This Winter by Alice Oseman

This little book is simply a gem.

A Solitaire novella from Alice Oseman, it takes you to Christmas with Charlie and Nick. However, the focus is mainly on the Spring family, as Oseman again does not shy away from difficult but incredibly important subjects.

Christmas seems even more challenging this year, as Tori is worried about her brother Charlie. He has suffered from an eating disorder and Tori worries that this will make Christmas hard for her brother.

This sensitively written book focuses on mental health, family and romantic relationships, and will make readers really evaluate what is important at Christmas time.

This may not be your traditional festive read, but it will definitely be enjoyed by fans of the work of Alice Oseman – her brilliant natural storytelling and great illustrations.

A great piece of YA fiction that will really make you think this festive season.

Midwinter Murders by Agatha Christie

I was lucky enough to win this beautiful book in a lovely giveaway on bookstagram. And, I am not sure much else could be so perfect for this time of year as some ‘cosy’ crime.

This book is a collection of tales from the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie. They are all stories that have been published in other collections of short stories; however, they have been brought together here because they all have a wintery or festive feel.

You meet all your favourite Christie detectives including, of course, Marple and Poirot. My favourite tale was the third in the collection, as it reminded me a little of ‘An Inspector Calls’ which is another favourite at this time of year.

This collection of tales is just a perfect piece of escapism: classic crime. You may solve some of the mysteries ot you may just wish to let it unfold around you.

Either way, grab your favourite festive treats and settle down with some Christie classics.

The Dead Secret by Wilkie Collins

November (I know, a little late), ‘The Dead Secret’ was picked for the buddy read for all of us who love a sensation novel, in the Victorian Sensation Book Club.

I had not heard of this novel from the pen of Collins, but that is always the beauty of a readalong – you find new titles.

I really enjoyed this book and, if you are not used to classics, this would be a great place to start. It has all the ingredients of an engaging read – a colourful collection of characters, a secret and a big old house with closed rooms. Elements of a gothic setting along the way.

I found this a real page-turner because the mystery is in place almost immediately, as the death of the lady of the house, a letter and a lady’s maid that the rest of the staff find a little strange disappearing draws you into ‘The Dead Secret’. I enjoy the narrative style of Wilkie Collins and, despite working out small parts of the mystery slightly before they were revealed did not take away from the enjoyment of reading this book.

I also felt that this was a book where you could see the friendship between Collins and fellow author Charles Dickens. As I read, some of the characters such as Uncle Joseph had a vibe of Dickens about them. That, for me, just made the book even more fascinating, as I love the idea of great literary connections.

So, if you would like to have a go at a novel by Wilkie Collins, I would suggest that you start with this piece of esacapism.

The Wit and Wisdom of Hilda Ffinch by Juliet Warrington

Today is my stop on ’12 Days of Clink Street’ and I have had the joy of being gifted ‘The Wit and Wisdom of Hilda Ffinch’ – and it really is a joyous read.

1940, rural Yorkshire, and the villagers of Little Hope are doing their best to keep going despite the events of World War Two and mainland Europe. Hilda Ffinch decides her contribution is to become the agony aunt for the local newspaper. As lady of the manor, and completely unshockable, she tackles any problem the villagers throw at her, although often with very little tact.

This is a wonderfully comic novel. Told in a series of letters and replies full of clever use of language to create subtle humour throughout. And the advice is always wonderfully entertaining – you do wonder if anyone would be tempted to follow it.

I love the nostalgia in this book; it reminds me of all the great comedies hat could be found on the radio and TV during the fifties, sixties and seventies. Gentle humour to make you giggle and bring you cheer.

If you want to read a book that really demonstrates the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ attitude as we reach the end of a very strange year – this hidden gem is for you.

The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney by Okechukwu Nzelu

November’s pick of ‘The Tasting Notes Book Club’ from the fantastic ‘The Book Taster’, was ‘The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney’ by Okechukwu Nzelu. And I absolutely loved this book, reading it in one weekend.

This the the debut novel from the pen of Okechukwu Nzelu, and I thought it was such a fantastic story and so readable. This book has a range of characters whose lives are entwined as they are all on a voyage of discovery about themselves, their identity and their place in the world. Nnenna has never met her father, and as she is reaching her late teens and thinking about moving out into the world, away from home, she starts to think it is time to find out more about her heritage. This impacts many of the relationships around her and lets us find out about the past, as her mother tackles this changing relationship too.

However, this novel does not just tackle identity, but also so many other key issues, such as mental health and racism.

It is an absolutely fascinating book and really had me thinking about all of the things that shape us and our beliefs. And sometimes how that leads us to make some tough decisions.

Nzelu is a talented writer with clearly a lot that he wants to share with the world. I would love to read more from him, especially if it happend to be the story of Maurice or Jonathan (just an idea – haha!).

So, if you want to discover a new author with so much to share, this is the book for you.

Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert

As part of a ‘Collective Voices Readalong’ for Tandem Collective UK, I read ‘Take a Hint, Dani Brown’ by Talia Hibbert.

This is probably a book that I would never have picked up without that encouragement. It really is not a book that you should judge by its cover – that suggests a whimsical romance story; a hero and his girl. However, this book tackles so much more and so skilfully.

