Category Archives: Reviews

Up in the Air poetry book – my first ever Youtube review!

I’m hugely grateful to New Zealand book blogger Pauline Reid for this review of my poetry book Up in the Air – my first ever Youtube review!

In it, Pauline talks about the sections in the book and shows her own Instagram photo of the book. She does a lovely reading of my poem ‘A Bird on the Moorland’. She also flags up the local interest for some of her subscribers, as one of the poems features the Albatross Statue in Wellington, her home town.

Have a watch and leave a comment if you like it!

Olga Tokarczuk: Go read

Two years ago a Polish friend at work went to a publishing event and brought me back a gift. It was a beautiful book called Flights by a Polish author named Olga Tokarczuk. (It really was a beautiful book, cobalt blue that appeared freshly inked, with fine white lettering, published by Fitzcarraldo Press.) The book was a real gem, a connected series of stories and meditations on travel, the body, and hope. The next year, my friend lent me a second book, House of Day, House of Night, which I also read and loved. Next thing, Olga Tokarczuk won the International Man Booker Prize for Flights.

This year I bought Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead which, in my view, is the best of her books I’ve read so far. (The wonderful title is from William Blake). The narrator, Janina Duszejko, gives us a whole new way of seeing the world, peppered with Medieval-style capitalised nouns, her own made-up names for people, a love of Blake, astrological ‘insight’, and a deep feeling for animals. The story centres around a series of gruesome murders on the remote Polish plateau where she lives, with only a few eccentric friends for company since she lost her beloved dogs. It’s far from a conventional detective story and focuses more on the narrator’s longing for a creative, numinous world free from suffering:

“Blake would say that there are some places in the Universe where the Fall has not occurred, the world has not turned upside down and Eden still exists. Here Mankind is not governed by the rules of reason, stupid and strict, but by the heart and intuition. The people do not indulge in idle chatter, parading what they know, but create remarkable things by applying their imagination. The state ceases to impose the shackles of daily oppression, but helps people to realize their hopes and dreams. And Man is not just a cog in the system, not just playing a role, but a free Creature.”

So, all I want to say is this: go read Olga Tokarczuk. You won’t regret it.

My Top Ten Books for Children and Young Adults in 2018

So, I’ve already told you my best reads for adults in 2018 here. Now it’s time for my Top Ten books for Children and Young Adults that I’ve read this year.

La Belle Sauvage: top ten books for children and young adults 2018

A quick note. I have two boys aged 7 and 9 and this collection includes several I’ve read to them at bedtime. When we finish I discuss the story with them and ask them to rate it out of 5. I then give my own rating and we average it for Goodreads.

La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust #1), Philip Pullman

How great was it for those of us who followed Lyra Belacqua through His Dark Materials to hear Philip Pullman had written another book about her? But the twist is… it’s a prequel and this time she’s a baby being cared for by nuns! Lyra lives in a Priory opposite an Oxfordshire riverside pub run by our hero Malcolm’s parents.

La Belle Sauvage is an interesting read. The first half – nearly 300 pages – follows the steady life of Malcolm. He learns handicraft, serves at the pub, and gradually comes within a circle of revolutionaries who dare to criticize the Authority. In the context of today’s high-octane novels it’s quite an innovation, a return to old-fashioned slow-build storytelling with a low level of peril. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it, and how quickly I read it. The second half – when Malcolm and a local girl have to save baby Lyra following a massive flood – is more action-packed and exciting. 4 stars

Tigerfish: top ten books for children and young adults 2018

Photo courtesy of Linda Lou Oliphant

Tigerfish, Hoang Chi Truong

I was fascinated by Hoang Chi Truong’s memoir of her family’s escape from war-torn Vietnam, and how they sought refuge in the United States. A very powerful story, with a message more relevant than ever in today’s world. You can read my full review here. I will be interviewing the author soon – watch this space. 5 stars

The Mystery of the Silver Spider, Robert Arthur

I loved The Three Investigators adventure mystery series as a boy. They’re now out of print, so it was a huge pleasure to stumble across this title in a second hand bookshop. In this episode, Jupiter Jones, Pete Crenshaw and Bob Andrews find themselves working as spies on behalf of the CIA, trying to maintain the integrity of fictional Eastern European country, Varania. I read it to the boys at bedtime and they adored it. We’re now on to our second book in the series, The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot. 5 stars

