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Thursday, 9 January 2014

Favourite Books From 2013

Long time no speak, eh? All I can say is this blog was a success – I was using it to try and stream what I wanted to write about, to help me hone a ‘voice’, and, eventually, come August, I stopped writing blogs posts and got back to writing stories. I’m not sure what my 2014 blogging plans are, but no doubt I’ll be back when procrastination calls.

In the meantime – here are some of the best books I read in 2013. I’ve set them out in categories so you don’t have to read the whole thing (I like the sound of my own voice, I know)…just scroll down to whatever you fancy.


BOOKS I MEANT TO READ/PRETENDED TO HAVE READ AS A TEENAGER:

Life of Pi, The Great Gatsby, I Capture the Castle, The Catcher in the Rye, Noughts and Crosses series, Skellig.

The Catcher in the Rye and Noughts and Crosses were always out of the library, I never got around to The Great Gatsby, I thought I Capture the Castle was stupid (it is now one of my all time favourite books), and my sister put me off Skellig by telling me she was reading it in class and that it was really boring (it’s not, it’s fantastic).

Initially I didn’t read Life of Pi because I thought it was about MATHS…can you blame me? Back before it closed down I used to go and hang out at Borders after school. Life of Pi was always on the stand right by the entrance and I’M SURE the cover had weird mathsy symbols and stuff on it…having Googled though, I can’t find the cover I’m imagining so, you know, I probably made all this up so I could justify reading The Princess Diaries one more time. At university, a teacher recommended it to me solely because it was about an Indian boy…enough to put me off big time back then, oh how writing this blog has changed me!

If I’m honest I only read Life of Pi because it was 20p on Kindle (don’t get mad, I bought it despite owning a physical copy), but you should totally read it. In retrospect, teenage me would have LOVED it. While I hated Maths lessons, I was totally into RS and Philosophy. He should have been called Chi Rho or something…then I’d have been all over it. If you’re not into that sort of thing though, it is also about shipwrecks and tigers and cannibal islands…You should totally read it. And then watch the film – Suraj Sharma is excellent as Pi (and really hot).


FAVOURITE PICTURE BOOK: MICHAEL ROSEN’S SAD BOOK

This book changed my life. I would recommend this book a thousand times over. You can read what I wrote about it when I first read it here – it’s the second from last paragraph.


FAVOURITE CHILDREN’S BOOK: BRIDGE TO TEREBITHIA

I’ve been meaning to read this since I saw the film in 2008 or something. It was everything I hoped it would be, but I didn’t realise so until I got to the end. It’s one of those crescendo-ing books where you think it’s ‘all right but nothing special’ all the way through, but you don’t realise how perfect every moment is until you finish and look back on it as a whole. I cried, obviously.


FAVOURITE YOUNG ADULT BOOK: I CAPTURE THE CASTLE

Everyone kept telling me to read this, and I just didn’t get why. IT WAS SO BORING. Then my boyfriend’s mum bought it for me for my birthday and I was forced to read it out of politeness…and I absolutely loved it. I can see why no one managed to convince me to plough on past the first few pages because, even months later, I can’t describe why I love it. Just read it, okay?


FAVOURITE BOOK YOU’VE PROBABLY NOT YET HEARD OF:  VIVIAN VERSUS THE APOCALYSPE

If I didn’t want to have a separate category for books that the people I know never seem to recognise, this book would probably have been listed under the previous ‘Best YA’ heading. Vivian Versus The Apocalypse was everything I could ever want from a Young Adult book. Since you may not have heard of this one yet, I’ll give you a quick summary: it’s set in an alternate evangelical America, and opens on the eve of the predicted Rapture. When Vivian gets home, she finds that her ‘Believer’ parents are missin (there are person-shaped holes left in their bedroom ceiling), and so, of course, it’s up to her to find them. What results is an unpredictably wonderful hybrid of road-trip and dystopian fiction. There’s a romance, but it’s not central to the plot; the author doesn’t talk down to the readers (seriously the book I read before this one described what Christmas crackers were in case the American readers didn’t get it…GOOGLE EXISTS FOR A REASON); and the main character is hilarious….like I said, what more could anyone want from YA? I might go and read it again right now.  