This is the tale of Dani Brown, who has convinced herself that romance and relationships are not for her – her ambition is enough, as long as she has a bit on the side. Zaf is a lover of romance novels and really likes Dani, if only she would notice, or at least see him as more than a friend. This may sound like a trope-filled romantic fiction novel, however underpinning all this are themes of identity, grief, mental health and healthy relationships. It becomes a real page-turner as you want to know more about Zaf, Dani and their stories. And, of course, if they will get their happy ending.

Nowm this quite a sexy book and, in some ways, it is quite liberating to read a book which is not afraid to be quite so liberal. However, it won’t be for everyone. Although, you could easily skip this without losing anything from the book.

I do now feel invested in the finding out more about the Brown sisters, so will be reading more of Talia Hibbert’s books. This a well-written, contemporary piece of fiction – with a sexy edge.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

This is a re-read for me, for a lovely group who ‘recapture the classics’.

This is a novel that really is a classic. And one that should not hold the fear that often comes with the classics, as it is a short, sharp, simple read. Do not get me wrong – this does not take away from what a wonderful story this is.

‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ is an excellent tale with a great gothic feel. I also think it is a fantastic commentary on the attitudes of society at the time. There is a clear reference to the ideas of morality and character, but also (I think) the fears of some of the changes of the era. Could man’s interest in science be moving us away from the good, moral path of tradition?

As I hate to spoil books for those who may wish to read them, I will not reveal much of the narrative. However, I will say that this story is beautifully written by Stevenson. It also contains all the ingredients of a thrilling read, with murder, mystery, dark settings and intriguing characters.

If you are not sure about the classics but love a good story ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ would an excellent place to start. It really is a great and classic tale.

Dictators by Frank Dikotter

To continu with non-fiction November, I picked up ‘Dictators’ by Frank Dikotter. This was my choice because, as a history teacher, you always seem to be sharing knowledge of some of the famous dictators of history – how they get there always seems to make sense, but how they successfully stay there always seems to be harder to explain. I am always without a doubt asked why nobody stops them, and the obvious answer is always the fear many of them used to control. But also, as this makes clear, ‘ordinary’ people really did support them – however hard that is for some of us to believe.

This book is absolutely fascinating as it guides you through the history of eight 20th century dictators. And, it really explains how they managed to build up such a cult following which led to them having genuine support from their people. A ‘misguided’ idealism from each of the men led to them establishing their regimes. However, there was also a carefully crafted celebrity status created for each of these men, either by themselves or by those that surrounded them.

I found it interesting how similar at points the tales of these characters of history were. And that, in fact the biggest threat to any dictator and their regime is themselves.

This is a great book for any fans of moder history. A concise overview of some figures of history and a well-written and clear to follow guide to some of the 20th century’s most infamous figures.

Black and British: A Short, Essential Guide by David Olusoga

It is non-fiction November, and I have been a little slow off the mark with it this year, because there are just so many books to read. However, I have now started with a truly fantastic read.

I am a huge fan of the work of the historian David Olusoga and often watch his documentaries. I found out that he had a book that makes his work ‘Black and British’ accessiable to a younger audience, I decided I really wanted to read it, especially, as a History teacher I am always looking for books that I can recommend to the pupils.

Yet, this is a book that I would recommend everyone should read. Olusoga takes us through the ages to educate us about the meaning of ‘Black and British’ throughout history. It also makes key links between the slave trade and British history, and how sometimes these links are forgotten as we discuss key moments such as the Industrial Revolution.

I learned so much as I read this book, especially about more recent history, which is definitely something that seems to remain in the past. However, it is brought bang up to date with the events of 2020, which has become a spark to reignite the passion to ensure Black and British history is given the true and accurate representation it deserves.

This is beautifully written in Olusoga’s distinctive voice; you almost feel that he is reading the book to you.

A sign of a great non-fiction book is that it makes you want to find out more about the things you have read, and that it is exactly what I am ready to do now.

Thursday Thoughts: Retelling of Old Tales

I have recently jumped on the bandwagon of becoming a little bit obsessed with the retelling of Greek myths.

Thanks to a buddy read during lockdown 1.0, I picked up ‘The Song of Achilles‘ by Madeline Miller and I absolutely loved it. I found the whole world a fascinating place, even if some of the attitudes were a little questionable. However, at the same time there were some really liberal ideas too. A great story and a great book discuss.

Next, I moved on to ‘Circe‘ also by Madeline Miller. What a strong powerful female lead we were presented with in this book. We also met some famous Greek mythological characters characters. This is a tale I found a little slower but I still became absorbed in the world and found myself wanting to find out more about the story, characters, ideas and beliefs.

And now we reach my latest read, ‘The Silence of the Girls’ by Pat Barker. This had been on my bookshelf for ages (just like the others – oops) but a good bookstagram decided it was time to read it, and that was exactly what we did.

This focuses on the story of Achilles and, although that is a similar focus as Madeline Miller’s ‘The Song of Achilles’, it is still an excellent read. This is told from a completely different viewpoint, as this is about the girls who became the ‘prizes’ of the war. They watch Achilles’ story unfold and the world around them change. And I was obsessed, finding it a real page-turner. These women are so strong – however, what really added to my enjoyment was the fact that I could continue to develop my interest in these old tales, but also by the end of this book I had a different opinion of Achilles.

It’s a well-crafted telling of a famous story, which gives a voice to the women and allows them to tell her-story.

On my bookshelves are some more of these retellings, and I will definitely be making sure that they are picked up soon, because it is another world of brilliant stories.