Grey Herons – 3 February 2024

The start of each month in 2024 holds great promise thanks to the excellent idea from fellow heron, Harry, that we should (re-)read Seamus Heaney’s twelve poetry collections in order of publication, one per month. And so, as January faded, I dug myself out of Death of a Naturalist and into the furrows of Door into the Dark. It feels quite the right thing to read early on a blustery morning, looking for light in the grey.

The Nero Book Awards have this week announced the winners of their four categories: fiction, debut fiction, non-fiction and children’s fiction with an overall winner to be named on 14th March. I can’t help thinking of the fifth category that existed when a rival coffee shop used to confer similar accolades: with the end of the Costa award, we lost a commercial prize that celebrated poetry alongside fiction and non-fiction. With that in mind, here is a list of some of the collections that we love the most, including Skin by David Harsent, which has just been reissued. It comprises ten long swirling poems with visions of the sea, the moon and birds which will get under your skin.

Do pop in and share the poetry that you are reading or ask if you would like a recommendation and do come along to our monthly poetry series: the next Poetry in Herons is 17th February at 5pm with Jan Swann and Anna Maughan.

Poetry rant complete; the books that are celebrated by the Nero awards are brilliant. I am currently reading the winner of the debut fiction category Close to Home by Michael Magee. It’s a portrait of a young man working in night clubs, broke, violent and generally high or coming down from a high. He faces a court date for punching someone at a party and seems to have no inkling of the seriousness of the situation; it’s painful and heavy to watch but one can’t look away because the writing is so good, drawing you into his angry mind, his tender friendship, his empathy for his troubled and struggling mother.

I am so glad that we have awards that put children’s books alongside those for adults. I’ve been reading lots more middle grade novels in the past few months and am constantly impressed by their world-building, great characters and humour. A runaway favourite at the moment is Ash Bond’s Peregrine Quinn and the Cosmic Realm which you can preorder here. This is a wild, chaotic adventure across different worlds featuring dryads, bogbrethren, fauns, magical plants (I am very taken with Bernadette who needs watering every 47 minutes). There are vibes of Percy Jackson, Lord of the Rings and Morrigan Crow and there’s a scene where a dryad tries to drive an Aquapod but leaves the handbrake on which had me really laughing.

For younger readers, Frank the Unicorn Alpaca by Gavin Puckett, illustrated by India Joseph, brings similar joy (and it’s told in rhyme so we’re back with poetry). Frank lives in a petting zoo but finds it very stressful being exposed to all that, well, petting. Then one day a child drops a book with a picture on the cover of a unicorn and everything changes…

Continuing a theme of apparently cuddly and mischievous animals, There’s a Tiger on the Train by Mariesa Dulak and Rebecca Cobb, is a magnificent new picture book in which a boy tries to alert his father to the pandemonium happening on their journey to the seaside while the father studies his phone. And Can I Sit in the Middle? by Susanne Strasser is the board book of the moment, in which it’s story time but not everyone can quite fit on the sofa…

Shifting seamlessly from children’s books featuring tigers to adult ones:
Loot by Tania James imagines the maker of an artefact that was stolen from India by British soldiers and is now in the V&A, Tipu’s tiger. James depicts the astonishing creation of this mechanical wooden tiger mauling a European soldier, its theft and the quest to get it back.
Winter Animals by Ashani Lewis follows newly single and singly drunk Elen as she meets four idealistic young teenagers and finds herself caught up in a quest for utopia that looks rather brutal up close.
Vladivostok Circus by Elisa Shua Dusapin explores a close-knit trio who perform the Russian bar, the most dangerous act in the circus, and the penetration of that group by Nathalie, the new costume designer. For their act to be successful they must work in complete harmony and with absolute trust…

Finally, several non-fiction books recently out in paperback:
Red Memory by Tania Branigan tears at the scar of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, a wound that has been covered up, ignored and then recast as reason for nostalgia. Branigan draws out its effects on China today, even interviewing people who admit to shocking acts yet feel little remorse.
Grounded by James Canton takes the reader on a pilgrimage across England through religious and sacred sites showing the connection our ancestors had with their landscape and inspiring a slower and closer look at one’s environment.
And, leading us neatly to poetry once again, Toy Fights by Don Paterson is an account of the poet’s rather chaotic, musical and brawling childhood. Don’t miss him reading at the Bristol Poetry Institute next week.  

May your weekend open doors into the light,