Books you have to read this August

James Walton

A seductive, twisty thriller that’ll keep you guessing and a powerful lesson in the civil rights movement are our top page-turners this month. Plus, an extract from a tribute to picture books, inspired by motherhood...

Platform Seven by Louise Doughty

(Faber, £12.99)

Louise Doughty specialises in novels that read like exciting thrillers—partly, I suppose, because they are—but that also delve deep into the mysterious business of human relationships. Her most famous, Apple Tree Yard, which became a celebrated BBC drama, featured a respectable, middle-aged woman having a wildly ill-advised affair. Now, in Platform Seven, she again examines female self-deception in the face of a charismatic but dangerous man—as well as serving up several generous subplots that between them add up to a full-scale meditation on what really matters in life.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the narrator, Lisa, is that she’s dead. At first, she’s not sure how she ended up being killed by a train at Peterborough station, where she appears to be spending the afterlife. Gradually, though, her memories return—in a way that reminds us how beautifully Doughty can time a story: drip-feeding us the information we need with tantalising skill, while somehow making it feel both shocking and utterly inevitable. And just in case that’s not enough, the book also contains one of the great villains of recent fiction—not least because his appeal to women is so plausible.

 

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

(Fleet, £16.99)

In 2017 novelist Colson Whitehead won a Pulitzer Prize for The Underground Railroad, a brilliant and ferocious depiction of slavery in the American South.

The equally blistering The Nickel Boys is set in Florida a century later—in the early 1960s—but with the same brutal white supremacy still firmly in place.

Elwood Curtis is a scholarly black teenager with a strong faith in the ideals of Martin Luther King. But then he inadvertently hitches a lift in a stolen car—for which he’s arrested, found guilty of theft and “sentenced to hell”, as he understandably describes it in later life. At Nickel Reform School, where he’s sent, the staff’s unremitting violence and cruelty are all the more terrifying for being so random. (Horrifyingly, Nickel is closely based on a real Florida institution of the time.) But, as Whitehead makes clear, Nickel wasn’t an aberration—which is why his entirely righteous anger is aimed not just at the school itself, but at the whole society that produced and condoned it. The result is nobody’s idea of a comfort read—but if there’s a more powerful novel this year, I’d be very surprised.

 

RD's Recommended read

Fierce Bad Rabbits: The Tales Behind Children’s Books by Clare Pollard 

Fig Tree at £14.99

Like many parents, Clare Pollard found that having a child brought her own childhood back with sudden new vividness. And for her, a big part of childhood was picture books. She began to assemble a collection for her son—and to reflect on why these books have meant so much to so many pre-school children.

Fierce Bad Rabbits is the welcome result of both activities. Mixing history, family stories and thoughtful discussion of much-loved works such as The Gruffalo, The Snowman and The Tiger Who Came to Tea, the book is by turns enchanting and highly informative. It also leaves us no doubt that, as she says, “picture books are not a minor form, but one of the most important of all”.

The form, it turns out, has a long history. Picture books were around in the 18th century—although mainly for the purposes of moral instruction. One especially fun-sounding example consisted of 163 rules for good childhood behaviour, including “Approach near thy Parents at no Time without a Bow.” Even so, Pollard identifies The Tale of Peter Rabbit as ground zero for the picture book as we know it today.

She also draws some fascinating parallels between the books and their author’s lives. The young Eric Carle, for instance, experienced real hunger in wartime Germany—which may explain why his most famous work was The Very Hungry Caterpillar. (And in later life, Carle bitterly regretted accepting his publisher’s suggestion that after his big blow-out, the caterpillar had to suffer for it with a stomachache.)

In this extract, Pollard has just had her second child. Worried that the new siblings might not get on, she turns to picture books for guidance…

The siblings in Shirley Hughes’s books are a model and a comfort, always tolerant of each other, fondly muddling through. Lucy and Tom, Katie and Olly, Alfie and Annie Rose. Then, of course, there are Joe, Dave and older sister Bella in Dogger.

Dogger is another tale of lost and found, one that can be read over and over as a reassurance. It is based on a real toy that belonged to Shirley’s son Ed. Dogger is not just a bedtime ‘cuddler’ (as we say in our house) but a constant playmate, being dragged around on string or wrapped in blankets. Eventually, Dave leaves Dogger somewhere. (It is not stated explicitly, but the pictures seem to suggest that Dave leaves Dogger poking through the school railings He is distracted by an ice-cream van, then giving his little brother Joe ‘in-between licks’ of his melty pink cornet.)

The school fair comes, along with a series of delightfully nostalgic illustrations that explain the book’s enduring charm (‘nearly new’ stalls, a lucky-dip barrel, a fancy-dress parade). Bella wins an alarmingly large teddy with a blue silk bow in the raffle. But then Dave sees Dogger on the toy stall where he can’t afford the 5p price tag. He can’t find Mum and Dad, only, eventually, Bella—but by then Dogger has been bought, and the girl won’t sell him back. Dave cries and cries.

‘Then Bella did something very kind.’

It made me start to weep just typing that out.

Bella swaps her giant teddy with the blue bow for Dogger.

Just look at how Hughes catches Bella’s stance, as she awkwardly but solemnly accepts Dave’s grateful hug. She tells Dave she won’t miss the big teddy: ‘Anyway, if I had another teddy in my bed there wouldn’t be room for me.’

***

Those first weeks pass. Better slept, my fears receded: I watched my children grow fond of each other.

I don’t understand, now, why I feared otherwise, as I always adored my own little sister. Mary had hair a shade darker than mine, brighter eyes, and a smaller, dirtier nose which she rubbed with a fist. In photos she always grinned daftly, scrunched or gurning, an adorable gargoyle. We got on well, because we accepted our assigned roles—knowing I was serious and bookish, Mary decided to be sociable and sporty. She got cute and funny; I took patient and wise.

In Dogger, of course, I am the older sister. I liked giving Mary toys she would enjoy more than me. However much you love an adult, they must bear their struggles and sadnesses themselves. Sometimes you must accept you cannot help. But when you love a small child, their joy can be entirely within your gift. I know this now as a mother but learnt it first as a big sister. It’s so simple: a bubble, a tickle, a lolly, a wriggly worm, a toy lost then found.

In Dogger, of course, I am the older sister. I liked giving Mary toys she would enjoy more than me. However much you love an adult, they must bear their struggles and sadnesses themselves. Sometimes you must accept you cannot help. But when you love a small child, their joy can be entirely within your gift. I know this now as a mother but learnt it first as a big sister. It’s so simple: a bubble, a tickle, a lolly, a wriggly worm, a toy lost then found.

What luck it is, Dogger reminds us, to live in such days.

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