My Lockdown Books: Thirteen

I had the very great pleasure of meeting Dan Smith when I was asked if I would like to host a couple of events on his promotional tour for his latest book Boy X.  Dan came to Elgin Library where I was then based and captivated the children from many Moray primary schools.  He was friendly, genuine and relaxed.  His book was exciting and dramatic and his presentation was good enough that I could listen to it more than once.

On the strength of all of that I’ve continued to follow Dan online and in his books.  There are very few children’s authors that I will refuse to work with a second time.  Most are at the very least polite and competent.  However, those who engage with their readers (and I include myself there) and work well with others in the book industry are the ones whose ongoing careers I am most likely to follow.

So I read Below Zero even though it didn’t sound like my kind of book.  It’s a thriller set in Antarctica and I have to tell you that it’s brilliant.  Dan’s style of writing really engages the reader and he keeps the plot moving along.  There’s a bit of tech involved in this one and I have to confess that some of it I let drift over my head!  But the story and the characters grabbed hold of me.  As did the punishing cold of Antarctica.

The Light Between Worlds by Laura Weymouth

I may have found my book of the year.  I think the mark of a great piece of fiction is not that it stays with you once you have finished it, but that you stay in it.  You continue to wonder about the characters, how they are and what they are doing; you wonder how the book’s world might change and what will happen next.  And I have found a book that does all this for me.  It’s so good that I am prepared to overlook the occasional jarring Americanism pushing its way in.  As anyone who knows me will tell you, my praise doesn’t get much higher than that!

The book in question is The Light Between Worlds by Laura Weymouth and published by Chicken House.  It is the story of three siblings, set in two different worlds during, and after, the Second World War.  In the middle of an air raid Jamie, Philippa and Evelyn Hapwell are transported to the Woodlands.  Laura Weymouth grew up reading the Chronicles of Narnia and the idea of a parallel world comes from CS Lewis’ famous books.  But this is not a pale imitation; rather it is an exploration of how such a transition affects different people.

The book is in two parts with each containing alternating flashback and current narratives.  Part one is told from Evelyn’s viewpoint and part two from Philippa’s.  Jamie is present in them both but remains a shadowy character as befits his response to the siblings’ experiences.  Both parts are grounded in the world of post-war England and told from that perspective.  As the story unfolds we see, partly through the aforementioned flashbacks, what happened in the Woodlands but, more importantly, we see the effects of that sojourn five years on.  Both strands of plotline unfold gradually and not always chronologically.  It’s impossible to describe much of the plot without giving too much away.  So I’m not going to try.

I am sure that there will be much discussion and debate about the book’s underlying meaning, about the symbolism, about its relationships to other children’s novels.  Experts will comment on its themes of fantasy and reality, its depiction of mental health and what it says about family ties.  I hope very much that these conversations will not drown out the inescapable truth: that this is a piece of first class storytelling.


Tin by Padraig Kenny

I’ve been chairing events this week at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.  I missed last year due to illness so I’m particularly delighted to be back.  I’m now halfway through my events and I’ve loved them all and enjoyed all the books I’ve read in preparation.  It’s really tricky to pick out highlights and I expect that over the next few weeks I’ll write about any of the books I’ve been talking about with their authors.  But I have to start somewhere.

And I’ve chosen Tin by Padraig Kenny, partly because I met him for the first time today and enjoyed his company very much; and partly because I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.  If I’m being honest, I would almost certainly not have chosen to read Tin if I’d had a completely free choice.  But that’s part of the joy of being involved in the EIBF.  Janet, the Children’s Programme Director, selects events for me to chair and I pretty much say yes to everything.  Then the books come through and I realise I have to read sci-fi and horror and fantasy as well as the kind of books I naturally gravitate towards.

Tin, I learned today, is set in an alternative 1930s England where child-sized mechanicals are created to carry out certain tasks.  These mechanicals (NOT robots!) live and move and have their being at the whim of the engineers who create them.  Christopher, however, is Proper, a real boy who works for an engineer but has a group of highly individual mechanicals as his friends.

I don’t want to spoil the story for you because I really think you should read this book.  It’s about friendship and wonder and loyalty and trust.  There’s a mystery and a quest and a bit of magic.  But mostly it’s about wonderful, wonderful characters, each with their own personality and motivation and traits.  And it is beautifully written, full of humour and sadness and confusion.

By now you’d have thought that I might have stopped judging books by their cover.  Thank goodness for the Edinburgh International Book Festival is all I can say.  I’d have hated to miss this new author and his debut novel.  Trust me.