FAVOURITE NEW AUTHOR: JHUMPA LAHIRI

I was going to have sections for my favourite novel (The Namesake), and favourite short story collection (Interpreter of Maladies), but they actually ended up being by the same author.

I won’t lie: I hadn’t heard of Jhumpa Lahiri until I saw Mindy Kaling posting a picture of The Lowland on her Instagram. But whatever, this is apparently how I discover authors to love. When I was sixteen or so I discovered Kazuo Ishiguro because Emma Watson mentioned that The Remains of the Day was her favourite book in an interview. Don’t judge me.

Jhumpa Lahiri is now my favourite author. She writes with such precision about thoughts and ideas that are so familiar to me. Her throwaway details are so spot on – I’m torn between jealousy and over-the-top-fan-girl admiration:

By now Akash had forgotten the little Bengali Ruma had taught him when he was little. After he started speaking in full sentences English had taken over, and she lacked the discipline to stick to Bengali. Besides, it was one thing to coo at him in Bengali, to point to this or that and tell him the corresponding words. But it was another thing to be authoritative; Bengali had never been a language in which she felt like an adult.” – Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri

Argh I hate and love her so much. 


FAVOURITE NON FICTION: BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS

There wasn’t any narrowing down involved here since this was the only non-fiction I read in 2013, but it’s also the best non-fiction book about India I’ve ever read. Ever, ever, ever. If I was only allowed to choose one of these books to recommend to everyone I know, one that had to try and suit as many people’s reading tastes as possible, it would be this one.  None of the romanticising and exotifying blahblahblah you come to except from books about India, just empathically told stories about real lives.  



There you go - until next time anyway! What books did you love in 2013?
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Friday, 2 August 2013

What ‘Go Home!’ Means to Me


Once, when we were in primary school, a girl in my sister’s class said to her: ‘Go back to where you came from.’

My sister, being the awesome person that she is, didn’t tell the teacher and instead looked back at the girl and said: ‘Oh okay then, I’ll just walk back down the road to my house then.’

She was seven, maybe eight. To this day, I have never been more impressed by anything.

I, probably like every other non-white person I know, have been told to ‘Go Home!’ more times than I care to remember. The phrase reminds me of feeling like an outsider on the school playground and being stared and glared at in country pubs. Sometimes the words are shouted at you when you’re walking in the street; other times they’re blurted out by kids who don’t know any better – but, more often than not, they aren’t actually said aloud. They are implied through pursed lips that look like they belong to someone who’s accidentally added bad milk to their English breakfast tea. Yeah, I get it, you don’t want me here. And I’m second generation. I don’t want think about what it was like for my dad in the seventies.

I could tell you a million other stories about how people I know have stuck up to racists and bullies, but I couldn’t tell you any about myself. I like to tell myself that ignoring or laughing off slurs like that is the best way to deal with it, but, truth be told, the reason I’ve never defended myself is because I don’t have the stones. I’m too scared. What if I can’t think of a witty retort fast enough? What if the bully realises how much they’ve upset me? I don’t want them to know how thin-skinned I am. I think, though, that perhaps it is time to try and explain what it feels like.
Being picked on for not belonging to a country that you were born and brought up in is first and foremost humiliating. I still catch myself, once in a while, putting on an extra posh English accent in situations where I feel intimidated – a coping tactic I developed as a child and teenager as a way of saying ‘Look how English I am.’. Recently, on the way back from a family function, my cousin and I stopped in a service-station Starbucks whilst wearing Indian outfits – the accent came out then. It weirds me out that, however unconsciously, I still feel the need to do that. More than being embarrassed though, when someone shouts a slur at you (or worse, when a friend complains about other Indians or ethnic minorities they know – ‘I’m not talking about you, of course. You’re fine, normal.’) it hits you harder than you expect. I am always so surprised by how much it hurts. I always think that I’m used to it. I’ve had twenty three years of being used to someone or another picking on me for something that is so essentially part of who I am and simultaneously absolutely irrelevant to who I am, that I think it won’t hurt. But it does. Always.

