Ten Secret Santa and Stocking Filler books for under £15

It’s that time of year again. You know, less than a month to Christmas and a lack of ideas for secret santa presents or stocking fillers has you panic buying “funny secret santa presents” like stressticles or office voodoo dolls which the recipient will throw in the bin by January 1st. I’m here to make a plea that you save the planet from the extra plastic waste, and for under £15 buy them book that they will enjoy for at least three hours, if not a lot longer.

The best bit? These will all be available at your local bookshop for a last minute Christmas gift.

La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust

For readers of a certain age (my age) the release of La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman , the first in a new trilogy which is set to be a companion to his Northern Lights trilogy was probably the publishing event of the year. Hailed as a tidal wave of imagination, though darker and more savage than the original trilogy, it’s a safe bet for any lover of fantasy.

 

 

 

The Power

The most powerful work of speculative fiction that I’ve read in a long time, Naomi Alderman’s The Power is a must read for any fan of Margaret Atwood. I keep meaning to write a review of this, but my mind is still processing the emotions I felt reading it. It’s a safe present for any woman who hasn’t read it, and it’s always interesting to listen to people’s post-read dissections.

 

 

The Wildlife Gardener

I was delighted to see the new edition of Kate Bradbury’s best-selling The Wildlife Gardener publish this year and swiftly bought myself a copy. It’s the perfect present for any gardener or wildlife enthusiast, and gives fun, practical advice for creating a home for wildlife in what outside space you have available. Saving the planet starts here, folks.

 

 

The Lost Words

Remember when Oxford University Press decided that children no longer needed to be able to look up words like acorn and bramble in the dictionary? Well that outrageous act inspired Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris to create The Lost Words, this beautifully illustrated volume of poetry. A spell book which reminds adults and children alike about the power of words, reading the poems brings the words back to life and gives nature power and relevance for a new generation.

 

Lincoln in the Bardo

Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2017, and shortlisted for multiple awards and honours besides, Lincoln in the Bardo is a safe fiction bet for anyone who likes to read the current big novel. This first novel is an experimental work of fiction, a story of love after death which looks at a problem which faces all humans, how do you find the courage to love when it means you will face loss?

 

 

Hortense and the Shadow

A beautifully illustrated picture book, with a story in the tradition of the old fairy tales, Hortense and the Shadow is dark and exhilarating at the same time. This is set to become an instant children’s classic which adults will love as well. I’ll be adding it to my collection.

 

 

 

Last Stop on The Reindeer Express

I loved Last Stop on the Reindeer Express so much when it published that I bought it only a month later to read with my daughter on Christmas Eve. It would make an ideal Christmas present for any picture book lover or younger gift recipient. A little girl who is missing her Daddy discovers a world within a post box and goes on a beautifully illustrated lift the flap and peep through the pages adventure. I can’t wait to read it as a family before Santa visits.

 

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

In case you worried that you’d run out of presents to buy for Harry Potter fans, the launch of the Fantastic Beasts film franchise has also lead to the publication of this beautiful Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them book which reminds me of the Tolkein’s bestiary that I had as a child, with the names, descriptions and magical illustrations of all the fantasy creatures you encounter in the Potter novels.

This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor

Adam Kay is a comedian and former junior doctor, and This is Going to Hurt is his frank memoir of life on the front line of the NHS. Hilarious and heart-breaking, it gives you an insight into what life is really like for the junior doctors keeping us and the NHS ticking along.

 

 

Daemon Voices: Essays on Storytelling

I always find it fascinating when an author I admire writes an exposition on their craft. Philip Pullman is indisputably something of a master storyteller, and in Daemon Voices, a collection of thirty essays, he lets his readers peer behind the veil to learn about his views on storytelling, including such topics as the origins of his own stories, the art of writing, and the storytellers who have meant the most to him. A great gift for readers, and aspiring writers.

My Top Five Tips when asking bloggers to review your book

Most authors know that approaching bloggers to review their new book is a great way to drum up some free publicity that gives their book a word-of-mouth popularity, but when it comes to approaching blog authors, their emails can be very hit and miss. Based on the emails I receive every day, here are my top five tips to help authors with traditional presses and self-published authors achieve a higher response rate when approaching bloggers about their books.

