In March I read nine (9) books and did some other things as well. HBU?

March seemed like a momentous month in many ways. It marked the one year anniversary of working from home due to the pandemic – a full 12 months since I’ve seen any of my colleagues in person which is wild. My parents moved out of the family home of 25 years on the same day one of my best people gave birth to a second baby. My husband performed at StAnza as part of an international translation showcase. And my son started getting really into tantrums, as well as Blippi (so far the most grating of the toddler YouTube accounts I’ve come across – and there is stiff competition, let me tell you).

Parent Life

Me: [peeling parsnips for soup]

Toddler: can I peel?

Me: [hands over parsnip, demonstrates peeling, toddler turns peeler round the wrong way and gently caresses the vegetable instead]

Toddler: can I peel a pear?

Me: [shows how to peel pear]

Toddler: [dumps pear on top of bin, steels peeler, runs to living room] Peel Hux?

Hux, for those unaware, is our cat. Don’t worry though, I took back control of the peeler before any Buffalo Bill style accident occurred. Also as mentioned above, toddler’s technique is wildly ineffective so he was never in any real danger. Probably.

Hux in happier, less peeler-centric times

Writing Life

I have made a bit of progress, but spent a lot of time in March feeling slightly overwhelmed as the GEA course helped me to identify a lot of what’s wrong with it.

I tend to feel that finding time to write a draft of something is much easier than finding time to revise or fix the issues with it. You can bash out bits of an idea in 15, 20 minutes and gradually build up pieces of a story – but what happens after that? Editing feels like it deserves more space. It requires you to re-read and really think about the work in a wider context and I’m not sure how to do it in 15 minute chunks. But those are much easier to find than hour long ones to properly revise.

OR, is this me sabotaging myself? Is it possible to edit in quick bursts? If you have any tips in that vein please drop me a comment below or a message in any of the usual places.

I suppose technically the time exists, and it must be a case of fully committing to finding it. But that argument does also feel a bit like when perennially skinny people/your inner fatphobic critic claim all you need to do to lose weight is eat less and exercise more, as if more than 90% of diets don’t fail because it’s just not that simple. (PS Riots not Diets, your body is good, be nice to it)

Anyway, sometimes I get annoyed because ‘all’ I need to do instead of listening to all the reasons why I can’t do 1-2 hours of revising every day (see below) is go down to 6 hours sleep a night (I need 7 minimum) and burn out again.

(Perfectly Valid) reasons why I can’t spend 1-2 hours of every day revising a manuscript

Why can’t I simply get up super early like Toni Morrison? Well, small one is in a phase where he might wake any time between 5.30 and 8.30 so I can’t guarantee uninterrupted morning editing time. Also, tired.

Couldn’t I find an hour during the day? I work a busy job four days a week and often forget to take screen breaks – I now force myself to get outside during my lunch break for my own mental well-being. I look after my child on my own on the other weekday.

How about evenings? Sometimes. But by the time we’ve finished work, done nursery pickup, made and eaten tea, bathed the small one and put him to bed, it’s after 7pm and there’s dishes, surface tidying (just your basic damage control e.g. chipping the morning’s weetabix off the sofa before it sets completely, haven’t done a proper clean in MONTHS), a shower to have… and it’s nearly bedtime just in case another early start is brewing. Plus it can be hard to brain the words. ALSO, on the occasions when I do manage to get going, it’s then quite hard to wind down for sleep because my head is buzzing with ideas.

Weekends? Possibly my best bet as I could negotiate a slot with my husband and there’s usually a nap time – but most of the above still applies, only now there’s a toddler running around the flat who DGAF if mummy’s working, if he needs me he’s coming to find me. Also, even if I do sort that out, a few hours each weekend is absolutely glacial progress…

This isn’t meant as a whinge, exactly – I’m just trying to work through what the barriers are so I can figure out how to fix them. But I do think they’re reasonably valid. Particularly during a panny-D when the relentless crushing nature of everything is very demotivating.

I’ll figure it out eventually. I think that I might have the bones of a pretty good book here which is exciting. It’s just that it’s also quite a bit of work. Rude.

Reading Life

I read lots more books for small people this month, all eBooks or audiobooks. Four were from my course reading list and a fifth had been recommended on at least one of the webinars.

The Time of Green Magic – Hilary McKay

How lovely and funny and weird this is, I don’t know quite how to describe it. Abi and her stepbrothers, Max and Louis, move into an ivy-covered house where strange events unfold and somehow the adults remain blissfully unaware.