When I first heard about the racist billboards back in my home town, courtesy of the British government, and, yesterday, as I watched the UK Home Office boast about arresting #immigrationoffenders whilst uploading tasteless photographs of people being taken in, I found myself crying. Crying in a way that I haven’t since I actually was on the school playground, crying because I felt bullied, felt like I didn’t fit in. Over the last few hours I’ve found myself flooded with fear: imagining situations in which I’m walking with George, or with my friends, and being stopped because my papers need checking whilst my not-brown-skin-having friends get to walk on (I don’t even carry papers. Who carries papers?), imagining a world where once again I feel like I have no control. And that’s just the fear that makes sense, mostly I’ve just been filled with a nameless, shapeless feeling of dread and sadness. I feel like pretending to be sick so I don’t have to go to school.

Bullying and scare tactics like these should not be used against anyone. Every time someone says something hateful to me, I wish I was more like my sister. But she was lucky she had a house down the road to point towards - not everyone does.



Have you ever been told to #GoHome? How did it make you feel? Or have you ever witnessed someone else become a victim of racism? Share your #GoHomeStory on Twitter or in the comments below. 
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Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Book Review: 'The Ghost Bride' by Yangsze Choo


All my book reviews seem to be for scary stories. Anyone wanna give me something a little lighter? Nah, I don’t mind really – especially since both of the books I’ve reviewed so far have been excellent. You may remember my previous post about Yangsze Choo’s The Ghost Bride. Hot Key Books, the publishers, were kind enough to send me a reviewer’s copy of the text so I ended up being able to read it sooner than I’d anticipated. The book will be out on August 1st and you can buy it here.  

The story begins with Li-Lan’s father asking her if she would like to be a ghost bride – that is, asking her if she would like to marry the spirit of the late son of the wealthy Lim family. To those who aren’t superstitious, this might not seem like the worst option, especially because her father's debt leaves Li Lan’s prospects unpromising – marrying the spirit of Lim Tiang Chin would allow Li Lan to live, completely provided for, as a widow in the Lim household. That said, without superstition, there’d be no story and, soon after the proposal is made, the sinister Lim Tiang Chin begins haunting Li Lan’s dreams. Li Lan is pulled into the after world and must find her way out before she ends up trapped there forever.

Choo plays with the idea of sanctuary to create a constantly eerie atmosphere: by invading even her dreams, Lim Tiang Ching takes away the little personal space Li Lan has left. In this story full of tradition and superstition anything can happen – there is no clear line between what is ‘real’ and what is ‘supernatural’ and so debt collectors, marriage suitors, and hell demons are all feared at once. As Li Lan travels through the after world, there is a constant sense of foreboding: Choo’s silky prose wraps beautiful details around you, leaving you enthralled by her world, but also intensely aware that it could all be taken away in a second. After all, as Li Lan’s elderly cook warns her: ‘ ‘There are many evil things abroad, many ghosts who mean harm to the living and will try to trick you.’ ’[i]

Many of the reviews I have read for this book praise how transporting and exotic the story is. Given my obsession with fairy and folk tales, though, what really interested me as a reader was not the exoticism of the story, but the familiarity of it. There is something extremely reassuring, and also exciting, about seeing the same character tropes and story shapes appearing in tales from all over the world, and from throughout history. To me, it shows that, as humans, we all usually have the same fundamental needs and desires - no matter where or when we are from. Li Lan, who has lost her mother to smallpox and her father to an opium addiction, finds surrogate parent-figures in the family servants; she is seduced by tricksters; and she must make the most crucial decision of all: between behaving responsibly and following her heart.

The Ghost Bride isn’t like any other book I’ve read. This could be because I don’t often read historical fiction, but I suspect it’s more because it explores fresh subject matter. You should definitely check it out.

If you are an author or publisher and would like me to review your book, please get in touch via Twitter or leave a comment below.