 

Tip Number 1 – Check the blog’s reviewing policy

I wrote my reviewing policy so that anyone who asks me to review their book knows exactly what to expect when dealing with me – I don’t do paid reviews, I won’t mince my words, I don’t guarantee a review for books that were just blah  and I don’t review self-published novels. I’d say roughly half of the emails I receive asking me to review books are from self-published authors who haven’t spent the time familiarizing themselves with my reviewing policy beyond lifting my email address from it. If their book looks interesting and I know of another blogger who would review, I will try to link them up, but more often than not I have to delete their email without replying.

 

Tip Number 2 – Personalize your emails

No address is just rude, Dear Blogger is a bit annoying. If you’re taking the time to email bloggers, don’t send a clearly mass email in the hope that someone is going to commit at least three hours to reading your book and writing a considered review. Dear Book and Biscuit is acceptable, but most bloggers will have their name in their About Me section, and they won’t mind you using it.

 

Tip Number 3 – Build relationships

Bloggers can be really busy people. I work and have a toddler. Lots of other bloggers do too, or have other really time intensive commitments. If I’m pushed for time and declining reviews, I’m far more likely to make time to review a book by an author or publisher I have an existing relationship with. I doubt I’m the only one who feels like this. Rather than cold email a blogger, take your time to get to know their site, engage with it, comment on their blog, chat with them on social media. It will set you apart from authors who have lifted their contact details from a book reviewers list that many bloggers didn’t opt in to.

 

Tip Number 4 – Use your existing networks

If you’ve written a book, there’s a good chance that you’re a reader too. What existing networks do you have that allow you to reach readers that you’ve already built a relationship with? Do any of those blog, or would they be able to recommend interested bloggers who specialise in your genre? It’s worth reaching out with a personalized email to ask for their help or advice. It seems to me that there can be a lot of ego involved when people start out writing, but the authors I admire and who seem to be really successful are genuinely interested in being part of a community with like minded readers. I guess it’s all part of really understanding your target audience.

 

Tip Number 5 – Don’t pay for reviews

I know that it may seem tempting. And I know that there are unscrupulous sites which tout themselves as blogger networks who will take your money to arrange a blog tour or similar. I found this out when I provided an honest review after another blogger had begged me to as a favour, and the author became very upset because she had paid the other blogger (without my knowledge) and assumed that she had bought a positive review from me. It caused a lot of bad feeling all round. If you put in the work making yourself a part of a reading and writing community, you won’t have to pay for reviews, and you’ll build a more engaged following for it.

 

Fellow bloggers, is there anything else you’d add to this? Authors, what’s worked well in your experience?

Peter Rabbit: Mischief and Mayhem, Henley River and Rowing Museum

To say that Phoebe has an obsession with Peter Rabbit is something of an understatement. She lives and breathes Peter Rabbit, be it the books, the TV series with Nimah Cussack that I enjoyed as a child and found on Amazon, or the Nickelodeon series which created the admirable Lily Bobtail to go alongside the traditional male characters.

She wakes up in the morning and tells me she’s dreamt about Peter Rabbit, runs around the house looking for the fierce bad rabbit, and shows me the best places to hide from Mr McGregor after we’ve stolen radishes from his garden. At the end of all this, she falls asleep cuddling Benjamin Bunny.

You can imagine then that when I saw that Henley River and Rowing Museum were running a Peter Rabbit: Mischief and Mayhem exhibition, with everything from original Beatrix Potter illustrations and vintage toys, to interactive exhibits ideal for tiny rabbit addicts.

We had a lovely day at the museum. The ground floor exhibition area had a fairly traditional museum display with beautiful original illustrations, vintage toys, first edition books etc. in glass cabinets, which would have the potential to be a little dull for your typical toddler, but the museum had added a lovely little reading area, colouring table and post office in which children could write letters to their favourite Beatrix Potter characters. They also had a shelf of cuddly toys based on Beatrix Potter characters so the little ones could choose a friend to look around with, Phoebe chose Squirrel Nutkin (or Scwerl Nutkah, if you will).

Upstairs, there was a wonderful hands on exhibit for little children. They could serve customers in Ginger and Pickles shop, peg washing on Mrs Tiggywinkle’s line, plant and harvest carrots in Mr McGregor’s garden, play in Peter Rabbit’s burrow, and play puppets with Mr Tod, Tommy Brock and Diggory Delvet in a puppet theatre.

The museum entry cost about £25 for two adults, with free entry for children. On the face of it, that’s a pretty expensive day out, but this gives you entry to the museum for a year, and I’m already planning to go back to check out their Wind in the Willows exhibition. I was really impressed by how child friendly the exhibit was so, I’ll be keeping an eye out for what else is coming up in the future.

