The Way Past Winter by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

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Full disclosure upfront. I love the lady who wrote this book. But, there is nothing that I'm going to say about The Way Past Winter that won't be backed up by a hundred other voices, and reviews. In the last two years, Kiran has become a well loved storyteller whose gift of creating beautiful emotional metaphors have become a trademark of her exquisitely told stories.

The Way Past Winter is another treat from the masterful author who gave us The Girl of Ink and Stars and The Island at the End of Everything. It is a fantastical snowy tale, about a family of three sisters and a brother, Mila, Pipa, Sanna and Oskar, who, having lost their mother to illness, lose their father to grief. Leaving his ring behind, he disappears into the forest and never returns. His disappearance coincides with the arrival of a winter which never melts into spring.

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One day a fur-clad stranger arrives at their cottage in the forest with a band of men. In the morning both he, his men and Oskar have gone. The three sisters set out to find their brother and bring him home.

This story has the feel of an old Russian Folk tale, or fable. It is rich with evocative prose as the sisters travel north across frozen landscapes following the trail of their brother.

This, more than any of Kiran's other stories, is a page turner. It's truly gripping and otherworldly. A magical read about family, love and grief. For me the standout part of this books is the relationship between the three sisters, tender, blunt and fierce.

This book is published as a beautiful hardback in October, and I think will end up being a Christmas present in many a child's stocking, and what a wonderful gift it would be to receive. But, if you don't think anyone will get it for you, I recommend you treat yourself.

The Railway Children by E. Nesbit *****

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I did not read The Railway Children when I was a child. Nor did I see the film. All that I knew was that there was a scene in the movie where Jenny Agutter waved a red flag at a train to stop it, with some other children.

My new writing project is all about trains, and so I immediately picked up this pretty pink hardback edition of the classic and set about reading it. I don't know what I thought it would be. If I'm honest, probably dull, fusty, written using antiquated language with some Famous Five type children and some trains. I was wrong. So wrong.

This book is about family, and bravery and decency and of all things, socialism. Oh goodness, how I loved it. I loved the children, Bobbie, Phyllis and Peter. They squabble and are ghastly to each other, and love each other desperately a moment later, just as real children do. And the railway is the wonderful device around which the whole book hinges, and is described in delicious detail.

Yes, some of the language is old-fashioned. E. Nesbit has a strange habit of breaking the fourth wall to skip bits she thinks aren't of interest, or that the characters wouldn't like us to know about, which both hurls the reader out of the story, yet makes us feel the characters to be all the more real.

What I wasn't prepared for was how much I grew to care about this fictional family and how much I wept at the end. Of course, you have probably read this book and are nodding, but if like me you haven't, then you are in for a treat.

A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars by Yaba Badoe

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Some books are just special. A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars by Yaba Badoe is one of those books.

It is the story of fourteen year old Sante, who is part of Mama Rose's circus, has the skills of an acrobat and an uncanny affinity with animals.

Sante was found by Mama Rose when she was a baby, washed ashore in a chest stuffed with treasures. A survivor from a refugee ship that had sunk.

One day the circus arrives in a place where people recognise Sante, and her dreams of her dead family become cries from beyond their watery grave for revenge.

When I was reading this book, I fell in love with Sante. She is a great protagonist. And in fact I loved all the females in this book and the relationships between them. This book has strong, interesting and complex characters a plenty and they're mostly women.

The story is a powerful one, jam packed with the magic of the circus, the ghostly otherworld of the dead, and the horrors of people-trafficking. It is written artfully, rich with the imagery and magic of African folklore. You will not read another book like it. It is a page turner that had my heart beating a thousand different rhythms. At one point I could hear my heart galloping in my chest as I read, it is that dramatic.

I enjoyed every page of A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars and I will be buying it for every teenage girl I know with a birthday, because it should be read widely. If you haven't come across this book yet, then please seek it out, because, as I said, it is special, and you will thank me.

I can't wait to see what Yaba Badoe writes next. I'll be first in line at the till.

 

 

The Lost Magician by Piers Torday

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The Lost Magician is the new book from the wonderful author of The Last Wild trilogy, Piers Torday.