[i] Quote taken from advance copy and may appear differently in or be omitted from final text. 
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Thursday, 13 June 2013

Book Reviews: Revisiting Picture Books

I’ve been thinking a lot about pictures. It has been one of those few weeks when everything seems to be related to something that’s been in the back of your mind for ages. First George declared that all books should have pictures and went on to binge-buy about ten Atlases, then two hours before it was due to start I saw that the Norwich and Norfolk Festival included a discussion session on picture books, and finally, on Monday, I had the opportunity to visit the magical Story Museum in Oxford.
One of my good friends is an illustrator and animator and it is since meeting her that I’ve been trying to figure out my relationship with pictures. Her work often makes me feel in a way that I rarely do with this kind of art, feel in a way I can hardly explain – something like: inspired by its beauty and weirdness, and also deeply sad; perhaps because soon I won’t be looking anymore. This indescribable feeling of simultaneous warmth, and awe, and sadness, though, is something I’ve always recognised in myself when listening to music or watching a film or visiting the theatre. I wonder if it’s because picture books are one of the few art forms that I can’t really remember consuming that I am unsure of what my relationship with them is. I remember the first album I got obsessed with (Aquarium by Aqua – don’t laugh, I was seven…); I remember the first ballet I went to see (The Nutcracker); I remember the first time I was really disappointed by a film (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) - but my love for picture books started and stopped before my memory had finished developing. The first books I remember really loving, at around six or seven, were in the Faraway Tree collection by Enid Blyton. My edition was definitely more words than pictures, and after that my reading material only became wordier and wordier and wordier.
Part of me wonders if a sad by-product of my almost inhaling stories is that I barely even glanced at the pictures that did appear in my books, but another part thinks there may be more to it than that. I remember reading somewhere that the human brain is unable to create faces out of nowhere, that the people we dream about look like our friends or people we’ve seen in passing – and whilst I have no idea if this is true, it fits the way I read. When I imagine a character, I can’t imagine them as a whole. I can remember that a character has – say – red hair, freckles, and a long nose, but I can’t put them together to make a real-looking face. It’s why I find film-adaptations of books I love so difficult to cope with. I wonder, then, if I ignored pictures as a child because, whilst the characters I read about were just a combination of body parts and personality traits, I found it easier to relate to them. I wonder if pictures bothered me (especially those annoying illustrations that seemed to completely ignore the author’s descriptions) because a cold hard image of a character, for me, took away the freedom of imagination. They meant that I couldn’t even a-little-bit pretend that characters looked like me. Now though, I’m starting to feel like, by flicking past the pictures, I’ve missed out on a whole world of other stories and so, over the last couple of years, I’ve been revisiting and really looking at picture books. One day soon, I think I will be brave enough to try reading my first graphic novel.
My series of vaguely-picture-book-related thoughts started when I came across this blog post on Rhino Reads. You will know from my previous posts that I’m big on inclusion in children’s books, but I’m ashamed to say that I hadn’t thought about how animal characters in picture books played into it all. Not directly anyway. I always knew that my Tooth Mouse world would be an equal society genderwise, and that it would have its own set of flaws and inequalities – but I had words to back up these ideas. In a picture book about animals, I realised as I read, it is especially important to be aware of what messages you are promoting. The gender of an animal isn’t immediately obvious and yet we always seem to assume that timid creatures like mice are girls, whereas crocodiles or dinosaurs are boys. I’ll let the article speak for itself, but suffice to say I was suddenly aware that picture books were doing much more than I gave them credit for.
A week or so later I saw that, as part of the Norwich and Norfolk Festival, B.J. Epstein (whose name I recognised from my UEA days) was running a session on reading picture books as adults. This is the kind of thing I’d normally chicken out of attending – because what if everyone there was really smart and thought my ideas were pants – but I bit the bullet and went along. Once again, I couldn’t believe how much the picture books we were looking at were doing. I must have read Where the Wild Things Are a thousand times, but never before had I noticed that the white space around the pictures shrunk the further away from home Max went. When the wild rumpus begins, we are treated to three double pages of pictures with no white framing at all. The group discussed how the colour takes over the space as Max imagines more and more, and how the white space perhaps represented the safety of home and the real word. For me however (though I was too shy to say), the blankness of the frame was scary and the safeness, the sanctuary, was in the imagined world of colour. The Wild Things were scary, but Max could tame them. Mum was scarier. 
I then looked at Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, which immediately made it onto my list of favourite books ever. Despite the title, I picked up the book with We’re Going on a Bear Hunt in mind. I saw Quentin Blake’s signature style on the front cover and imagined the empowered children and silly made-up words of Roald Dahl. I could not have been more wrong. Actually – I ended up crying in front of a group of strangers. In his Sad Book Michael Rosen speaks frankly about the sadness he feels. His words aren’t in rhyme, but are true and relatable in a way that books dealing with grief so rarely are. Quentin Blake’s use of colour and shadow is mesmerising, his pictues are heartbreaking. In a way it is a book about empowered children – I imagined reading it as a child, a sad child, and thought about how it might be feel to be told that, actually, I was allowed to be sad. I thought about what it might feel like to recognise the name Michael Rosen, or see pictures that are similar to those in the other books I was reading, and realise that perhaps I wasn’t alone in what I was feeling. I bought myself a copy during all the crazy that happened last week and allowed myself to get lost in the words and the pictures. I have never looked at illustrations harder. My mum stole the book when I was done.
Just when I had started to think I would take my time to come to terms with what had happened before getting back to writing, and started planning my next few weeks around Super Mario and reading and TV, I was given the opportunity to visit the Story Museum in Oxford. I have rarely been in a space that looks so similar to what I’m sure the inside of my head is like. The building is dilapidated and full of history: there are old safes that can’t be opened (Dr Who much?), counters and stovetops from when it served as a canteen for Post Office workers, and cardboard cut-outs of Alice (in her varying sizes) dotted all over the place. Oh and did I mention that I visited Michael Rosen, himself’s, office? It’s hard to be somewhere like that and not want to write immediately. The museum itself will open in 2015 and will be a celebration of stories, but what I like most is that it promotes an idea that I truly believe in: that stories are for everyone. Furthermore, the experience reinforced for me that stories can come in all shapes and sizes, that picture book or fairy tales are no less worthy than novels. My lovely team of tour guides showed me every nook and cranny of the place, but what they seemed most excited about was the plans for a walkway on the roof. Oxford, you see, is known for its picturesque skyline of spires, but most of the places you can get a panoramic view from are at the top of narrow and rickety staircases. My guides explained to me that one day they were hoping to build a rooftop walkway with elevator access so that anyone who wanted to could experience the skyline that Oxford is so famous for - because sometimes, as I've learned, seeing it really is better than just picturing it.
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Sunday, 9 June 2013

