could. At one stage he stumbled into the path of a motorbike, which swerved swiftly to avoid him. After getting back on to the pavement, the man looked up at the office, and she realised who it was.

‘Joseph!’

She rushed downstairs and out of the doorway to catch him.

He was hurrying away through the crowd, stiff across the shoulders, not looking back.

‘Joseph! Stop!’

He stopped, and turned around slowly as she walked up to him.

‘Are you OK?’

‘Yes. OK. Yes, I’m sort of…’

‘Joseph – what is it?’

He frowned. ‘I’m not so good, Sarah. Actually, I have a bad head. My back is stiff, I can’t sleep properly. I keep waking up, there’s something wrong with me, I know, I can’t sleep…’

‘Have you been to the doctor?’

‘A doctor is no good.’ There was something about his eyes, an unhealthy effervescence. He looked somehow haunted – or hunted. ‘How can you sleep when sleep is a breeding ground for monsters that rise up and terrorise you next day?’

‘How long have you been like this?’

‘A while now.’

‘Has this got anything to do with the accident?’

For a moment she thought he was going to cry.

‘I need your help, Sarah.’

‘What can I do?’

‘Come back with me. To my flat. Please. I have to show you something…’

‘Sure.’

*

He lived in a small block of flats near the centre of town. When they got in he seemed to relax a little.

‘Thank you for coming. Would you like a drink?’

‘Yes, please. Some water.’

He brought a bottle from the fridge, poured her a glass, then walked over to a set of drawers.

‘Will you look at these, please?’ He pulled the bottom drawer out slowly.

Inside were a variety of unusual things, feathers, bones, and small dolls, which he proceeded to take out and show her one by one. Some of the items seemed to be daubed with blood. Sarah knew at once what it was. Witchcraft.

‘Where have they come from?’ she asked.

His face creased again. ‘She’s been sending them for three months now. I send her money every fortnight, every penny we agreed, but still she sends them. She doesn’t care for the money, she only wants to kill me, it’s a life for a life, that’s how these people think, they want to kill me, they won’t be happy until they’re standing on my grave, you must help me, Sarah, please…’

‘How?’

He looked down.

‘Lend me the money for a more powerful witch.’

 

3. Now

The woman sits on her stool, gazing out across her yard.

Her face is split by lines of age and worry, and her eyes have a rheumy shine. Occasionally, she raises her hand to her cheek, pushing it inwards so she can bite on soft flesh.

She is watching the chickens peck about for seeds and scraps, but she is thinking about something else, biting her cheek, stroking her brow. Her eyes shift about on the surf of some restless inner reasoning.

Suddenly, her name is called. She looks round, sees a cousin approaching. He has been to collect post from the town, and she is expecting her next payment. He leans inside the door and, instead of the usual envelope, hands her a parcel, then walks on.

The woman studies the brown box, which has her name and address – some of the few words she is able to recognise – written on it in neat blue ink. Her fingers, already swollen with arthritis although she is not as old as she appears, slide the string over each of the corners and lift up the lid.

Inside she finds cotton wool padding, which she pulls out slowly, one thick wedge at a time. And then she freezes.

From its white nest, a small cotton doll of a child with tiny agate eyes stares up at her. The cotton is unbleached, a dull grey colour, but there are red stains on its head and torso.

For a moment, incomprehension shows on the woman’s face. Then, realising that the monster of her grief now has no way to turn but inwards, she screams and gouges at her forearms with her nails. The weak skin tears and blood blooms from nothing.

Outside in the street, the villagers hear the cry. They turn towards her house and stare.

The Wine-Dark Sea by Robert Aickman: a short review

The Wine-Dark SeaThe Wine-Dark Sea by Robert Aickman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The attention to detail in these stories and the deeply-knit tensions make you think you are heading for a full length novel, something that is going to take you to fantastic, dark places and give you all kinds of revelations. And you get some of that, but Aickman uses the short story to cut you off in mid-flow, to leave early, to depart in a manner that leaves you wanting more. There hangs the doom of foreclosure across all his tales, which I think is exactly what he wants. His glimpses, of the afterlife, of archetypes, of the dark and strange potential behind reality, are perfectly suited to the form. I haven’t read a book as compulsive, as strange, as brilliant as this in a long time. Read it!

View all my reviews

The Man who was Saved

This short poem was written a long time ago. It’s the only prose poem I’ve ever written, and it’s the only poem I’ve written about being saved. That’s why I like it – because all of us want to save and be saved, don’t we?

The man who was saved

by a fire-fighter at the Marriott Hotel on 9/11 was OK before; before he’d never shown anyone any affection and expected none himself but when an unknown man, a stranger, did that to him – saved him, without him asking – he found that something shut away for a long time, so long it might as well have been forever, came out and that’s what has made him into someone who cries each time he watches the news, what has made him alive and weak. He loves being weak.

 

 

 

 

 

Guardian Review of The City of Light – from the Archive

“I can’t wait to read the next adventure of Lizzie and Pandu, and I would definitely recommend this book to my friends…”

I’ve just been looking back over some reviews of The City of Light. This one, which appeared in The Guardian, has to be my favourite:

The City of Light: The Secret of the Tirthas

 

The Lady in the Moon Moth Mask – Giveaway

Just to let you know, I’m running a giveaway for a signed copy of The Lady in the Moon Moth Mask on Goodreads.

You’ll need a Goodreads profile to enter. If you haven’t got a profile why not start now, it’s a great place to find out about books and connect with readers and writers?

Click below to enter – and good luck!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

The Lady in the Moon Moth Mask by Steve Griffin

The Lady in the Moon Moth Mask

by Steve Griffin

Giveaway ends August 03, 2017.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

Diaspora of Light

Diaspora of Light

Stretching up she twists the slats

and, having combed
all that empty space
failed to catch
retreating galaxies
collapsing stars

bounced off
or come to nothing
on nameless, burnt out rocks

at last the barriers down
light
finds perfect resting place
on her bare skin

glories with silent fanfare

and begins its transmission
of the precious stuff, metals
gold, silver, platinum and bronze

from the places
where her stomach twists
her arm curves against the air;

from the coppery shift of her hair,
the coral blue-grey blink
of her perfect eyes.