Things changed a bit round my house in February because we got a date for nurseries going back, signalling a little bit of respite from work/parenting guilt. It also seems to be the time of year I traditionally renew my commitment to writing, and this was no exception.

Parent Life

I have had some lovely conversations with my child this month, including one where he informed me that I was beautiful *and* have a face – but there was also one incident of unmitigated horror.

You see one night I agreed to a round of hide & seek right after bathtime, which meant offspring was in the scud (a bit of air drying never goes amiss).

Whilst hiding under the covers of our bed waiting for Dad to find us, sprog let out THE MOST HEINOUS FART THAT EVER WAS FARTED. And as a dedicated hide and seek partner, I was trapped with it in the dark until our hiding place was discovered, all the while at risk of suffocation.

I know there’s been a lot going on lately, but this is definitely the worst thing that has ever happened.

Writing life

It’s not all been farts in the dark though. I also signed up to a 12 week course with the Golden Egg Academy to force some structured me-time into my life and also to galvanise me into shaping the second draft of my MS into something readable.

So far it’s given me a lot to think about and some tangible steps to take with my WIP, as well as ways to resurrect and rescue some previous drafts and ideas.

It has also made me realise how far off I’ve been when previously convinced I was ready to submit to agents, competitions and so on. So that’s something to revisit over and over again when I can’t sleep at night (although admittedly that’s quite a rare occurrence for me, especially since delivering the aforementioned fart monster).

In more sort-of-writing-related news, I went to remove a load of my stuff from my parents’ house because they are moving and the guidance says you can help people move as long as you behave. Weird reason to be seeing them for the first time since September (even before Lockdown 3, the fact we live in different local authority areas meant we were always in different tiers), but also good.

The writing upshot is that I now have in my own home many early examples of my writing career, including clippings from my first forays into local journalism, childhood diaries (see cover photo) and a couple of ringbinders full of stories I wrote between P5 and S4. Will these yield good content? Highly doubtful.

If nothing else there might be material worthy of inclusion on my Twitter account, which is the first 12 Books branded thing to be changed to my actual name following last month’s ruminating. I’m no longer @12books12months on there, my handle is now @AliGeorgeWriter. Broken links ahoy.

Reading Life

A key recommendation from the GEA course was to read lots of books for small people, so in February I’ve mostly been speed reading eBooks from the library.

Charlie Changes Into A Chicken – Sam Copeland, illustrated by Sarah Horne

Charlie Changes into a Chicken has lots of ridiculous tangents, literary/dad jokes and silliness, and is tonally very like several of my own attempts at chapter books. The key difference of course being that this has emotional depth, layers, and high stakes – all of which my Obsidian Buttress series lacks. Thanks, writing course.

Anyway, a review. Charlie McGuffin (see, lit jokes right off the bat) is a bit of a worrier. And in fairness he has quite a lot to worry about – his brother is in hospital, he’s caught the attention of the school bully, and he keeps turning into different animals.

Charlie needs to come up with a way to get his new power under control and with the help of his three best friends that’s what he sets out to do. Although the story is madcap and silly, there’s a serious thread here about coping with stress – Puffin have in fact produced a resource pack to help children use the book to talk and learn about mental health.

I enjoyed all the characters in the book but I think my favourite might actually be Dylan, Charlie’s nemesis. He constantly makes jokes explaining plot points or pointing out possible plot holes and gets progressively more outlandish and Bond villain-esque in his chat; even though they are young kids and on a couple of occasions Charlie says outright he’s not interested in fighting and there’s no reason the two boys can’t be friends.

‘We don’t have to be enemies, you know.’

‘Oh, but we do,’ replied Dylan. ‘We are enemies, Charlie, and we can never forget that. We are destined to fight. That’s just how stories work, and there’s nothing either of us can do about it.’

Anyway, this is funny and sweet and probably a lot of fun to read aloud.

Shuggie Bain – Douglas Stuart

I didn’t solely read middle grade In February – I also read a Booker winner.

