I confess, my best books of 2016 are mostly children's books... With the exception of a couple of brilliant non-fiction books. I feel like it's a special time for children's literature, Kiran Millwood Hargrave's debut Girl of Ink and Stars, and Lucy Strange's The Secret of Nightingale Wood are bound to become modern classics and I would urge everyone to read them - young or adult! I found myself picking up a lot of children's books with strong female character's this year, many of which I have to credit to Waterstones book of the month choices. So here are a summary of some of my favourites in no particular order...
The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargraves
I was so excited when this gorgeous book hit the shelves, with it's striking cover and fold out flaps revealing beautiful maps, promise of a strong female protagonist, and a narrative focused on adventure and friendship; it held high expectations and it easily exceeded them.
A tale of an alternate world woven with mystery and legends of myth and fantasy, the dictatorship that governs the island of Joya is all that Isabella has ever known. She knows it was never always this way from the whimsical stories her cartographer father has told her so when Isabella's best friend, who happens to be the Governor's daughter, mysteriously disappears and the rebel search party are locked away; she bravely takes it upon herself to use her intuition and cartographer skills to delve into the restricted part of the island in order to save her best friend... I won't say anymore in case I go into spoiler territory but it truly is a magical read that leaves you eager to know more about this world.
Despite being a middle grade book, I feel like it is a book for all ages with courageous characters, poetic prose, and a subtle introduction to the intricacies to politics this is a wonderful read and a staple introduction to magical realism. Available here: The Girl of Ink and Stars
The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon
I found this book difficult to get into at first, I wasn't in the right frame of mind to engage with it, but I can't tell you how much emotional turmoil I went through when I finally sat down and absorbed this story of suffering that is true for so many displaced people. Zana did a fantastic job of confronting such an important issue with such empathy, I do hope this book wins the awards it's shortlisted for and so deserving of.
The narrative follows a young boy called Subhi who was born in an Australian detention centre after his mother and sister fled their homeland in hope of a better life and became displaced. Behind the fences of the refugee detention centre is all he has ever known, so he relies on the story telling of others to imagine what life outside the fences are like. Despite the limits and restrictions placed on Subhi's situation, he is a dreamer with a huge imagination that makes his character so endearing - you can't help but invest everything in this character's sense of hope and wonder. There are also chapters following the young girl called Jimmie who Subhi meets on the other side of the fence, their stories intertwine when Subhi offers to read Jimmie's notebook for her. A story of incredible strength in hope, friendship, and the human spirit in the most difficult of circumstances, it's a powerful and poignant read that I urge you to read! Available here: The Bone Sparrow
The Uncommoners: The Crooked Sixpence by Jennifer Bell
The first in a trilogy, this charming book is packed full of action, curiosity and wonder taking a fresh approach on the typical C.S Lewis/Lewis Carroll/JK Rowling trope of a protagonist stumbling into an alternate world that exists in parallel to our own that we've all come to know and love. Full of curious objects and uncommon characters reminiscent of the greats of children's magical realism, this is both a familiar and original read that is easy to get into and fall in love with the characters.
Following Ivy Sparrow and her brother, Seb, we embark on an adventure of discovery down the rabbit hole of the real London Underground, the curiously "Uncommon" world of Lundinor market - think Diagon Alley but more dark and ever changing where bicycle bells speak nonsensical truths, lemon squeezers are a source of light, bells gossip to one another, and luggage is the common mode of transport. Ivy and Seb are compelling characters with a relationship that reminded me of Edmund and Peter in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
This is an unmissable book for children and I am so looking forward to stepping into the Uncommon world of Lundinor again when the second in the series is published this Summer! Available here: The Crooked Sixpence
The Secret of Nightingale Wood by Lucy Strange
A hauntingly beautiful read that stayed with me long after I put the book down. Another strong female character leads this book as we follow fairy-tale loving Henry through a plot that reveals itself to be quite dark at times.
Set after the WW1, The Abott family move to the countryside for a fresh start where we soon learn about a tragic event in the family and it becomes clear that Henry is being kept in the dark about some things... With her Father sent away on business, her mother not very well, and a sinister Doctor with big ideas; Henry befriends an old "witch" in the woods who becomes a relief from the problems at home. As clever Henry listens in on conversations and follows some clues to their home's history, she becomes aware that something quite sinister is going on and takes it upon herself to save her family.
