A while ago, Christa forwarded me a tweet from an author who was looking for a Romani sensitivity reader. The fact that K.C. Lannon was looking for one in the first place impressed me: while sensitivity reading is a growing field, I’ve never heard of someone using one for characters of Roma descent, and most of the books I’ve read which feature members of the travelling community have been starkly stereotypical (the obvious exception being Miriam Wakerly’s excellent novels).
I got in touch with K.C. Lannon and she sent me her manuscript, The Changeling’s Fortune. I sensitivity read it, which was pretty easy because Lannon had done her research beforehand, so whilst I made a few suggestions it wasn’t like so many of the wildly unaccurate representations I’ve read in the past. The book will be coming out shortly, so I thought I’d do a quick review of it on here. Read more
This morning, when I got back from my run, my phone was flashing. The message was from Elizabeth, my old school librarian. “Happy World Book Day!”, it read. It made me smile that my friends know not to text me “Happy Birthday!” or “Happy Xmas!” but they will text me about books, because books are the best thing.
I know everyone has different tastes, and mine tend to cover quite a few genres, so I thought I’d put together a list of books I love, and try to find something for everyone.
Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli
What is it? Teen fiction.
What’s the story?
From the day she arrives at quiet Mica High in a burst of color and sound, the hallways hum with the murmur of “Stargirl, Stargirl.” She captures Leo Borlock’s heart with just one smile. She sparks a school-spirit revolution with just one cheer. The students of Mica High are enchanted. At first.
Then they turn on her. Stargirl is suddenly shunned for everything that makes her different, and Leo, panicked and desperate, urges her to become the very thing that can destroy her: normal. In this celebration of nonconformity, Newbery Medalist Jerry Spinelli weaves a tense, emotional tale about the perils of popularity and the thrill and inspiration of first love.
You’ll love it if… you like strong, quirky leading characters who refuse to conform.
Foucault’s Pendulum /
The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana
by Umberto Eco
…or anything by Eco, really, but these are two of my favourites.
What is it? Adult literary fiction. The kind of book where, when you’re reading it, you wonder if the author has actually read every other book that has ever been written.
What’s the story?
The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana – Yambo, a sixtyish rare-book dealer who lives in Milan, has suffered a loss of memory-he can remember the plot of every book he has ever read, every line of poetry, but he no longer knows his own name, doesn’t recognize his wife or his daughters, and remembers nothing about his parents or his childhood. In an effort to retrieve his past, he withdraws to the family home somewhere in the hills between Milan and Turin. There, in the sprawling attic, he searches through boxes of old newspapers, comics, records, photo albums, and adolescent diaries. And so Yambo relives the story of his generation: Mussolini, Catholic education and guilt, Josephine Baker, Flash Gordon, Fred Astaire. His memories run wild, and the life racing before his eyes takes the form of a graphic novel. Yambo struggles through the frames to capture one simple, innocent image: that of his first love.
Foucault’s Pendulum – Bored with their work, three Milanese editors cook up “the Plan,” a hoax that connects the medieval Knights Templar with other occult groups from ancient to modern times. This produces a map indicating the geographical point from which all the powers of the earth can be controlled—a point located in Paris, France, at Foucault’s Pendulum. But in a fateful turn the joke becomes all too real, and when occult groups get wind of the Plan, they go so far as murder in their quest to gain control of the earth.
You’ll love it if… you enjoy books that make your brain chew.
Fear & Trembling by Søren Kierkegaard
What is it? Philosophy.
What’s the story?
Kierkegaard discusses the problem of faith and its relation to humanity, through the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac. Dealing with issues of ethics, despair and the human condition, Fear & Trembling holds up a mirror to who we are and asks us to question our values and how they were conceived.
You’ll love it if… you enjoy reading philosophy that sometimes gets a bit knotty.
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
What is it? Romantic comedy with a twist.
What’s the story?
Meet Don Tillman, a brilliant yet socially challenged professor of genetics, who’s decided it’s time he found a wife. And so, in the orderly, evidence-based manner with which Don approaches all things, he designs the Wife Project to find his perfect partner: a sixteen-page, scientifically valid survey to filter out the drinkers, the smokers, the late arrivers.