Simply by opening a book in a magical library, four children find themselves in a world called Folio where the characters from fairy tales are real and locked in battle with data spewing fact robots. The magician who created the library is missing and war has broken out in his absence. The children, Simon, Patricia, Larry and Evelyn, are themselves escaping their own experiences of London during the Blitz. These must surely be the most perfect ingredients for an epic adventure!

In articles that I have read about the book, Piers has spoken about the relationship between his new story and C.S. Lewis's Narnia series. He was inspired by his love of the Narnia stories to create the world in The Lost Magician, Folio, where it is not Christianity that is the under attack but the imagination. His book is an homage, using the allegorical fantasy trope to reflect on our world today. A battle is taking place in the world of the library between the stories and the facts, all the while the real threat is the 'never reads'. For those who love the Narnia stories, like me, the echoes and clever parallels add a layer of joy and satisfaction to the reading experience. However, if you've never read C. S. Lewis, then it won't make the blind bit of difference to your enjoyment of the book.

 Me reading  The Lost Magician  in a field on the edge of a woods. Magic.

Me reading The Lost Magician in a field on the edge of a woods. Magic.

This book is so much more than a reimagining of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. The Lost Magician is a classic tale that explores the power of reading. You'll be on the edge of your seat as four war-weary children enter a magical library, and characters you know like the back of your hand come alive and don armour for the kind of battle you've never imagined before. An original, and imaginative war cry for the importance of reading and the magic of libraries.

I hear that The Lost Magician is the beginning of a series, so I'm excited to read the next adventure in Folio.

The 1000 Year Old Boy by Ross Welford

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This story. Oh man, this story. You have to read this story. The 1000 Year Old Boy is unlike any middle grade book I've read before. I don't know how Ross Welford produced this. As an author, I read a lot of books and I think up a lot of stories, but this one, well this is something I could never have written. It is my favourite of Ross Welford's books by far, and I loved Time Travelling with a Hamster.

I can't post my usual selfie with the book, as I was sent the manuscript and given 48 hours to read it, to quote for the cover, so I don't have a copy yet. To be honest, I'm a slow reader and I made my apologies in advance saying that I'd try, but I doubted I could read a whole book in that time.

Well, I was wrong. I read it faster than that.

This book is about a child who is older than any grown up, which means the book is equally as captivating for a child as a grown-up reader. I was enthralled by the story and constantly second guessing how Welford was going to resolve it and always getting it wrong. It's thrilling and fascinating and returns to one of Ross's favourite subjects, time. What would it be like to live forever? This book is historical and current, it's moving and exciting, it's thought-provoking yet funny. The children at the centre of the story are awesome characters, but none more so than the unusual Alfie Monk. I can't really tell you what this story is about without giving away some pretty important plot points and it spans a thousand years and countless cool locations! The research that must have gone into the telling of this story blows my mind.

Of course, you already know what I think of this book because it is written on the back cover. This is what I sent to Ross Welford's publisher: 'The 1000 Year Old Boy is a breathtakingly epic story that you won’t be able to put down. In Alfie, Ross Welford has created an unusual and fascinating boy who you are rooting for right from the first word. An original, surprising, moving and compelling read, I loved it.'

Seeing as I can't post a selfie of me with the book, I'm going to post this picture of me taking my hat off to Ross Welford, because this is an EPIC book. Do yourself a favour and have a read.

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I take my hat off to you Mr Welford.

Sky Song by Abi Elphinstone

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I read Sky Song by Abi Alphinstone over Christmas, which was the perfect time to enjoy a magical fantasy tale about Snow Queens, Sky Gods and brave children. There is so much to enjoy in this book, the snowy wilderness of Erkenwald, the three distinct tribes that live there, the wild creatures and the old magic. However the thing that makes this story really sing is the triumvirate of Eska, Flint and Blu at the centre of it. They are fantastic characters and the relationships between them are powerful and warm.

Without a doubt my favourite character is Blu. I assume from the description of her that she has Down's syndrome. As I read, I realised that I don't think I have read a fantasy story with a character like her. She is adorable, funny, sensitive to truth and so beautifully described. It was new and wonderfully surprising to read about her, and the contribution she makes to the adventure is meaningful, she's no bit part. Abi Elphinstone nimbly makes the point that being different can be an advantage and it's the eye of the beholder which can be limited.