The story at its heart is about family, specifically how Abi and her new brothers become one – smushed together as they were, against their will, when their parents met by chance and (unprofessionally) fell in love at first sight. The writing and characterisation feel very warm and authentic, and the strange magic the children witness is enchanting. 

Slightly unusually for modern middle grade, the narrative does flit between characters so we have an omniscient narrator who knows what’s going on with everyone in the family. This gives the book a bit of a classic feel, even though it’s a contemporary setting. 

Uma and the Answer to Absolutely Everything – Sam Copeland

I listened to this one so missed Sarah Horne’s illustrations, but it was a great narration by Taj Atwal who really brought the story to life. I laughed and, quite unexpectedly, had something in my eye by the end as well.

Uma Gnudersonn has a head full of questions. 

How can I save my home from being sold? 

Will my dad ever start talking again? 

And how do alpacas get drunk? 

But since her mum died, life has been short on answers. That all changes when she finds a genius artificial intelligence called Athena who knows everything. Suddenly Uma has the answer to any question she can imagine. But can she use this to save her home and her father?

This book treads a fine line between being genuinely heart wrenching and incredibly silly – quite a feat! Uma is a relatable heroine because she’s a fairly normal, nice kid doing her best in frankly impossible circumstances. She’s also a very loyal friend even in the face of constant barefaced lying by her incorrigible BFF, Alan Alan Carrington. As a reader you love her and want her to be OK, because life really is throwing a lot at her – not least a truly diabolical villain…

Good fun, many alpacas, would recommend.

Invisible in a Bright Light – Sally Gardner 

This is an uncompromising book because it really just drops you in at the deep end (pun sort of intended).

It’s opening night at the Royal Opera House in a freezing city by the sea. 12 year old Celeste wakes up in a costume basket from what she hopes is a bad dream, to find that everyone at the theatre where she works thinks she is someone else. Haunted by a strange girl who claims to know her past, Celeste must play a game with a mysterious man in an emerald suit to try to save the people she loves…

I had to read the first chapter twice because I felt a bit unsettled or like I had missed something, then I decided it’s one of those where you have to go with the flow a bit to unravel the mystery. And of course if you stick with it, you learn she’s doing it entirely on purpose, so you as a reader get to experience the way the heroine is feeling first hand. Sally Gardner is allowed to break the rules a bit, she’s a legend.

Gardner is a very visual writer and there was a note in the book explaining some of the objects that gave her inspiration for this book. I’m not a very visual reader – as in, I don’t have terribly clear pictures of people and things as I read, more vague impressions, which is why I guess I prefer novels with quick pace and dialogue. But I did find that the descriptions in this were atmospheric and beautiful.

Murder Most Unladylike – Robin Stevens

This is the first in a series, and was one of the books in the recommended reading for my GEA short course on the grounds of clever structure and seeding of clues.

When Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong set up their own secret detective agency at Deepdean School for Girls, they struggle to find any really exciting mysteries to investigate – until Hazel stumbles on a dead body in the Gym, which promptly disappears.

It’s set in the 1930s at a girls boarding school and has a bit of a Sherlock Holmes vibe, with Hazel as the more relatable Watson and Daisy as the sometimes hard to like Holmes.

All the girls in the school are boarders but there are various hierarchies and things. Hazel is from Hong Kong which means she’s trying to learn about all their odd rules in order to fit in. This gives her a sense of perspective and she often notices things others might not, so she’s good at figuring out ways in which clues might piece together, although she doesn’t necessarily see that ability in herself to begin with and nobody else does either as they’re making assumptions about her based on her background. She describes having to deal with various microaggressions and othering from her classmates, and as you get to know her you’re very much rooting for her to stick up for herself and really come into her own as a detective by the end. 

The book is inclusive in a way that mainstream ones from the actual time period aren’t, which I liked. I think if Stevens had been writing these when I was in the target age range I would have probably hoovered them up like I did Enid Blyton’s Mallory Towers.

Alex Sparrow and the Really Big Stink – Jennifer Killick

Alex Sparrow is a super-agent in training – as in, he is training himself. In his own words:

“I’ve been working on it since I was four and up until a couple of months ago being accepted into S.H.I.E.L.D. still seemed a long way off. Sure, you can do a hundred star jumps a day to make you strong, and keep chasing the scabby cat from next door out of your garden to make you quick, but some spy skills are a bit harder to come by.”