This is not a happy tale but it’s written in a very readable way. There’s quite a bit of sexual assault and violence, and although the book is called Shuggie Bain it’s equally about his mother Agnes, who is an alcoholic, and the impact she has on her three children, her husbands, her parents and neighbours.

The book is set in working class Glasgow (and just outside it) in the 1980s – so a point when the key industries like shipyards and mining were dying, a generation felt betrayed and had no work, and poverty was rife. It starts and finishes with a teenage Shuggie, and tells you what went on to put him where he is. It’s deeply sad in parts and an immersive character study, painting a picture of a specific place and time.

It put me slightly in mind of A Little Life, or perhaps more accurately how that book might have been if it weren’t so relentlessly bleak. Whereas I found A Little Life really focussed on the minutiae of misery over a much longer period of time (essentially a sweeping literary equivalent of A Child Called It), Shuggie Bain feels both more matter of fact and more hopeful.

This might be because there are moments of levity, or it might just be because Shuggie is only 16 at the end so even though he has an absolute shitter there’s a sense that he might get out. There’s also quite a communal feel, like ‘this is what life was like for a lot of people in this place at that time, some got on with it and others didn’t’.

The women of Pithead are all in roughly the same circumstances but they don’t all respond the same way. I recognised elements of the small town suspicion of incomers thing from my own childhood, which helped me sympathise with Agnes to a degree. That and her relationship with Shuggie – though co-dependent and bad for them both – humanises her even when her illness renders her unsympathetic at times.

Although not the cheeriest novel, the writing is great and there’s an undercurrent of hope and enough gallows humour to really elevate it.

Orangeboy – Patrice Lawrence

Well this was stressful.

16 year old Marlon Sunday is a sweet, geeky kid who’s had a really tough couple of years with his dad dying and his older brother becoming a gang member and subsequently being in a horrific accident. But he feels like his luck might be about to change when he gets asked out by the beautiful Sonya Wilson.

Reader, his luck is not about to change. The date ends badly and Marlon finds himself thrown into the world he promised his mum he’d never be a part of.

This is a really gripping YA book with some great characters (particularly Tish, Marlon’s underappreciated best friend). There is a mystery at the heart of the book and whilst Marlon makes some frankly dreadful choices whilst attempting to solve it, you can see why he feels forced into those corners as a young Black kid about whom people have made up their minds before he even opens his mouth. The book feels very authentic and well observed, as well as just being a good story.

Props as well to Ben Bailey Smith who narrated this, he does a great job of bringing a disparate cast of characters to life.

The Gilded Ones – Namina Forna

I’ve been excited for this one for months – but a heids that the world here is absolutely brutal for women, particularly young girls which I’m not sure I was ready for. In the acknowledgments Forna explains she wanted to examine patriarchy but that does involve exploring the extremes of mental and physical abuse.

16 year old Deka is waiting for the moment she can undergo a traditional blood ritual to prove her purity – at which point she can don a special mask, get married, have babies and be subservient to the men in her community. Until of course she gets a different option courtesy of a mysterious stranger…

Gaslit and abused and generally traumatised, it takes her a long time to come into her power and see her own worth. But you’re really rooting for her to get there from the start, as are the majority of supporting characters. She’s fundamentally a nice person who wants to believe the best of people, but after having followed the rules all her life and being horribly treated regardless she has slight trust issues. So for a good chunk of the book you really are waiting for her to realise what bullshit this all is so she can get on with smashing the patriarchy.

There’s a lot of great world building here and quite a bit of mystery which builds dramatically, and honestly the book gets through quite a lot – I’m really intrigued now to see how it’s built on and expanded because *of course* it’s the first of a set and I now have to wait actual years to find out (think book two is due next year).

The Black Flamingo – Dean Atta

Michael is the gay son of an absent Jamaican father and a Greek-Cypriot mother. Throughout the book he is observing others and trying to figure out where he fits in the word – from primary school to university he notes a lot of double standards and flaws in the people around him without judging them. These astute observations are used to explore his struggles with not feeling like he truly belongs anywhere (not Black enough, not Greek enough, not Queer enough) until he discovers the art of drag.