I also loved Balapan, the eagle. I'm a sucker for a story that features a child who has a special relationship with an animal, and the relationship between Eska and Balapan is a pretty special one. I won't give much away but let's just say, I want one. I'm hoping there will be another Sky Song story because I want to read more about them and Eska's voice.

Sky Song is a unique, compelling and magical adventure that I cannot recommend highly enough to middle grade readers. There are many great qualities this book posses, yes it is a brilliant, heart stopping, tear inducing, soul soaring adventure, but it more than that. It champions a positive relationship with nature - which I am all for - and makes a comment about the negative effects of separatism, in the tribe's responses to each other in the face of the Snow Queens divisive attacks. And, last but certainly not least, it puts Blu into a reader's imagination, which may help people to view difference with more understanding. I am not surprised that Waterstones has made Sky Song their book of the month for January. It's pretty special.

Kick by Mitch Johnson

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My son is a football fanatic and a reluctant reader, so I begged for this book and I’m glad I did.

Kick is the story of Budi a twelve-year-old boy who works stitching football boots in a sweatshop in Jakarta. His life is a complicated negotiation of dangerous neighbourhoods, his own personal health issues, a gruelling job and poverty. However, his supportive family, love of football and desire to play for Real Madrid one day, keeps him going. This story champions hope, dogged optimism, and friendship.

Football is a beautiful game that I only know a small amount about, but it makes for a wonderful metaphor in this story, the importance of playing as a team, of practice, of integrity, and as one of the highest paid sports in the world it throws the living conditions of the characters into stark relief. My favourite character was Budi’s grandmother, who tells stories to guide him, but it’s hard to imagine there being a reader who doesn’t like Budi.

Kick is a beautifully woven tale with a frankly adorable protagonist, with a burning passion for football, living in a tough world. I should mention there is quite a bit of violence and suffering in the story. My heart ached on many occasions. This book is a great read to promote empathy and understanding, but best of all it’s just a great book. Skilfully written, and perfectly paced Mitch Johnston has produced a fantastic debut. I couldn’t put it down and I’ll be passing it on to my twelve year old next.

The Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompson

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The Goldfish Boy is a mystery story about a toddler who vanishes from a neighbour's garden. Our detective, Matthew, is a boy who is trapped inside by his OCD.

This is a beautifully written book. The prose is so well constructed you don't notice it as you devour page after page of this compelling story. It is about relationships and the human need to communicate. It's about the ways we deal, or don't deal, with life and loss, death and struggles. It's about family and friendship. There is so much more going on in this book than the plot and it is all handled delicately, never over-powering the story. The plot is gripping and the way our unusual detective goes about trying to solve the mystery fascinating.

I've seen comparisons between this book and Mark Hadden's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, and I can see why, although they are very different. This is a brilliant debut. I have The Light Jar, Lisa Thompson's second book, on my bedside table, which I can't wait to read. I suspect that book will be a tear-jerker because The Goldfish Boy is about tough things and my eyes weren't dry when I came to the end of the story. If you are a fan of quality middle grade fiction, then you should read this book.

You can find out more about the lovely Lisa Thompson here.

Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve *****

Mortal Engines was published in 2001 and I would absolutely bestow the epithet 'classic' up on it. It's bloomin' awesome. Philip Reeve's imagination throws us forward to a time when cities have become moving human ecosystems which hunt and devour each other. The protagonist, Tom, lives in London and he thinks he understands the way things are, but getting to meet his hero and accidentally witnessing an assassination attempt hurls him out of London and turns him into a fugitive. His new perspective on the world raises lots of questions about what he's been told as a citizen of London.

This is a gripping adventure in a beautifully drawn world. Once you open this book you won't want to put it down. The characters are wonderfully vivid and fascinating. The writing is skilled and stunningly visual.

After reading this book I ordered a bunch of Reeve's other books, because I knew I would be happy to read anything he writes. Mortal Engines is the beginning of a series of books, so if you like the world Reeve creates there's more adventures to enjoy.