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis

Another one that I read to the boys at bedtime. As it had been with me as a child, it was very popular with them. The seven-year-old did however have a delayed-action burst of tears in the scene with Aslan on the Stone Table. It’s a fairly gruesome and sustained horror scene, as far as middle grade fiction goes – be warned when reading to younger listeners! 5 stars

Danny the Champion of the World, Roald Dahl

Another classic read to the boys, one of the few Roald Dahl books I have never read. We all enjoyed this saga of a boy and his poacher father. The ending is particularly poignant. 5 stars

Peacock Pie, Walter de la Mare

“Peacock Pie is surely one of the greatest children’s books of the century.” said The Times. I’ve had this secondhand book of Walter de la Mare’s poems for a while and had occasionally picked out a poem or two to read to the boys. But this year I read them a lot more and realised how brilliant this collection is. The majority of the poems are great fun, carried along by a crisp rhythm and rhyme. But many also have a subtle mystery. They appear as simple vignettes of people’s lives, but the more you read them, the more they resonate with darker, more adult themes. 5 stars

Captain Underpants and the Terrifying Return of Tippy Tinkletrousers, Dav Pilkey

My youngest son adores Captain Underpants. Pick any book and you will see why – this is rocket-fueled, imaginative storytelling for kids, full of ebullience, good will and humour! 4 stars

The Explorer: top ten books for children and young adults 2018

The Explorer, Katherine Rundell

Katherine Rundell is one of my favourite children’s writers. I’ve loved all her books I’ve read – Rooftoppers, The Girl Savage, and The Wolf Wilder. The Explorer is the story of a group of children trying to survive in the Amazon after a plane crash, who come across a long-lost explorer in a ruined city. Whilst I found this story more conventional than her others, it still includes her trademark blend of excitement, suspense, poetry and mystery – exactly what I strive for in my own writing. You can read my review of Katherine Rundell’s other books here. 4 stars

Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy, Lynley Dodd

A re-read, because my children love this book so much. It’s a great story, with a colourful cast of dogs ranging from Hercules Morse (‘as big as a horse’) to Muffin McClay (‘a bundle of hay’) and the eponymous Hairy Maclary, from Donaldson’s Dairy. The gang go for a doggy strut downtown – only to be sent packing by Scarface Claw, the toughest tom in town. 5 stars

Finn Family Moomintroll

Finn Family Moomintroll, Tove Jansson

The Finnish writer Tove Jansson features in my A-Z of inspirational authors on Instagram, #stevegreads. The magical Moomins series was the first set of long books I remember reading as a child. This year, I read Finn Family Moomintroll to the boys. They weren’t quite as enamoured with this tale of the magical and tricksy Hobgoblin Hat as I was, but they still enjoyed it. It reminded me why I’d loved these books so much. The author’s gentle, wistful storylines; her delightful, eccentric characters; and above all, her deep empathy and reverence for nature. 5 stars

So that’s my top ten books for children and young adults in 2018. What did you read this year that inspired you?

If you’d like to find more books I’d recommend for children and young adults, check out my post for 2017 here.

My Top Ten Books of 2018: Grown-ups

am an owl, am an owl... Top Ten Books 2018

It’s getting to that time again when we like to think back over what we’ve done in the past year. Or, in the case of us bibliophiles, what we’ve read. So, once again here’s my Top Ten Books for Grown-ups that I’ve read in 2018, each a perfect gift for the Yuletide season!

The Top Ten for Children and Young Adults will be along shortly…

Troubles, J.G. Farrell

Troubles is probably my favourite book that I’ve read this year. It’s about a traumatised British soldier (‘The Major’) who goes to Ireland to meet his apparent fiance, and ends up staying in her father’s hotel for… well, for a very long time. Like the fantastic Siege of Krishnapur, the real subject of Troubles is the decline of the British Empire. But J.G. Farrell’s supreme success is rendering this through exquisite detail and through his wonderful, vivid, and occasionally comic, characters.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon

Another historical novel, this is an absorbing tale of two men who create a Comic empire in war-time New York. One of them is a Jewish migrant, striving to be a real-life hero to save members of his family left behind in Nazi Germany.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari

An astonishing book, giving an overview of the major phases of our evolution. It’s often grim in its rendering of our collective fictions, but it’s also balanced with glimmers of hope, such as the relative peacefulness of recent times, improvements in medicine, and reductions in global poverty. Most unnerving is the ending, which touches on the huge pressures we face to undertake more bioengineering, and where that might lead. Nonfiction such as a Moment on the Earth and fiction such as Hyperion, by Dan Simmons, address some of these issues. But this book wakes you up to the prospect that, in the long view, our turbulent history might just be a staging post in the evolution of intelligent design.