Rosie Jarman is all these things. She also is strangely beguiling, fiery, and intelligent. And while Don quickly disqualifies her as a candidate for the Wife Project, as a DNA expert Don is particularly suited to help Rosie on her own quest: identifying her biological father. When an unlikely relationship develops as they collaborate on the Father Project, Don is forced to confront the spontaneous whirlwind that is Rosie—and the realisation that, despite your best scientific efforts, you don’t find love, it finds you.
You’ll love it if… you like novels that tell an excellent story and make you laugh out loud.
The Surgeon by Tess Gerritsen
What is it? Tense crime fiction.
What’s the story?
He slips into homes at night and walks silently into bedrooms where women lie sleeping, about to awaken to a living nightmare. The precision of his methods suggests that he is a deranged man of medicine, prompting the Boston newspapers to dub him “The Surgeon.” Led by Detectives Thomas Moore and Jane Rizzoli, the cops must consult the victim of a nearly identical crime: two years ago, Dr. Catherine Cordell fought back and killed an attacker before he could complete his assault. Now this new killer is re-creating, with chilling accuracy, the details of Cordell’s ordeal. With every new murder he seems to be taunting her, cutting ever closer, from her hospital to her home. And neither Moore nor Rizzoli can protect Cordell from a ruthless hunter who somehow understands—and savors—the secret fears of every woman he kills.
You’ll love it if… you like thrilling crime novels that stay with you after you’ve read them.
The Mathematical Experience
by Phillip J. Davis and Reuben Hersh
What is it? A discussion of the history of mathematics.
What’s the story?
The Mathematical Experience discusses the practice of modern mathematics from a historical and philosophical perspective. It is frequently cited by mathematicians as a book that was influential in their decision to continue their studies in graduate school and has been hailed as a classic of mathematical literature.
In accordance with its title, it attempts to describe, in light of the turbulent history and philosophy of mathematics, the experience of being a mathematician. It focuses on the proof, without going fully into the rigorous how-to details, gives examples of some famous proofs, as well as the outstanding problems of mathematics, and goes on to speculate on what a proof really means, in relationship to actual truth.
You’ll love it if… you’ve always secretly loved mathematics even though you’re an arts major.
The White Goddess by Robert Graves
What is it? An alternate history of sorts; a new look at poetry and myth.
What’s the story?
This labyrinthine and extraordinary book, first published more than sixty years ago, was the outcome of Robert Graves’s vast reading and curious research into strange territories of folklore, mythology, religion, and magic. Erudite and impassioned, it is a scholar-poet’s quest for the meaning of European myths, a polemic about the relations between man and woman, and also an intensely personal document in which Graves explores the sources of his own inspiration and, as he believed, all true poetry.
You’ll love it if… you enjoy poetry, mythology and folklore, or if you’re interested in the history of magic.
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
What is it? Young adult romance.
What’s the story?
Despite the tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel’s story is about to be completely rewritten.
You’ll love it if… you like your protagonists raw and realistic, and you don’t mind crying in public.
Shadows of the Mind
by Roger Penrose
What is it? Popular science / philosophy of mind.
What’s the story?
Penrose contends that some aspects of the human mind lie beyond computation. This is not a religious argument (that the mind is something other than physical) nor is it based on the brain’s vast complexity (the weather is immensely complex, says Penrose, but it is still a computable thing, at least in theory). Instead, he provides powerful arguments to support his conclusion that there is something in the conscious activity of the brain that transcends computation, and will find no explanation in terms of present-day science. To illuminate what he believes this “something” might be, and to suggest where a new physics must proceed so that we may understand it, Penrose cuts a wide swathe through modern science, providing penetrating looks at everything from Turing machines to the implications of Gödel’s theorem maintaining that conscious thinking must indeed involve ingredients that cannot adequately be stimulated by mere computation.
Of particular interest is Penrose’s extensive examination of quantum mechanics, which introduces some new ideas that differ markedly from those advanced in his earlier work, especially concerning the mysterious interface where classical and quantum physics meet. Furthermore, he contends that in consciousness some kind of global quantum state must take place across large areas of the brain, and that it is within microtubules that these collective quantum effects are most likely to reside.
You’ll love it if… you’re fascinated by quantum physics, artificial intelligence or philosophy of mind, but haven’t necessarily studied any of them.
Gypsies Stop tHere / No Gypsies Served by Miriam Wakerly
What is it? Two novels about an important issue in today’s society.
What’s the story?