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Brightstorm by Vashti Hardy

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Brightstorm is Vashti Hardy's middle-grade debut. It will be published by Scholastic in March 2018. It is the tale of the Brightstorm twins, Arthur and Maude, who find themselves orphaned and their family name smeared when their father doesn't return from his expedition to South Polaris.

This is a terrific adventure that takes place on sky-ships, and is resplendent with sapient creatures, thought wolves, and a vindictive villain.

The story has two protagonists and revolves around the relationship between the twins. They support and care for one another as they strive to clear their father's name, understand who they truly are, and build a new family amongst the explorer community.

Young readers who loved Cogheart by Peter Bunzle and aren't yet ready for Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials will enjoy this story.

The Creakers by Tom Fletcher

 Just checking under the bed for creakers before I go to sleep...

Just checking under the bed for creakers before I go to sleep...

I was so delighted that Tom Fletcher picked Beetle Boy to be a part of his bookclub, that I immediately set about getting my hands on his newest book The Creakers, and when it arrived I was impressed by what an attractive book it is. As soon as I opened the cover my four-year-old son, Seb, snuggled up next to me, attracted to Shane Devries' wonderful illustrations and he asked me to read it to him.

The story is told in the voice of Tom Fletcher with all of his playfulness, joking and kindness. There are notes from the narrator at the end of each chapter and sometimes in the text, however, despite Tom's warning to the reader about the scary nature of this adventure my little one wanted to hear about Lucy and all the disappeared grown-ups. I have to admit to hiding the book for a week till he forgot about it because I read ahead and realised pretty quickly that this story is a little too scary for a four-year-old. However a six-year-old would love it, and it's a great book to read to kids, because the parent reader becomes the Tom Fletcher narrator, if you see what I mean.

The Creakers is a cross between The Box Trolls and the BFG. It's quirky and funny, with great characters, and a story that races along and causes your heart to beat a little faster. If you have a child who is a fan of scary stories then this would be a good book for them.

Listen to Tom talking about the inspiration for his book in the video below.

Astrid the Unstoppable by Maria Parr

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Astrid the Unstoppable by Maria Parr is as perfect as snowfall at Christmas. It's classic storytelling at it's best, both delightful and moving.

Astrid Glimmerdal is a gutsy young girl whose days are spent skiing and sledging down the mountains where she lives. Her best friend is a grumpy old man called Gunnvald, because there are no children in the village. One day she discovers he has a secret and everything begins to change.

Weaving fairy tales and music into a modern story, set in a mountainous winter wonderland with the fierce and passionate Astrid at it's heart. This is a very special story, full of fire, yet thoughtful, it reminded me of Pippi Longstocking and Heidi. I loved it, particularly because of the way it depicts relationships between children and adults.

Astrid the Unstoppable is Maria's second novel, and won the prestigious Brage Prize for best children's book and the Norwegian Critics' Prize.

A Place Called Perfect by Helena Duggan

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A Place Called Perfect by Helena Duggan has been one of the more visible debuts this year, what with its being Waterstones book of the month in August and then picked for the Tom Fletcher Bookclub. This, combined with the fact that the wonderful cover art is by Karl James Mountford (who does the internal illustrations for my books, and whom I adore), has caused the book to jump to the top of by TBR pile. Oh and they sent me cool glasses. Presents always help.

I read the book in one sitting because the premise is curious and terrifying. As soon as you open the book you enter a town called Perfect, which has a strange problem, everyone there is blind and has to wear special glasses. Violet's father is an eye specialist and as soon as the family move to Perfect, their vision goes. Violet notices a series of strange things, and before you know it, you're halfway through the book, you heart is in your mouth and you're knee deep in adventure. I don't want to give anything away, so I will not share more. This is a well written book. It's a great read and operates on two levels, there's the surface adventure, which is thrilling, and then the discussion about the questionable nature of a society which vilifies imagination and requires conformity. Helena Duggan has produced a great debut and I suspect we've a lot more to read from her in the future.

You can listen to Tom Fletcher reading an extract from A Place Called Perfect below.