Inside the Wave, Helen Dunmore

The final book of poetry by the talented and versatile Helen Dunmore. I read several of her dark and atmospheric novels when I was younger, including Zennor in Darkness and A Spell of Winter. She also wrote some mermaid-inspired Young Adult novels which I’ve yet to read. But she stands out as a poet. She wrote Inside the Wave when she was terminally ill, and the writing has a clear, transcendent beauty.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson

A brilliant, creepy book that really gets inside the mind and disturbing habits of its teenage narrator – who is definitively unreliable.

The Accidental Tourist, Anne Tyler

It’s taken me a long time to read this classic title. I love A.M. Homes, and Anne Tyler writes in a similar vein. Both give us stories of Americans whose lives have been fractured by trauma but who retain – or recover – a sense of perspective and transcendence. And who still have a surprising decision or two in them.

The Stranger’s Child, Alan Hollinghurst

I struggled at first to buy into this segmented novel that revisits a wealthy British family throughout the last century. But as it went on I grew to love the way it built a textured picture of the ebb and flow of legacy – particularly that of one man, a war poet. I occasionally find myself slowing down as novels progress, getting a little less interested in the set up and characters. But in The Stranger’s Child, I found my appetite and interest increasing all the time.

Dark Entries, Rober Aickman

The second horror entry in my top ten. These morbid, unresolved tales by Robert Aickman are as usual masterfully told. A poet of the tomb, he plants a dark seed in your mind and let’s you grow it however you will. Check out my review of The Wine-Dark Sea here.

Solstice, Joyce Carol Oates

I’d been meaning to read some Joyce Carol Oates for a long time. I wasn’t disappointed with this, a dark and gripping tale of a claustrophobic friendship between a charismatic artist and a dowdy lecturer.

Ten Poems about Birds: Top Ten Books 2018

Ten Poems about Birds, intro Jenni Murray

A beautifully produced present given to me by my wife on our tenth wedding anniversary. Only when I put together my first poetry book, Up in the Air, did I realise quite how obsessed I am by birds and flight. So this was a truly magical present. The poems are wondrous and fragile, perfect little songs. I especially liked Skylark, which I had never read before, and Owl, which I had, but had forgotten.

Am an owl, am an owl…

Want to know more about what I’ve been reading? Check out my favourite books in 2017 and 2016!

Three Reasons to Love Wordsworth

Wordsworth thinking

I’ve been really pleased by the reception of my first poetry book, Up in the Air, which reached the top ten in Amazon’s ‘Inspirational Poetry’ bestsellers category.

I wrote a post about how I started writing poems here. I mentioned it was climbing Scottish mountains and reading William Wordsworth that kickstarted my love for poetry. But citing Wordsworth as an inspiration is hardly hip these days. So I thought I’d tell you why I like him. Then, hopefully, you will too.

There are three reasons I love Wordsworth:

#1 His Idealism

As a young man in the 1790s, Wordsworth travelled on the continent and was excited by the fresh ideals of the politics he discovered. He believed passionately in the French Revolution, that there would be a new dawn of equality and liberty for all humankind. Unfortunately it was followed by the Reign of Terror and Wordsworth ultimately retreated, disillusioned, to his private sanctuary in the Lake District. I’ve got a feeling quite a few of us would like to do that these days.

#2 His Poetry

Obviously. Wordsworth created some of the most inspired and memorable lines in the English language. Look at these for instance:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!

That best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love.

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.

Come forth into the light of things,
Let nature be your teacher.

With an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.

#3 Above all, his love of, respect for, and insight into Nature

As one of the greatest Romantic poets, Wordsworth described the inner life and value of Nature like no other:

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear, – both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognise
In nature and the language of the sense
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.

He understood the mysterious interplay that our thoughts, our minds, have with Nature. Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey is my favourite poem, and I think the lines about what the eye and ear ‘half create, and what percieve’ is a revelation.

I often re-read Wordsworth’s poems, when I arrive in the mountains, or see a new, inspiring landscape. We can never be sure about the inner life of Nature, the force that through the green fuse drives the flower as Dylan Thomas called it, and what our part in it is. But many of us believe that there is something really there beyond dim, blind, mechanics. And we see that, in a semi-objective, semi-imaginative way, we are not only created by it, but have a mysterious role in creating the world ourselves.