Gypsies Stop tHere – A modern novel set in an English village. Kay moves to the countryside to escape guilt-ridden memories of her husband’s death. Once there, she becomes embroiled in an age-old conflict between the locals and Romany Gypsy Travellers. This book provides an entertaining way to find out more about an important and topical social issue.
No Gypsies Served – Two years have passed since Kay successfully campaigned for the Appley Green Gypsy Site, and four years since her husband was murdered. Life in the village was going so well, until the phone call and letter. Then comes the disastrous site opening. Worst of all, Dunstan, who she realises is her best friend and ally, is giving her the cold shoulder for some unknown reason.
Dunstan is taking an emotional trip down memory lane, into childhood as a Gypsy on the road, and his eventual break from his people. Why is he so angry with Kay that he keeps away from her? Chances of a longed-for reconciliation look slim…
You’ll love it if… you’re interested in Romany culture and the issues faced by Travelling communities.
Bookends by Jane Green
What is it? Chick lit.
What’s the story?
Catherine Warner and Simon Nelson are best friends: total opposites, always together, and both unlucky in love. Cath is scatterbrained, messy, and — since she had her heart broken a few years back — emotionally closed off. Si is impossibly tidy, bitchy, and desperate for a man of his own. They live in London’s West Hampstead along with their lifelong friends, Josh and Lucy, who are happily married with a devil-spawn child and a terrifying Swedish nanny, Ingrid.
All’s well (sort of) until the sudden arrival of a college friend — the stunningly beautiful Portia, who’s known for breaking hearts. Though they’ve grown up and grown apart from Portia, the four friends welcome her back into the fold. But does Portia have a hidden agenda or is she merely looking to reconnect with old friends? Her reappearance soon unleashes a rollicking series of events that tests the foursome’s friendships to the limit and leaves them wondering if a happy ending is in store.
Fortunately, Cath has plenty to take her mind off Portia’s schemes — like her gutsy decision to leave her job in advertising to fulfill her dream of opening a bookstore. And then there’s James, the sexy real-estate agent who keeps dropping by even after the bookstore deal is done. With his irresistible smile and boyish charm could he be the one to melt Cath’s heart?
You’ll love it if… you secretly dream of opening your own bookshop.
Addition by Toni Jordan
What is it? Romantic comedy with a chilling twist.
What’s the story?
Grace Lisa Vandenburg counts. The letters in her name (19). The steps she takes every morning to the local café (920). The number of poppy seeds on her orange cake, which dictates the number of bites she’ll take to eat it. Grace counts everything, because that way there are no unpleasant surprises.
Seamus Joseph O’Reilly (also a 19) thinks she might be better off without the counting. If she could hold down a job, say. Or open her cupboards without conducting an inventory, or leave her flat without measuring the walls.
Grace’s problem is that Seamus doesn’t count. Her other problem is . . . he does.
As Grace struggles to balance a new relationship with old habits, to find a way to change while staying true to herself, she realises that nothing is more chaotic than love.
You’ll love it if… you count things. Or if you love a nice unusual romance. Or if you like the kind of book that has you looking over your shoulder for the next three days.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Series by Stieg Larsson
(My favourite is actually the second book in the series, The Girl who Played with Fire. But they’re all great.)
What is it? Crime fiction.
What’s the story?
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Forty years ago, Harriet Vanger disappeared from a family gathering on the island owned and inhabited by the powerful Vanger clan. Her body was never found, yet her uncle is convinced it was murder – and that the killer is a member of his own tightly knit but dysfunctional family. He employs disgraced financial journalist Mikael Blomkvist and the tattooed, truculent computer hacker Lisbeth Salander to investigate. When the pair link Harriet’s disappearance to a number of grotesque murders from forty years ago, they begin to unravel a dark and appalling family history. But the Vangers are a secretive clan, and Blomkvist and Salander are about to find out just how far they are prepared to go to protect themselves.
The Girl who Played with Fire – Lisbeth Salander is a wanted woman. Two Millennium journalists about to expose the truth about sex trafficking in Sweden are murdered, and Salander’s prints are on the weapon. Her history of unpredictable and vengeful behaviour makes her an official danger to society – but no-one can find her. Mikael Blomkvist, editor-in-chief of Millennium, does not believe the police. Using all his magazine staff and resources to prove Salander’s innocence, Blomkvist also uncovers her terrible past, spent in criminally corrupt institutions. Yet Salander is more avenging angel than helpless victim. She may be an expert at staying out of sight – but she has ways of tracking down her most elusive enemies.