This truly is a gripping narrative filled with literary references and nods to classic poets that readers can revisit time and time again to reveal something new. An ode to children's fiction that I can see being used on the school curriculum sometime in the future with a feeling of a modern classic in the making - I will be sure to pick up anything that Lucy Strange writes in the future! Available here: The Secret of Nightingale Wood
Bone Gap by Laura Ruby
Wow - where to begin with this extraordinary book?! Firstly, it is incredibly difficult to categorise this book, like many other reviewers have said, it's truly unlike anything I've read before. It's classed as YA but has elements of mystery, thriller, fantasy, romance, that is so well conceived and executed perfectly while throwing away all conventions and cliche!
Through multiple points of view, we follow the intertwining stories of Finn, Roza, Petey, and the people of Bone Gap, navigating through a story full of beauty, myth, magic, and dream-like wonder. This is one book I really do not want to give too much away about plot line as every seed that Laura sows bears fruitful plot deliciousness... If that makes sense? So, I'll just share this line of the blurb that the narrative centres around:
'...Everyone knows Bone Gap is full of gaps - gaps to trip you up, gaps to slide through so you can disappear forever. So when young, beautiful Roza goes missing, the people of Bone Gap aren't surprised. After all, it isn't the first time someone's slipped away and left Finn and Sean O'Sullivan on their own. Finn knows that's not what happened with Roza. He knows she was taken, ripped from the cornfields by a man whose face he can't remember. But no one believes him anymore.'
This is a book about the obsessive value we place on beauty, about how we see ourselves, and how we look, but don't see other people... and the effects/consequences thereof. The character's are complex, flawed, inherently human and I love them all - read this book, I guarantee it will stay with you long after you finish the last page! Available here: Bone Gap
The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirkby
This book stunned me into silent tears and waves of helpless guilt washes over me every time I pick this book up to flick through again. A very important telling of a true account of the optician, Carmine Menna, as he and a group of his friends wake up on their holiday boat surrounded by a shipwreck full of fleeing migrants.
'They were all drowning. I thought: how do I save them all? I can still feel the fingers of the first hand I seized. How they clamped down with such a grip that I saw the sinuous veins of the wrist pounding. The force of that hold! My hand in a stranger's hand, in a bond stronger and more intimate than an umbilical cord. And my whole body shaking with the force of the hold as I pulled upwards and dragged the naked torso from the waves.'
Kirkby's retelling highlights the harrowing plight of the migrant crisis and shakes a desensitised reader unlike anything we see in the news and media. Yes - it's a difficult read, but such an important one. I want to put this book in the hands of every politician, every person that looks away, and everyone I know. Available here: The Optician of Lampedusa
Happy: Why More or Less Everything is Absolutely Fine by Derren Brown
Whether you're a fan of Derren Brown, like myself, or not - this book is a fascinating read! No illusions or tricks here, just a wise and philosophical study of the human pursuit of "happiness" throughout our history to the present day and how everything is "absolutely fine".
Largely based around the principles of Stoic philosophy, Derren navigates us through entertaining anecdotes, psychological exercises, and wise words of history and theory to help our understanding that our unhappiness is largely due to the "stories" we tell ourselves. He shows the reader how these "stories" about who we are and what we should be doing influence our perception of feelings, judgements, beliefs and keep us replaying the past, or always working towards that next thing that will make us "happy" (until the next thing comes along...) instead of living in the present.
Written with such humour and empathy, it's clear that he is so passionate about what he's writing that it makes you feel like the book was written just for you. This book is certainly one to start your New Year with enlightenment and optimism as you (yes, YOU!) are doing absolutely fine.
Some books also worth mentioning are Abi Elphinstone's curated collection of short stories 'Winter Magic'; the hilarious debut by David Solomons, 'My Brother is a Superhero'; Katherine Rundell's revolutionary adventure, 'Wolf Wilder'; the very meaningful YA novel by Annabel Pitcher, 'Silence is Goldfish', and Grayson Perry's valuable feminist introduction and study of the modern man and what it means to be masculine, 'The Descent of Man'.
Do comment and let me know what your favourite reads were and if you have any recommendions for me!