Remebering Ba: Why sometimes you can’t help but hope that you’re wrong about everything

A strange thing happened. On Friday, last week, I shared a poem that I wrote about visiting my bapuji’s body in the morgue. On Saturday, I was visiting my ba’s body. When someone dies, I always find myself reaching out into a world that I otherwise think is hokey. Though I didn’t find out until the next day, I was randomly thinking about my grandparents as Ba was taken into hospital on Friday: was that the universe telling me that I should have phoned home to talk to her before it was too late? If so – the universe really needs to shout louder, maybe stamp her feet a little, because I was well and truly too late.

The loss of a grandparent is weird because it is an expected pain. I imagine losing a partner or a sibling must feel like losing a limb, but when an elderly person dies it is never a surprise. I have been preparing myself for Ba to die since I was a teenager, but that didn’t stop me breaking down the last time I saw her face before the coffin lid was shut. I feel a little uncomfortable blogging about this, but ultimately this blog is supposed to document culture and identity and Ba is a huge part of the woman I am. When I think about the lady she was, the journeys she made, and the people she loved in every corner of the world, I feel overwhelmed. I think of how I feel about family members in faraway countries who I have met only a handful of times and I know it was her who taught  me how to love like that. Seeing my great aunt and uncle partaking in the funeral prayers from the other end of a computer screen because they were unable to fly over from America made me weep for their loss and mine, but also because I felt so lucky to be part of such a loving group of people. I felt so lucky to belong.