TigerFish – a gripping story of a young Vietnamese refugee

“Do you see how beautifully this hardship has shaped and formed the stretching branches and foliage, like long slender fingers pointing toward the sea?”

Hoang Chi Truong’s autobiography of her experience as a young girl fleeing the Vietnam war is fascinating on many levels: as an insight into Vietnamese culture, both before and after the war; as a harrowing tale of the upheaval and existential terror of having to flee your own country to save your life; of the nuanced and changing feelings towards the culture and people that take you in as a refugee.

I found the story gripping from start to finish. The language is precise and evocative, with moments of poetic beauty, such as the quote above. I recommend you read the story of TigerFish, not only for its own many merits, but as a stark reminder of the need for countries to be bigger and wiser and kinder towards refugees.

You can purchase a copy here:

Who are your Inspirational Authors?

Roald Dahl - inspirational authors

I’ve started a new A-Z of authors who have inspired my writing on my Instagram page, using the hashtag #stevegreads.

I’ve just got to D, which was a tough choice between Helen Dunmore, a fantastic author and poet who died sadly last year, Bob Dylan, whose biography Chronicles lived up to his epic career of songwriting, and Roald Dahl.

In the end I had to choose Roald Dahl, whose irreverent, joyful stories were a high point of my childhood reading. And which are now making me happy for a second time, as I read them with my two boys.

Which authors do you keep going back to? Who has inspired you the most?

Land of Mine: life as a Prisoner of War

I’ve just watched the harrowing Danish / German war film, Land of Mine. It’s about a group of German Prisoners of War who, contrary to the Geneva Convention, are made to find and defuse 45,000 land mines along a short stretch of brilliant white coastline. That’s 45,000 out of the 2.2 million mines that were laid along the Danish coast, more than the rest of Europe altogether. This is where the Fuhrer thought the invasion would come.

The film is heart-wrenching. The soldiers are all in their teens, clearly out of their depth, carrying all the burden of a situation that was not of their making. They are harassed and abused by their guards. It’s understandable, but hard to watch when they are crying and having to loudly deny that they are missing their homes, or their family, or even crying in the first place. This is grim. It is only a matter of time before, starving and sick from eating stolen animal meal, the expected happens.

My grandfather was a German Prisoner of War, which was one of the reasons I watched the film. I wanted to try to get some insight into what he must have experienced, being little more than a boy during this period of seismic upheaval. He died when I was 10, but I still remember sitting at his feet and pestering him for war stories whilst he sat in his favourite armchair in his Eastbourne semi, smoking Golden Virginia rollies. He didn’t like talking about the war, but over the years I got several stories from him.

He told me how he was at the launch of one of the first V2 rockets, which went straight up in the sky and came straight back down on the launch site, leaving the soldiers scrambling for cover. He told me how he was captured at the Battle of Caen, aiming a Panzerfaust at a British tank and being spotted by the tank commander who fired his machine gun at him. My grandfather’s stick grenade was hit and exploded, wounding him from head to foot on one side and blowing to pieces his friend who was loading behind him. My grandfather was saved by the Red Cross, sent to Canada – ‘the bears used to raid the bins every night’ – then to Scotland, and finally to Eastbourne, which is where he met my grandmother.

His experience of growing up is incomparable to mine; that’s why I was interested in seeing Land of Mine. In those young, proud, frightened German boys I was able to imagine some of the barely suppressed, frequently overt hatred he must have experienced from those who saw him as no more than a representative of the evil that had taken away their loved ones in the war.

Being one-quarter German, I am painfully aware that both my great-grandparents and my grandparents effectively tried to kill each other in two of the most horrific wars the world has ever seen. My parents and my generation have been spared – thanks in no small part to the European Union, winner of the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize, which has helped forge the longest period of peace in Europe since Roman times. But the lesson of history is never to become complacent. We must do all we can to keep our children’s generation free from such ruin.

German grandfather (former Prisoner of War) and English grandmotherMy German grandfather, Egon Korn, and English grandmother, Pamela (nee Guy)

The Rewards of Writing

Book signing at Barton's bookshop

Book signing at Barton’s bookshop

Let me start by saying it’s not for the sales – although of course they are welcome! I write simply because I enjoy it. I’ve always written, starting with my own New Avengers and James Bond stories when I was eight, and later on casting my school friends as the heroes and villains of action stories and westerns. It was fun – and gratifying – to see them being passed round class.