The Girl who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest – Salander is plotting her revenge – against the man who tried to kill her, and against the government institutions that very nearly destroyed her life. But it is not going to be a straightforward campaign. After taking a bullet to the head, Salander is under close supervision in Intensive Care, and is set to face trial for three murders and one attempted murder on her eventual release. With the help of journalist Mikael Blomkvist and his researchers at Millennium magazine, Salander must not only prove her innocence, but identify and denounce the corrupt politicians that have allowed the vulnerable to become victims of abuse and violence. Once a victim herself, Salander is now ready to fight back.
You’ll love it if… you enjoy tense thrillers with strong protagonists. Oh, and you’ll need a strong stomach, too.
I could go on forever, probably. But these are the ones I recommend to people the most often.
What are your must-reads? Have I missed anything amazing?
I reviewed two of Miriam Wakerly’s books a while ago: Gypsies Stop tHere and No Gypsies Served. They were excellent, so when she said she’d written another one and asked if I wanted to review it, my response was a resounding “yes!” Needless to say, I was a little nervous. I’d loved the previous books because of the writing style, sure, but they’d been sent to me mainly because of my link to Gypsy culture, and I wasn’t sure whether I’d like the new one, which has no Romany ties. Well, I shouldn’t have been worried. Predictably, it was excellent. Review after the jump The book follows the story of Steph, a single mother of two, who is carrying out the dying wish of one of Appley Green’s most well-loved residents: to ensure the senior citizens in the village have the help and friendship they both need and deserve. Whilst fulfilling her mission, she befriends one of her clients: Jackson, a famous architect, who quickly takes a prominent position in her life. As is the way with close-knit country communities, Appley Green has its own trials and triumphs, all of which Steph gets caught up in, to the frustration of Greg, her boss. But when it comes down to it, does Steph have the strength of character to deal with everything life is throwing at her, help all the people she wants to help and still manage to keep her job and family secure? Wakerly’s writing style is, as always, tantalising: the kind of gripping you only normally experience with crime novels. I started reading it on the train home, carried on with a cup of tea on my sofa, ran a bath and finished it by candlelight, with my legs hanging over the edge of the tub. I just couldn’t put it down. I think, short of a national emergency, I wouldn’t have moved from the bath for anything. As soon as I’d finished reading, I immediately flopped down on my bed and tapped out a gushing email to Miriam; the book was so good that it couldn’t possibly wait until morning. The twist at the end is completely unexpected, totally chilling, and leaves the way for a cliffhanger, making me desperately hope for a sequel. If you only read one book this year, make sure this is it. Proof that self-publishing can work, and yield immense talent.
2009 was an excellent year for books. I discovered The White Goddess and The Mathematical Experience, two books which would become some of my favourites of all time. My top list for last year was filled with wonder.
And then the other day I realised it was nearly the end of 2010, and that I’d need to do my ‘top books of the year’ list pretty quickly. I worried that I hadn’t read anything ground-breaking enough, but actually, looking back through the year, I think I’ve read quite a lot of wonderful things. Here are my top thirteen:
13. Dark Places ~ Gillian Flynn
Anyone who has previously written a book called Sharp Objects must be great as far as crime fiction goes, right? Gillian Flynn was a new addition to my library this year, and one I was pleased to discover. Dark Placeswas a dark and gripping tale of Satanism (the media-blown-up kind, not the Satanic Bible kind), accusations of child molestation, axe-murdering, shooting, cows being slaughtered (not in the so-we-can-eat-them way), and a lot of very disturbed people. If you’re into crime fiction, I recommend it.
12. Introduction to Historical Linguistics ~ Terry Crowley
Despite a glaring spelling error (‘cogate’ instead of ‘cognate’), which I, in my sleep-addled brain-state, managed to replicate in a conference submission, Introduction to Historical Linguistics was an interesting, eclectic and accessible introduction to… well, historical linguistics. Ahem. Next!
11. Narziss & Goldmund ~ Hermann Hesse
Hesse has a way of drawing readers into a story and making them really care about the characters, without losing the philosophical nature of the writing. It’s often easy to become bogged down in brainwaves when you’re reading a book that makes you think as well as telling a story, but Hesse weaves beautiful tales and activates your grey matter all at the same time. I’d recommend anything he’s written.