I listened to the book read by the author because it’s written in free verse and I thought it would be good to read – or hear – it as he meant for it to sound. It’s a great performance by Atta, and really brings the protagonist to life. Michael is a very likeable teenager, he’s expressive and unapologetic and at times very funny. It’s quite unusual in YA to get this gentle development of the whole person but it was really nice to see and it would be so positive to read as a teenager to see what can come next.

I stopped to note down one section from later in the book because it seemed to encapsulate a lot of what the narrative is about:

Your makeup doesn’t make drag work

Your clothes don’t make drag work

Your attitude and intentions are what makes it work

I feel like this is not just a good lesson for drag (and an explanation of why I love Tia Kofi off Drag Race UK), but also speaks to life in general. It doesn’t (or shouldn’t) matter what you look like, but what you want to say and the intention behind that.

Also, I cried at the end.

Mold and the Poison Plot – Lorraine Gregory

This is a middle grade one from the reading list on my writing course.

“When I was a wee babe no bigger an a marrow, Mam put me in the dustbin an left me out fer the binmen. But the binmen didn’t want me neither.”

Fortunately the baby was found and adopted by an alcoholic herbalist called Aggy. They live in poverty in a place called the Dregs but they love and look after one another – so when Aggy is framed for poisoning the king Mold leaps into action to defend her.

This book is pacy and exciting and quite dark in places. There are themes of inclusivity, classism and colonialism in there, which I didn’t necessarily expect to see in a middle grade adventure story but it was good to see, this would have been a brilliant book to sit and unpack with my Chatterbooks reading group back in the dim and distant library past.

I will say that to start off with I found the dialect a bit distracting, but based on other reviews I would appear to be in the minority! Mold’s voice is very distinctive though and once I eased in I stopped noticing it and just got on with a pacy story with lots of twists and turns and a colourful cast of characters.

Rosie Loves Jack – Mel Darbon

Never assume that a person who has difficulty communicating has nothing to say.

Rosie loves Jack. Jack loves Rosie. So when they’re split up, Rosie will do anything to find the boy who makes the sun shine in her head. Even run away from home. Even cross London and travel to Brighton alone, though the trains are cancelled and the snow is falling.

This book, you guys. It’s very engaging. I think a lot of it is down to the main protagonist who is just a lovely kid. Rosie is 16, she is studying at college, she has a Saturday job and a boyfriend and an annoying little brother and an overprotective father – and she has Down’s Syndrome.

The fact Rosie is neurodivergent obviously shapes her voice and thoughts, and she has some really beautiful ways to describe things. She doesn’t suffer stupid expressions gladly and just wants people to be upfront with her, which seems fair enough to me. When her boyfriend Jack is sent away she decides to go and find him, but through a series of unfortunate events the journey does not go as planned.

She finds herself navigating some really scary situations and at some points I found the book quite stressful to read because I was frightened for her. But she is smart and brave and figures things out.

I saw a review questioning whether the book reinforces a negative stereotype of people with Down’s as being single minded to the point of recklessness but to be honest I didn’t really see Rose that way – it felt to me like an authentic portrayal of a teenage girl in love.

The only niggles I had were that she’s a wee bit fatphobic – although again, authentic 16 year old so I was kind of able to let that go – and the fact that one of the main antagonists was Polish. I won’t go into too much detail if you’re planning to read, but that did give me pause. If you’re looking at negative stereotypes I wouldn’t be picking on the main character, it would be the fat guy who has a whole packet of biscuits on his person at all times and the truly evil character being overtly foreign.

I’m guessing it was so that Rose would find him even harder to read and therefore even more threatening than if he’d been English and hadn’t peppered his speech with ‘kurwa’s? But I’m not convinced the narrative needed it.