 

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

neil gaiman american gods feather wing headdress cover “Hey,” said Shadow. “Huginn or Muninn, or whoever you are.”
The bird turned, head tipped, suspiciously, on one side, and it stared at him with bright eyes.
“Say ‘Nevermore,'” said Shadow.
“Fuck you,” said the raven.”
American Gods by Neil Gaiman

 

 

I’ve always like the work of Neil Gaiman for his classic storytelling ability, the way he draws in elements of classic folklore and fuses it with pop culture to create something new. I don’t think that the concept of Gods drawing power from belief is anything especially new, but I loved what Gaiman did with this in American Gods– how human some of the Gods had become, and the circumstances they find themselves living in. The ways they try to survive.

At times Neil Gaiman’s writing reminds me a little bit of Terry Pratchett without the footnotes because the stories within stories gain a momentum of their own and pull away from the main narrative. The vignettes in the novel are probably an example of this, some linked up with the main narrative as with the child in the cave and Hinzelmann, but in some like the story of Essie Tregowan it felt as though Gaiman was stretching his storytelling muscles and enjoying it, or in the case of the African twins that he was stretching his storytelling muscles and revelling in the horrors of history.

I’ve had American Gods in my house for a while now (this will be a regular theme in some of my forthcoming reviews- I’m trying to have a blitz of my unread books with missed results) after I found it on a bench with a playing card tucked in the back in lieu of a bookmark. It was starting to rain and the book marked looked as though whoever had been reading it had finished, so the book came home with me and it came to the top of the pile when I started seeing potential spoilers everywhere when the Amazon series was released- I needed to read it before someone spoiled a plot point.

I meant to review the novel before I watched the TV series to keep my thoughts on the two separate, but I’m afraid I watched the first episode so now the waters are muddied and I don’t want to write too much that will make this become an American Gods book and TV series comparison, but I thought that the episode that I watched was a poor adaptation. It felt too cartoonish; the violence amped up and the context missing. Because the concept of belief is so important to the novel, Shadow’s internal narrative was critical to the events of the novel. In the book his shock and disbelief at the death of his wife felt palpable, in the TV series, he just looked a bit pissed off.

So if you’re wondering, read American Gods first, then watch the TV series. Or skip the TV series entirely and pick up another book instead.

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

“But a lonely man is an unnatural man, and soon comes to perplexity. From perplexity to fantasy. From fantasy to madness.” My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

I don’t get as much time to read as I used to (and even less time to write blog posts that do more than scratch the surface of books) but I was determined to read My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier before the Roger Michell directed film version starring Sam Claflin and Rachel Weisz hit the cinemas, or at least before going to see it.

For readers who first encountered Daphne du Maurier through her most famous novel Rebecca and have loved her works ever since, My Cousin Rachel doesn’t disappoint, offering the same rugged Cornish landscape, with a plot featuring stately piles, mystery, romance and intrigue which keeps twisting and turning to the very end.

In My Cousin Rachel, Philip Ashley takes on the role of naïve narrator, whose comfortable existence is rocked when his beloved cousin Ambrose Ashley dies abroad, shortly after his marriage to Philip’s mysterious cousin Rachel. The official verdict is that Ambrose has died of a fever, which was further complicated by a brain tumour that lead to violent delusions, but Philip believes that there is some truth to the letter Ambrose has sent him begging for help and suggesting that his wife has poisoned him. Philip vows revenge upon Rachel, and soon has this in his sights when she arrives at his house to return Ambrose’s belongings. But Rachel is every bit as charming as Ambrose made out, and despite his suspicions, Philip finds himself increasingly drawn to the attractive widow.

Though My Cousin Rachel has a huge amount to recommend it, what stands out for me is the psychological complexity of the novel. Despite being the titular character, Rachel remains something of an enigmatic figure, in part a vulnerable woman living at the mercy of her erratic relative, in part a woman with huge power to entice, heal and potentially destroy, we receive almost all of her history and description through other characters which means her actions can never receive a straightforward interpretation. Philip’s progression from his self-perception as something of a man of the world who has modelled himself on his idol, sees him move from outright misogyny to falling into a deep obsession, acting out an Oedipal complex with his father figure’s widow who oscillates wildly between being an object of desire and a symbol of destruction in his mind.

It’s enough to make you want to go on a Daphne du Maurier binge all summer. And I’m going to Cornwall soon…  as to whether Rachel is guilty or innocent, I’m keeping spoilers out for my review for those who have yet to read it, but let’s discuss in the comments!

Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig

I’ve been finding it difficult to get drawn into novels recently. You know the kind of thing, you’re busy with work and life, so when you do get the time to read you’re so tired that your brain doesn’t really engage enough to full commit to the world of the novel.

But every so often, something comes along which really hooks you, so you forget about that. The kind of book where you go and have a lie down with a low level headache when the baby’s gone to bed at seven, start reading the first chapter, and before you know it, it’s two in the morning and you just have to finish the last chapter even though you know you need to be up at half past five. Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig was that book for me this week.

The novel opens with fourteen year old Ginny, an autistic girl who is living with her Forever Parents  having been removed from the care of her unreliable, drug addict mother, looking aft er one of those electronic plastic babies they give teenagers to give them a better understanding of what an unplanned pregnancy can do to your quality of sleep. She’s tried rocking it, shushing it, letting it suck her finger, but it just keeps crying. And it reminds her of her Baby Doll, the real one, which she left in a suitcase at her mother’s apartment when the police came to remove her into care.

People will inevitably compare Ginny Moon to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but for me, Ginny Moon was actually a far more gripping read, the kind of gripping where someone has hold of your intestines and every now and again gives them a little twist to make sure that you’re paying attention. With respect to Mark Haddon, it might be the benefit of fourteen years life experience and having worked with autistic children since I read The Curious Incident… and it might be having a child of my own, but I really felt that in Ginny Moon the author Benjamin Ludwig had crafted something much more involving.

I don’t want to give too much away, because I would highly recommend that you read this, and that you do so without spoilers, but I felt like I was being dragged along through Ginny’s story, seeing all of the pieces fitting together from the information that Ginny was unable to communicate to her Forever Parents and therapist because they were unable to fully appreciate that what she was saying was true, and becoming more and more horrified by the potential situations that I anticipated playing out but that Ginny was partially blind to because of her all-consuming fixation on her Baby Doll. I found myself simultaneously feeling an immense like for characters for the way they behaved towards Ginny, and a total empathy and pity because who could honestly say they would have been able to behave differently?

I was one chapter from the end of Ginny Moon when my nearly-two year old woke up. I went in to her room, picked her up and cuddled her back to sleep all the while thinking how lucky we are. A real privilege checker of a book.

The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

“As specimens go, they always get excited about me. I’m a good one. A show-stopper. I’m the kind of kid they’ll still enquire about ten years later. Fifty-one placements, drug problems, violence, dead adopted mum, no biological links, constant offending. Tick, tick, tick.”

The Panopticon, Jenni Fagan

 

At the opening of Jenni Fagan’s debut novel, fifteen year old Anais Hendricks, the anti-hero of the piece, is sitting hand cuffed in the back of a police car being transferred to The Panopticon a children’s unit with a watchtower that forces its residents to live under constant observation. She has blood on her school uniform, and a police woman is lying in a coma that she is unlikely to come out of.

The opening of the novel, coupled with the fact that Anais is feisty, intelligent and stylish, seemingly possessed of a six sense which allows her to see to the very core of people, could make this sound like a middle of the road, young adult dystopian novel. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Because beneath her tough exterior, Anais is incredibly vulnerable, a teenage girl for whom the label at risk might have been invented- in the grip of delusions fuelled by narcotic psychosis or untreated borderline personality disorder, she has been exploited or failed by most of the adults she has encountered in her short life. This is not a novel which uses a dystopia as a smoke screen for real world issues, this is a novel about real world issues which hammers home the appalling ways that the most vulnerable members of society are so often failed and demonized.

Jenni Fagan’s writing is like slam poetry, the perfect words chosen with flair that punches you in the guts. Her characterisation is exemplary and nothing I can say will do it justice, so what I will say is that The Panopticon is a novel which probably needs a thousand trigger warnings, but I would recommend that everyone reads it.

The Housekeeper by Suellen Dainty

“I am the housekeeper, the hired help with a messy past who cleans up other people’s messy lives, the one who protects their messy little secrets.”

When Anne Morgan’s restaurateur boyfriend and boss begins an affair with an investor’s daughter, Anne becomes obsessed with lifestyle guru Emma Helmsley whose Marie Kondo-style lifestyle tips promise to bring order to her newly chaotic existence. And it isn’t too long before she sends a speculative application to be Emma’s housekeeper, so that she can be closer to the lives of Emma and her perfect family.

I’m normally not a fan of books without likeable characters to get behind, but in this single white female with a twist novel, Suellen Dainty has gotten it to work to make The Housekeeper an entertaining story of memory, abuse and betrayal.