But when he gets the opportunity to improve his skills by gaining his very own super power (*spoiler* his ear farts when someone tells a lie *spoiler*) he learns that spying can actually be a lot more scary than he originally thought.

Look, this is a very silly book. It relies heavily on you liking Alex and his 8-10 year old boy sense of humour. I do, and remember several such boys from my time working in out of school care and libraries as being funny. But at least one person on GoodReads has given it a rather Mary Whitehouse-esque review (can only assume they had not read the blurb or taken any guesses as to what ‘the really big stink’ of the title might refer to).

I guess a litmus test might be how you react to Alex’s nickname for his friend Jess. If you think it’s puerile (which it is, to be fair) – and therefore unfunny, you probably won’t like him very much. If you find yourself laughing in spite of yourself (which I did) then you’ll be alright, and free to enjoy the adventure to find out why everyone at school is behaving weirdly polite all of a sudden and why.

Flight – Vanessa Harbour

When I was ten I’d probably have loved this, as I marathoned WWII books around them. As an adult I might not have chosen it if it wasn’t on the reading list for my course, but only because I feel like I’ve read a lot about the period already and am looking to find less familiar stories I guess. Not that this take is a familiar one!

Flight is an adventure story loosely inspired by real events which took place towards the end of the Second World War. Jakob and Kizzy need to ensure that some Lipizzaner ‘dancing’ horses belonging to the Spanish Riding School are kept safe from a dangerous Nazi who wants to kill the lot of them. The children are Jewish and Roma respectively so have to somehow keep hidden as they make a perilous trip across the mountains, leading a team of pedigree stallions.

The writing is good and there are a lot of tense moments and interesting historical details. I think because I’m not and never have been really A Horse Gal there are some layers which maybe passed me by a little bit though! 

We Were Liars – E.Lockhart

Inhaled this. A compulsively readable YA book with an unreliable narrator trying to piece together the events of a couple of summers ago when she sustained a head injury on holiday at her grandparents’ private island. Yes, this is about extremely rich people – but there is examination of that and their immense privilege.

I don’t really want to say too much more for fear of spoiling it – I knew nothing about it and only picked it up because it was on the reading list for my writing course. Feel like that’s a good way to come to it!

A Song Below Water – Bethany C. Morrow

I LOVED THIS. Favourite book of the month if not the year so far. I’ve been looking forward to reading it for ages because I thought it would tick all my boxes – but then I also had the fear a bit because that’s a lot of pressure to put on a book.

A Song Below Water is ‘a captivating modern fantasy about Black sirens, friendship, and self-discovery set against the challenges of today’s racism and sexism.’ 

In a society determined to keep her under lock and key, Tavia Phillips must hide her siren powers. Meanwhile her adopted sister Effie is fighting her own family struggles, pitted against literal demons from her past.

The two girls have been pushed together by circumstance/the adults in their lives for their own reasons. But rather than this being a source of tension or drama they have made an instant connection and become each other’s rock. One of my favourite things about the book is their relationship. Stories about sisters and the importance of female friendship in lifting you up and getting you through hard times (such as being adolescent and also magical)? Hook it to my veins! 

It’s a dual point of view book so we alternate between Tavia hiding her siren identity but finding that increasingly hard, and Effie trying to figure out aspects of her past which have been kept from her that might lead to the truth of her own presumably magical identity. There are lots of different types of magical beings in the book including mean girl Naema who is a beautiful Eloko – which means everyone loves her instead of fearing or hating her as they do sirens.

I love the way you find out gradually about the world rather than having a massive chunk of lore dumped in there, and also the way magical identities intersect with being Black, female and young in a racist, sexist, ageist society. There are a lot of challenges and struggles for Tavia and Effie to overcome and watching how they navigate these is thrilling and often refreshingly unexpected. I was hooked (again, pun sort of intended).

When Life Gives You Mangos – Kereen Getten

Clara lives in the small Jamaican village of Sycamore, playing pick leaf with other kids and feuding with her best friend Gaynah.

She has other troubles too – she used to love surfing but is now too afraid to go in the sea, yet she can’t remember the reason. And her uncle has been ousted by the local community to live in a huge old plantation house on the hill – but the adults won’t tell her why.

When new girl Rudy turns up to spend her summer holidays in Sycamore, it seems like Clara might at least have a friend to help her forget all her troubles. Or maybe she’ll solve some of these mysteries once and for all…

This is another book where I don’t want to say too much more for fear of spoiling it! Great characters, much mystery, enjoy it.