The Explorer by Katherine Rundell

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Most people who love books know that Katherine Rundell is an accomplished writer. Her prose is swift to read and littered with seeds which germinate in your imagination. Having just finished writing Battle of the Beetles, which is set in the Amazon rainforest, I was excited and slightly scared of reading her new book The Explorer. I was unable to afford the time or the money to go to the Amazon in person, so all of the research I did for my final beetle book was in libraries, online or in my study. I had read that Katherine actually went to the Amazon in preparation for writing this book, and I was so excited to see how she'd interpreted that experience in words.

The Explorer doesn't disappoint. The story begins with a plane crash and four children being stranded in the Amazon. The lush greenery of the rainforest is evoked deftly and creates a lasting landscape in your head. Katherine loves to describe food in her books, and the food the Amazon provides is unusual and sometimes unpalatable, and these were my favourite bits. The hunger and the unusual meals are beautifully described. It's impossible not to love the baby sloth in the story, but I also really enjoyed the character of the explorer, he was complex, intriguing and a bit frightening in the best of ways.

My favourite Rundell book is still The Wolf Wilder, but The Explorer is a great addition to her rich and varied list of children's stories. If you haven't read her books yet, then you need to.

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell *****

How I wish I had read this book when I was a child. I am going to read this book to my children, and give it to every human being I ever meet who hasn't read it. It is wonderful.

Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals was first published in 1956 and is set between 1935 and 1939 when Gerald Durrell’s family move to Corfu.

It’s a work of genius and should be in every child’s bookcase. It’s written by a naturalist, and opens your eyes, providing you with a vocabulary to describe and think about the creatures you encounter in the natural world – no matter how old you are.

The book is divided into three parts – the three different villas in which Gerald and his eccentric family live at various times in Corfu. Durrell manages to capture a child’s point of view of the adult world perfectly.  His observations of his family are similar to his observations of the creatures he collects. It’s not complex language, but it is beautifully expressed. The descriptive prose is shockingly good. The narrative is not held together so much by plot as by humour, which I think is an important ingredient in a children’s book. This book is very funny, with proper laugh out loud moments. There are delightful childish details, like he has these two little dogs called Widdle and Puke, and then there’s the moment with the scorpions…so good. And it’s one of the few books I’ve found that has large sections about beetles in it!

People talk about narrative voice, I think this book has narrative eyes – or a narrative view. We see the natural world as Gerald Durrell did, as a boy and, of course, he grew up to be a famous naturalist. As an adult writer, he could so easily have browbeaten the reader with all his knowledge, but it’s handled with a light touch.

He describes Ulysses, his pet owl, waking up: “He would yawn delicately, shiver violently, so that all his feathers stood out like the petals of a wind-blown chrysanthemum.” I delight in this kind of descriptive prose.

There are some dubious moments, when the young Gerald does things that are now illegal – he steals eggs. That particular kind of exploration can’t happen anymore because of the damage it would do, but the subject does raise interesting questions. When the young Gerald goes out on his expeditions to collect and watch creatures – or to explore — he has a freedom and autonomy that children don’t have today.

If you haven't read this book, you must.

Mold and the Poison Plot by Lorraine Gregory

I read this book back in June when it first came out, but have been too busy meeting my own deadlines to have the time to write a review. However, I believe that it always better to be late with this things than never do them, so apologies for the tardy nature of this review.

Mold and the Poison Plot is the kooky debut middle grade book by Lorraine Gregory. It tells the tale of a boy called Mold who has a very large nose and an extraordinary ability to smell things in detail.

This book is a romp of an adventure that had me crossing all my fingers and toes at some points. The prose is rich with smells and flavour, and Mold is an unusual protagonist, easy to like and champion. At the heart of the adventure is his touching relationship with his adopted mother, who he has to save from wrongful accusation. The story is brutal and stinky in places, but all the best adventures are.

I hope we get to read more books about Mold and find out who his real parents are.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline *****

Oh this book, THIS BOOK!

This book is so good that I have decided to add a new feature to this blog. If I read a book that makes me immediately - upon finishing - thrust it into the arms of someone and tell them they HAVE to read it, then go online and try and find other people who've already read it and want to form a club with them, then I'm going to put ***** beside the title of the book in the blog post title.