10. The Large, the Small and the Human Mind ~ Roger Penrose
Well, it wouldn’t be a top books list without Penrose, would it? This book is more introductory than his others, and I read it after I’d read all the rest, which arguably is the wrong way round, but it was good. Very good. About as painless an introduction as you’re going to get into quantum physics and the theories of consciousness that can spring from it.
9. A Life in Pieces ~ Richard Baer
A beautiful and empathic window into the life of someone with dissociative identity disorder, seen through the eyes of both her and her psychiatrist. Resembling The Flock in some ways, it begins with the woman’s total lack of awareness of her alter egos, and takes the reader through the gradual realisation of the fractured nature of her consciousness. Beautifully written.
8. Have You Seen Her? ~ Karen Rose
I pretty much just picked a title at random, because 2010 has been Karen Rose’s year on my bookshelf. Having exhausted Tess Gerritsen and Mary Higgins Clark, I needed to find another author whose books I could read obsessively, and Rose was it. The characters reappear in different novels, making it easy to pick up where you left off last time; the books can be read in any order without worrying about having missed parts of the story (the lack of which was my main criticism of James Patterson, whose books I also love).
Rose tackles difficult subjects and leaves you feeling raw. The twists are subtle and interesting; sometimes I worked out whodunnit before the end, sometimes I didn’t; but it never mattered. Each book is so gripping that I could read them all the way through without really caring what’s actually going to happen at the end. It’s the relationships between characters that Rose does so well.
7. The Glass Bead Game ~ Hermann Hesse
Yes, Hesse makes it into the list a second time, because he is fantastic. One of my lecturers at uni recommended this book to me, and years later with uni behind me, I finally got around to reading it and understood why he’d loved it so much.
Any book that can bring back a flavour, a picture, a feeling to your mind months after you’ve finished it has to be something worth reading. Impressions, whether good or bad, are the mark of a writer who pulls in his audience and keeps them interested.
There are so many interpretations that could be given to this novel; I’m not even going to try to describe my own. I don’t want to taint it for any future readers, I just want to say it’s a book that should be read at some point in your life.
6. La Rêveuse d’Ostende ~ Eric Emmanuel Schmitt
You know sometimes, you pick up a book expecting it to be a novel, and actually it’s a work of art? The kind of artwork that makes you stop in the middle of a gallery, take a step back, peer upwards and swallow a few times to keep yourself from crying? Yeah, that. Schmitt can write. His descriptions are beautiful, his characterisation is flawless. Read it.
5. How To Research ~ Blaxter, Hughes & Tight
An essential book for anyone who’s interested in academia, marketing, statistics… any aspect of work that involves research, data gathering and statistical analysis. Somehow, possibly through the use of some kind of magic, they manage to make statistics sound interesting. It’s easy to read, it doesn’t make you feel stupid, there are extra notes and boxes for people who like to work more than they need to, and everything is laid out clearly and concisely.
4. The Surgeon ~ Tess Gerritsen
The best crime fiction book I’ve read all year, The Surgeon was moving, chilling, gripping, fascinating, exciting; so good I even read the sequel (still good, not as great as the first). It was everything you could possibly imagine a good crime novel to be. If you like thrilling crime fiction, you should read it. If you don’t, read it anyway; it would be an excellent introduction to the genre.
…and the top three…
3. The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana ~ Umberto Eco
Eco pretty much gets into the top three just by being him. This year, I read Baudolino and this one. I have to say, Baudolino didn’t do much for me. My in-laws, both classicists, loved it but didn’t like this one so much. I found The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana to be beautiful in the way that only Eco’s books are.
The depth of Eco’s literary referencing is astonishing, and this book, like his others, is a work of literature that goes far beyond its story. The premise of the novel is interesting: a man wakes up with amnesia and can’t remember anything about himself or his life, but can remember bits of the books he’s read. The number of books you’d have to read just to be able to write the first couple of chapters of Queen Loana is impressive in itself, and Eco with his immense knowledge keeps up the literary ping-pong right until the book’s finale. Yeah, Eco’s books don’t have endings. They have finales.