After focusing on poetry in my twenties and thirties, I am back to writing adventure stories with The Secret of the Tirthas. I enjoy creating stories full of suspense, mystery and intrigue – and it’s always fantastic to get feedback from readers. Obviously, sales are a good, hard measure of how appealing your book is. But reviews, particularly on Amazon and Goodreads, and increasingly direct, face-to-face feedback from readers are both huge reward and encouragement.  I was over the moon when The Guardian newspaper published a positive review of The City of Light by a 14 year-old-reader. And I have been similarly bowled over reading reviews by book bloggers such as Handsfull Mama in America and The Whimsy Bookworm in India.

But of all the direct feedback I’ve had, perhaps the most rewarding to date came yesterday, when an 80 year old lady came with her husband into Barton’s Bookshop, where I was doing a book signing event. This lovely lady had been given my first two books as gifts by her daughter, whom I met two years running at Pippfest in Dorking. I was delighted when she introduced herself with the words ‘I’m a fan of yours’ and we proceeded to have a long conversation about the inspiration for the books, including the real garden of rooms, my trips to India, and the Herefordshire countryside, which she and her husband knew well.

So, if you’ve read one of my books please write a review. And, if you meet me face to face, tell me what you liked (or didn’t) about the story. It means a lot to me.

Best Books: Grown-ups

My last post was a collection of my Goodreads reviews of the best Young Adult and Children’s books that I’ve read over the past couple of years. In the same vein, here’s some of the books for grown-ups that I’ve reviewed in the same time period:

Jack, by A.M. Homes

One of the best coming of age novels. Jack’s initial mortification at his dad’s coming out is soon compounded by everyone at school finding out, and not helped by the anodyne wisdom of the adults around him. But his parents’ separation is just a springboard to greater worries about joining the ‘complicated, boring’ world of society. Jack is sure there’s an alternative, but he’s shooting in the dark. Will he make it? 5 stars

Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout

A profound portrait of an individual and a community. The vignette-style chapters of characters who are emotionally damaged, close to illness and death, combines with the rough beauty of the Maine landscape to create an oddly affirming account of what it can mean to be alive. Olive Kitteridge is scathing, no-nonsense, pragmatic; and completely invested in her garden, the blooming of her tulips. 5 stars

The Crossing, by Andrew Miller

This book isn’t exactly long, but it takes you on an amazing journey. In the character of Maud, the author has created someone both mysterious and scientific, rooted in the world. When she’s met by tragedy her journey alone across the Atlantic, one moment calm and the next terrifyingly wild, is gripping. I wasn’t so sure about the ending, but this seems to me a resonant book for our times. 5 stars

The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry

Beautifully written, strong on character and historical detail, but overall lacking in drama and suspense. The book didn’t live up to its fabulous title, with the serpent and related gothic trappings never really coming to life. The relationships were interesting, and I liked the ending, but again they felt devoid of sufficient tension to merit the long story. 3 stars

And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie

My only criticism of this fantastic book, the first Agatha Christie that I’ve read, is that I would have liked more of it. More detail about the characters, more description of the setting. It almost defines ‘pared down’. But it’s brilliant nevertheless. 5 stars

In a Dark, Dark Wood, by Ruth Ware

Nora, or Lee as she was formerly known, has partially resolved a past trauma through her work and the isolated life of a writer. But it all comes back again when she is invited to a hen party, only to find that the her former best friend is marrying the man who broke her heart. The setting, in a remote, glass-walled house in a Northumbrian pine wood, adds to the tension. We know from the start it will end in blood – but is it going to be at the hands of angry locals, or someone in the party? A masterful suspense story. 4 stars

The Wine-Dark Sea, by Robert Aickman

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! 5 stars

City of Light, by Lauren Belfer

A complex historical thriller set at the turn of the twentieth century, when the first power stations were being established at Niagara Falls. It was a time of great hope (with promises to roll back the darkness and let poor children read by electric light) and great conflict, between unionists, black people, and nature ‘preservationists’ against the powerful new industrialists. It’s all told from the perspective of the spinster head teacher of the local girl’s school, who bears a major secret of her own that commits her to engaging with the dark and dramatic events. Recommended. 4 stars

You can check out the books I’ve read, see what people say about The Secret of the Tirthas, send me a friend request, and more over on my Goodreads profile page.