Still a bit dazed and not quite with it after my recent holiday (hoorah!) it was that time of the month again for the BBC Oxford Afternoon Bookclub - one of the books reviewed being possibly my favourite of the year so far.
As always, you can listen again on BBC iPlayer here (until the end of August). Fast-forward to about 1 hour 5 minutes, and hear me work myself up into a lather about the following five fine books...
The Art Room (HB, £11.99, Frances Lincoln)
Juli Beattie and Arabella Warner have created an inspirational book which - through 12 remarkable projects - encourages kids to turn everyday items into works of art. Both of these Oxford-based authors are renowned for working with kids and getting them creative in many different areas, and Juli Beattie was the founder of The Art Room, a charity which uses art to help children who have problems with mainstream education. This books helps raise funds for the charity - but it's also a lot of fun for kids of all ages looking to make their own mini-masterpieces.
The 10pm Question (HB, £10.99, Templar Publishing) by Kate Di Goldi
Frankie Parsons is a twelve-year-old child who worries constantly. He worries about his family, his health, other people’s health, and a hundred other things big and small – and only his Ma can sort them out for him. Or so Frankie thinks. But when Frankie and his best friend Gigs meet new girl Sydney, his regular, carefully controlled world starts to unravel – and starts to reveal a family secret. What could have been a hackneyed idea becomes a wonderfully life-affirming coming of age novel in the hands of the talented New Zealand author Kate Di Goldi. This sweet coming of age novel deserves comparisons with “The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night time” – not least because it can be enjoyed by children 10+, and adults too.
How The Girl Guides Won The War by Janie Hampton (HB, £20, Harper Press)
In this, the 100th anniversary year of the Girl Guides, Janie Hampton (who won huge plaudits for 'The Austerity Olympics') has written an engaging and utterly fascinating history of the Girl Guide movement, with particular emphasis on the crucial role played by the Girl Guides during the Second World War. Like the best social history, this book is sprinkled with anecdotes, photographs (and even recipes) but never loses sight of the bigger picture: the girl guide movement and its role in the wider context of the development of women’s rights.
Red Plenty by Francis Spufford (HB, £16.99, Faber & Faber)
This is utterly fantastic, and it's easily a contender for my book of the year. For a very short period of time in the late 50s - released from the terror of Stalin, bouyed by the successes of Sputnik - the Soviet Union seemed poised on the edge of a Utopia of plenty, driven by the outputs of the 'planned economy'. Francis Spufford brings this period of Soviet history brilliantly to life, by writing a not-quite-fictionalised series of vignettes about life under the planned state. It's audacious and succeeds brilliantly. In addition - and quite unexpectedly - it makes us consider about our own materialistic drive, and whether there might other ways forward for society to improve everyone's quality of life...
Eep by Joke van Leeuwen (PB, £6.99, Gecko Press)
This is simply children's book perfection, by the sublime Dutch author and illustrator Joke van Leeuwen. Warren and Tina - desperate for a child - come across a strange little creature, very like a child, but with wings. They adopt it, but are shocked when 'Eep' disappears to fly to warmer climes. As they set off in search of their 'offspring', a chance series of encounters with a variety of different parents begins to teach them how all children are different - and how everyone needs a bit of space now and then to be themselves.
P.S. The latest newsletter is now online, with some exciting news about events coming up in September and October...