2. Gypsies Stop tHere & No Gypsies Served ~ Miriam Wakerly
This was a hard call. I love Eco, and I think he’s one of the best authors of all time. But if I’m going on just how much I was impressed by a book, and how important it is to society at the moment, Wakerly’s two novels have to take joint second place.
I started reading the first book pretty tentatively, worried in my prejudiced way that a self-published author wouldn’t be able to fulfil my expectations. To say that I was pleasantly surprised would be a massive understatement. Gypsies Stop tHere gripped me from the first page and carried me all the way through to the end on a wave of ‘I don’t want to put this down’. And then I picked up No Gypsies Served and had the same feeling all the way through that one.
Really, really important books. Really, really beautifully written. I think they should be on every school’s curriculum. As well as being given out free with the Daily Mail. That would be awesome.
And that, dear readers, is the only time you will ever see the words ‘Daily Mail’ and ‘awesome’ in the same sentence on one of my blogs.
1. Persepolis ~ Marjane Satrapi
My sister-in-law bought this for me for Christmas. My husband advised her against it. He knows I’m a little bit strange. I like to put things in boxes in my mind. And in my mind’s boxes, a book has writing in it. A novel has writing and no pictures. Persepolis has more pictures than writing. Husband knew I would probably be a little bit freaked out about the whole thing. She bought it anyway. She said she wanted to stretch my boundaries, or words to that effect.
And stretch them she did. Persepolis is wonderful. I’m not even sure how to describe it. It’s incredibly moving. Simple. Beautiful. None of these words are quite saying what I mean. Sublime? Perhaps. Essentially, it’s the simplicity of a child’s style of story-telling coupled with the sophistication of a woman who has seen many things. It’s the elegance of a well-written novel coupled with the creativity of a fantastic comic strip. It is everything you could ever want and more. For the first time in the world ever, I didn’t want to get off the train to work just because the book was so damn awesome. I still haven’t finished it. It’s waiting for the journey home this evening. It’s going to be a happy new year’s eve.
Just over a month ago, I heard that Miriam Wakerly was doing a book signing in my local Waterstone’s. I’m not normally a Waterstone’s person, preferring to haunt charity/second-hand bookshops and the virtual shelves of Amazon, but I went along to say hello, because I’d heard good things about her from Veshengro, and I’m always up for meeting people who are on my side of the Gypsy debate.
So off I trundled on a sunny Saturday afternoon, into my local Waterstone’s to say hello. Miriam was lovely, and signed a couple of books for me, and I left the shop determined to read and review them as soon as possible. Then I headed off for a week of driving around the country and recording music with friends, and at some point in the course of the drive I opened the first book.
Now, I must admit I started reading the book pretty tentatively. Wakerly is a self-published author; a courageous thing, but one that can backfire; I’ve read so many self-published works that turn out to be completely dire as soon as you’re beyond the title page.
To say that I was pleasantly surprised would be a major understatement. Gypsies Stop tHere gripped me from the first page and carried me all the way through to the end on a wave of ‘I don’t want to put this down’. And then I picked up the second book, No Gypsies Served, and had the same feeling all the way through that one.
The books follow Kay, who moves to a small country town after the tragic death of her husband and inadvertently ends up in the middle of a debate about whether Gypsies should be allowed to stop in the place they’ve always used. The fiery young Natalie originally introduces her to the debate, and the more research Kay does, the more she realises just how unfair life can be when you happen to be of Romany ethnicity. She meets lots of exciting people along the way – Dunstan the gardener, Lena the young Gypsy woman – and learns to stand up not only for herself, but also for victims of racial prejudice in her local community.
The characters’ relationships are beautifully and sympathetically woven, without being cloying. The books walk that oh-so-delicate line when talking about an ethnicity (particularly Gypsies), between telling the truth and romanticising them. They walk the line well. There is no feeling that the Romany people are being parodied as mildly ridiculous, simple-minded weirdos who spend all day sitting in dark tents cackling at crystal balls. Instead, every character in the story is portrayed as equally human, equally normal, with the only differences being ethnicity and culture.
All of these strands pull together to create a couple of truly beautiful books. I’d recommend them as essential reading to anyone; I think they should be in every local library, preferably on the ‘recommended’ shelf, and that they should be compulsory reading for all schoolchildren. Perhaps then we’d see less of the prejudice towards Travellers, and more people with Miriam’s admirably open-minded and warm-hearted approach to true humanity.