It is when I think about my grandparents that it really hits me that had things gone a different way, I could have grown up somewhere completely different - speaking a different language, wearing different clothes - or perhaps I would never have been born at all. Ba used to tell me about the village she grew up in, and how her mother worked hard to send her and her siblings to school. When she was fourteen she took a boat to Kenya to marry Bapuji and that is where my father was born. In turn, when Dad was fourteen, the family moved to England where they have lived since. I think back to what I was like at the age of fourteen, and I wonder if any of the things I did, any of the decisions I made, will influence the lives of my children. When I first thought about blogging, I wanted to write a family history blog, documenting the stories that my mother, aunties, and grandmothers have told me and now I feel like incorporating some of those themes into this blog. Perhaps in some of my future posts I will tell you more about my ba and the adventures she had. They deserve to be heard.

My ba adored her husband. When he died and we took her to visit him she cradled his head, kissed his cheeks, and pulled back his eyelids in desperate hope that he would still be there. She murmured his name over and over and over. Every day after she would tell us about how all she prayed for was the day that he would take her up into his arms, because she truly believed that they would be together again. When I think about them, and when I think about the man I love, I can’t help but hope that I am wrong about everything.  That after death, there is more. Come on universe, prove me wrong. 

You can read Ruch's post about Ba here.


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Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Why now?



A few of my readers, particularly the ones who have known me for a long time, have been asking why I decided to start this blog. The short answer is because I wanted somewhere to post my response to all the tweets I was reading about World Book Day. Perhaps a more honest and calculating reason for wanting to start a blog for quite some time, though, was so that I could develop some kind of online presence  by  the time I was ready to approach agents with my novel. Social media seems to be all people are talking about these days, after all.

I don’t think either of these responses, however, answer the question that is actually being asked: why did I decide to start this blog.

After all, this blog could have been about anything. Most of the blogs I read are actually DIY fashion and lifestyle blogs and whilst there’s no way I would be qualified to write a blog like that (unless it was something along the lines of How to Dress Like a Retired English Teacher, that is), I could easily have written a straight up book blog. Or a writing blog, or a travel blog – you get the idea. Why then, after years of refusing to even acknowledge myself as anything but English, did I all of a sudden decide to write about culture and identity? And, more specifically, about the experiences I had whilst growing up?

This time the short answer is: I realised I could.

Simple as that. 

As the case tends to be with these things, it was an unexpected source that led to my big realisation. I was exploring one of the few non-DIY fashion-related blogs that I follow (Bent on Books) and came across this post. The article is about the importance of writing an excellent cover letter and uses the query for The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo as an example. The line that stood out for me in particular was:

She did the exact right thing to do in that scenario and by telling me that she is Malaysian, explains how her personal story influences the story she has written’.

At UEA I wrote five critical commentaries, including one for Maya and the Tooth Mice, but never once did I mention the influences of my upbringing from a culture or ethnicity point of view. It seems stupid now, but the idea of saying ‘The reason I wanted to tell this story is because I’m Indian and it’s something I’ve thought about’, or ‘I’m the right person to tell this story because it reflects a part of my upbringing’ seemed like cheating. I thought it would be playing the ‘race card’. But why should it feel like that? For the first time, I realised that actually people might be interested in reading about a second generation immigrant upbringing, and more importantly there was no way I could avoid the fact that my childhood was different to that of most of my friends. And so, even though I’d never considered a personal blog, I started to write about myself.

Blogging is strange, especially personal blogging. Talking about myself, telling personal stories, completely contradicts the shyness I feel when interacting with people in real life. I love the power trip I get from being able to present my life as though it occurred in heartwarming little anecdotes instead of a big multicoloured knot of wool that I’ve had to untie and extract the core threads from. Sometimes, though, I feel like by presenting a focussed view of my life I am actually just being a big fat liar. Like most people, I’m a walking contradiction and I worry that by talking about how my personal experiences have shaped how I view the word, I am being one of those people that doesn’t stop taking about how hard their life is. Because that’s not true, my life’s no more difficult than the next person’s. I often feel ten things at once – I have looked back on the same memory sometimes with feelings of joy, and other times with feelings of great loneliness. Does that mean that one feeling is less true though? I suppose all I can do is trust that my readers will know that these aren’t the only stories that have shaped who I am, and just the ones that I’ve repressed myself from exploring before now.