Malamander – Thomas Taylor

You probably don’t believe in the malamander. You maybe think there’s no way a fish-man can be real. And that’s fine. Stick to your ice cream and deck chairs. This story probably isn’t for you anyway…

Got to love a book that begins by telling the reader it’s not for them. This beginning put me in mind of A Series of Unfortunate Events which I expect was deliberate.

Malamander takes place in a seaside town in winter, one of the grimmest places to be. It focuses on Herbie Lemon, who works at a hotel looking after the lost and found, and Violet Parma – who is lost but wants to be found. When she appears the two set out on an adventure to find out what happened to Violet’s missing parents and what it has to do with Eerie-on-sea’s local legendary sea monster, the malamander.

There’s a cast of fun and silly characters, some spooky world building, dry humour and of course a bit of jeopardy. I would like some fish and chips now though please.

And the Stars Were Burning Brightly – Danielle Jawando

This has been on my TBR for a while but I put it off a bit because I knew it was going to be upsetting and I wasn’t sure if I was emotionally ready. I’m still not sure tbf but I’ve done it now.

Apparently out of the blue 17 year old Al Bryant, a bright kid who was planning to get out of his council estate to see the world and be an artist (he’s already had a conditional offer from Cambridge), commits suicide. His brother Nate and friend Megan are left wondering if there’s anything they could have done differently to make him realise that he was loved, anything that would mean he’d still be here.

The narrative follows the two characters in the days following Al’s death and their different reactions. Megan decides to do something to make the world remember Al for his incredible artistic talent, whilst Nate goes on a journey to find out why he did it.

Jawando touches on themes of racism, sexism, violence, classism, toxic masculinity and bullying. In spite of the serious subject matter it’s quite easy to read because the writing is good and the characters are relatable. I really hope it makes its way in front of as many young readers as is humanly possible and they’re able to discuss it and take it on board.

It’s also heart wrenching stuff and I am fully terrified for my child navigating his teenage years in a world with social media. What happens to Al and the fallout for his family and friends is rooted in the reality of bullying and it’s awful.

The Way Past Winter – Kiran Millwood-Hargrave

Mila lives with her siblings (Sanna, Oskar and Pipa) in a cabin on the edge of the forest in an apparently eternal winter. One night a mysterious stranger stops by with an army of silent boys at his back, and in the morning Oskar is gone – so it’s up to Mila and her sisters to get him back.

This is a lovely book, inspired by Slavic folklore. The first line is ‘it was a winter they would tell tales about,’ which is a promise delivered on.

There are aspects of Narnia, East of the Sun West of the Moon, and that by now presumably patented Millwood-Hargrave charm. I’m a bit of a sucker for this sort of tale (see also The House with Chicken Legs and The Girl Who Speaks Bear by Sophie Anderson, or for more grown up readers Uprooted by Naomi Novik, Deathless by Cat Valente) and this is a good addition – the third act in particular was absolutely gripping.

Rooftoppers – Katherine Rundell

This book is completely charming and eccentric and wonderful, I enjoyed it very much.

‘On the morning of its first birthday, a baby was found floating in a cello case in the middle of the English Channel.’

The baby is spotted by a man named Charles who rescues her and opts to keep her, naming her Sophie on the grounds she’s had far too much adventure already and should not be burdened with an outlandish name. They do very well until an officious authority figure plots to separate them on the grounds a single man can’t effectively look after a teenage girl. Rather than allow this to happen, the pair go off on an adventure to find her biological family.

Through an encounter with Matteo, a grumpy boy who lives on a rooftop and never comes down to the ground, and visits to various supporting characters with Charles, Sophie begins to unpick the mystery.

It’s hard not to like Charles, a man ‘who once nearly killed himself trying to read and ride a horse at the same time. ‘But I will be more careful,’ he said, ‘now there is you, little cello child.’’

Sophie herself is brave and truthful and at least as eccentric as her guardian. She finds herself inadvertently going off on an adventure without him but rather than this being a source of tension he is very supportive of her – their relationship is a really lovely one.

I don’t want to give too much more away but just know that I recommend this! I read a library copy but would definitely buy a physical one and read again.