Okay, there's not much I can say about this book, except that it is INSPIRED. It is a quest, set both in the future and the virtual reality of popular culture of the 1980s. It is a book with all the perfect ingredients to please all the people and a plot that does not let you down.

I LOVED IT! You should read it, whoever you are, whatever age you are.

The film comes out next year, and you will love it more if you read the book first.

A truly enjoyable, great, book. You should buy it right away. You'll thank me.

 

 

Witch for a Week by Kaye Umansky

I was sent an advance copy of Witch for a Week by Ashley the illustrator, and I must say I read this charming little book in an afternoon. It's delightfully bewitching and the perfect read for any young person hankering after a bit of adventure and a tea cup full of magic. The likeable Elsie discovers she has a certain knack that casts her into a pickle. I can't wait to see the finished book with all of Ashley's illustrations. It's going to look fab.

The Lie Tree by Francis Hardinge *****

The hardest thing about writing a book is sitting down in the chair and getting on with it. You'll find anything else to do, like writing blog posts about other people's books.

Now, we all know about The Lie Tree, it won the Costa prize and became an instant bestseller. Everybody loves it, and I daren't admit last year that I hadn't read it, especially when I met the lovely Francis Hardinge.

It's been sitting in my bedside bookcase now for nearly a year. So what better time to read it than when I should be writing my own book?

Before I begin, with the beginning, I have to declare my love for this book. It's wonderful, and I heartily approve of the ending, but I am jumping ahead of myself.

Last year, I had a crazy year, and I picked this book up several times. I was tired, with no time, and could only read a page or two before falling asleep or having to do something else, and I just couldn't get into the book. I read other, easier, volumes in that time, but I struggled with the opening of The Lie Tree, and that is because it is like a Dickens novel. This is no pulp fiction. You must have time to read this book, and pay it your full attention. It will more than repay your investment. It sows its seeds and builds carefully and gradually and suddenly you are immersed in a world you cannot be dragged away from. I started this book, again, two days ago. It was chapter nine when I realised I was trapped in the world of The Lie Tree. Today I ran a bath and sat in it for four hours until I'd read the last page. If you see me walking around looking like a giant prune, blame Francis Hardinge. The only book that I have experienced this with in recent times is Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel which is one of my favourite books ever. A writer with the confidence to take their time artfully constructing a story is a writer worth reading.

One of the things I loved most about the book was Faith, the central character. I have been told by many other readers that she is unlikable to begin with, but I identified with her immediately. Her struggle is that of an intellectual young woman in a draconian Victorian patriarchal society. There, I've said it. I loved this book because it is the most beautifully written, epic, compelling, nail-biting, feminist story I've read, and I loved Faith. I am Faith. I tell lies.

Oh and that ending.... I didn't predict it or guess it. I bloody well enjoyed it.

Everybody should read this book. Bravo Costa judges. You chose well. I will be thinking about this story for a long long time.

You can buy a copy of the book from the link on the left, or you could treat yourself and buy an illustrated version with exquisite drawings by Chris Riddell. I have both. Needless to say I took the standard copy into the bath.

One by Sarah Crossan

   One  by  Sarah Crossan   should come with a DO NOT DISTURB sign.

One by Sarah Crossan should come with a DO NOT DISTURB sign.

The first book of 2017 that I have read is One by Sarah Crossan. I have been meaning to read it since it won the Carnegie Medal, but I have a confession to make. A story about conjoined twins written in verse didn't sound that appealing to me. It sounded like it might be a worthy but tough read, and at heart I'm a lazy escapist.

But of course, I was wrong, and an idiot.

This book deserves all the medals and prizes it has won. It is wonderfully easy to read. I read it in a day and I am a slow reader. After page one you become less and less aware of the form, but it has the emotional impact of a sledgehammer. It is an epic love poem of self discovery and I was hooked within pages.

This is the first of Sarah Crossan's book that I have read, but I will be reading them all. Fierce writer, economic with words, generous with emotion, fearless about staring life in the face. Can't really get better than that, can you?

You should definitely read it.