Oddly, The Ghost Bride, for a book that has influenced how I talk about myself so much, isn’t one that I’d usually pick up off a shelf. Actually – don’t laugh – it’s not even out yet. I should probably give it a go now, eh? Who knows – if the library has a copy come August, maybe I’ll even post a review for you.


My other go-to outfit, by the way, is grandma...


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Thursday, 9 May 2013

Book Review: 'The Thirteen Treasures' by Michelle Harrison


This is my thirteenth blog post and I am wearing a red dress to write it – I don’t want the fairies to get me.
  

The Thirteen Treasures[i] was recommended to me by an eleven-year-old when I was worrying aloud about whether or not my intended audience (ages eight to eleven) would find a book about tooth fairies, even if they were malevolent tooth fairies, too babyish and boring.

‘My friends and I all love The Thirteen Treasures books,’ she said, I think with a roll of her eyes.  ‘That’s about fairies. I think as long as you make sure it’s not boring, people will love reading it.’

Alright, Smartypants. Thanks for the advice.

So obviously when I went home, I googled the book and immediately followed the author on Twitter (@mharrison13 if you’re interested).  And then I panicked. Who was this writer and why had she already written a children’s book about wicked fairies? I had a tantrum about the fact that someone else had already done all the research I’d done for my dissertation and then, because I can’t resist a fairy story even if my world is potentially crashing down, promptly bought the book.

And as soon as I opened it, I forgot I was supposed to be panicking. I forgot about all my fairy-related fears.  I forgot that I was reading a book that was recommended to me by an eleven-year-old.

I was engrossed.

The story follows Tanya, whose life is made miserable by fairies that nobody else can see, evil fairies who taunt and punish her for writing about them.  When Tanya is sent away to stay with her grandmother at Elvesden Manor, she attempts to learn how to keep her tormentors away  but instead finds herself entangled in a local mystery that started fifty years ago when another young girl vanished in the woods. It is up to Tanya  and her friend Fabien, to avoid the fairies and figure out what happened.

The first thing you should know about The Thirteen Treasures is that it is really scary. And I mean spine chilling, hairs standing on end, I’m afraid of sleeping with the light off scary. I don’t think I’ve been so frightened whilst reading a book since I was eight years old and stayed up until 1am reading the basilisk scenes in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by torchlight under my duvet. I didn’t sleep well after finishing that either. Secret cellar passages, hidden corridors, and magical woods are all perfect settings, but Harrison’s words bring them all alive. You can really feel the danger, and I was constantly looking over my shoulder as though the act reading the novel itself is crime enough for the fairies to come after me.

It is the control Harrison has over her prose that really stands out for me, especially since the story doesn’t shy away from using the tried and tested tropes: there is a village full of unusual antique shops, a strange old lady who gives the characters the information they need, and a moody groundsman who knows more than he’s letting on. In retrospect, nothing that happens in the story is a surprise. The events should have been predictable, but I gasped every time a detail was unveiled. The novel’s structure is so tightly organised, and the story’s  pace is so perfect, that instead of feeling let down when a loose end was tied up, I was left feeling satisfied. Instead of trying to work out what would happen next – like I normally always do – I was turning pages the as fast as I could. It’s seems the wise eleven-year-old who recommended it to me was right: the subject matter isn’t actually that important as long as you can find an exciting way of telling it. And, anyway, after the Disnified stories I grew up with, I’m really glad there’s something out there that features proper fairies.

Overall, I may not have got the art of the book review down just yet, but I enjoyed The Thirteen Treasures much more than a lot of the other children's books I’ve read recently. I should get back to work now, but I have a feeling I might end up buying the sequel The Thirteen Curses instead.



[i] There seems to be an inconsistency online about whether or not the title contains the word ‘the’. My edition, however, does so this is the title I have chosen to use in the review.


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