Kids book review: “A Whisper of Horses” by Zillah Bethel

If you have children aged 10-12 years, I can heartily recommend this book. It’s marvellous; dark in parts (but don’t kids love that?!), but ultimately full of hope and showing that you can achieve the near-impossible if you dare to believe.

a whisper of horses imgThe novel is set in Lahn Dan, you’ll recognise the pun, but the place described in the book will be unfamiliar; it is practically a separate city-state within England, encircled by the ‘Emm Twenty-Five Wall’ that none of the inhabitants dare cross (told that there is only a deserted wilderness on the other side anyway). This is a time after ‘the Gases’ (a reference to climate change), the ‘Tems’  has deteriorated to a muddy flat and only the rich are able to live in the ‘crystal towers’  that afford them some natural light and allow them to live above the pollution layer. In a nod to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World there is a strict hierarchy in the society: at the bottom are the Pbs, who do most of the work, then slightly higher up are the Cus, the professional classes, but true power lies only with the Aus. Give the child a prize who spots that these are chemical symbols and what this says about the social order! Lahn Dan is run by ‘the Minister’ a distant and slightly mythical figure, not unlike Big Brother, whose orders are carried out by Mordecai and his Secret Police. It all has echoes of 1984.

The main character is Serendipity Goudge a 12 year-old girl who lives alone with her mother. They are Pbs and do agricultural work. They live in a ‘pod’ and have very few possessions, though Serendipity cherishes a small wooden horse her mother once gave her; she is fascinated by the creatures but they are said to be extinct and nobody has ever seen one in the flesh. Serendipity’s mother dies, leaving her nothing of any value except a locket. Hidden inside the locket is a small map indicating a route out of Lahn Dan, through the Emm Twenty-Five Wall to ‘Whales’ via the ‘HH Bridge’  to a place where there might be horses. Strictly speaking, Serendipity, as an orphan, should be taken into care, but Professor Nimbus, her ‘storyteller’ (the children get a very limited education), takes her under his wing as his apprentice. It quickly becomes apparent that this situation is not sustainable and that Serendipity’s life is in danger. She decides that she will try to escape Lahn Dan, initially with the help of the Professor, who confesses that he, along with a small group of others, is a secret agitator for change.

By chance, they meet up with Tab, and his funny little dog Mouse. Tab is part of a band of Smugglers with a camp on the other side of the Wall. Tab is like something out of Oliver Twist, a street-wise orphan who helps Serendipity escape the city. They reach his community’s encampment, but it becomes clear that Tab may also be in danger and so he decides to accompany Serendipity on her search for horses in Whales.

The rest of the book is about their quest to fulfil a dream, but, though they don’t realise it at the time, they are also looking for a better life, outside the corrupt, polluted, decrepit city of Lahn Dan. En route they come across things they have never seen before – green fields, rain, a train, fresh food. It is a story about love and friendship – initially, Serendipity and Tab do not trust each other, but they soon come to realise that their fates are entwined and that they are better as a team. The people they meet along the way  help and encourage them on their journey. The novel also has great suspense; once the authorities realise that there has been an escape, they pursue Serendipity, and nearly catch her several times.

Spoiler alert!

Serendipity reaches her goal in the most magical and unexpected way, not immediately, but many years after she has settled happily in Whales, in a brief and beautiful moment that made me cry! 

This is a fabulous book which I thoroughly enjoyed reading – kids and adults alike will enjoy spotting all the references, the links to current concerns in its themes (the importance of community, climate change, the social and economic separation of London from other regions of the country). The pace is perfect for the 9-12 age group, the characters are well-rounded, credible and fun, and I loved all the nods to other books – this would be a great introduction to titles they might come across later in life.

Highly recommended.

[My copy of this book was very kindly sent to me by the author after I posted a review of her other novel The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare which I also enjoyed and recommend.]

What sort of books do your kids like reading?

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Science writing: “Catching Breath: the making and unmaking of tuberculosis” by Kathryn Lougheed

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have been working on my first book for just under a year now. It’s a long process! I finished my first draft just before Easter, but even though it was gratifying to reach that milestone, to be able to type “The End” I was aware that, in many ways it was just that – a milestone, not the end. It was the end of the beginning.

In the last few weeks of writing I had begun to build up a list of gaps, things I still needed to research, passages or chapters that I knew would not read the way I wanted and tweaks that may be necessary with the structure. I conducted my first full read through a couple of weeks ago and found it reassuring that I was indeed right – there were gaps, bits that did not flow and the non-linear structure I was so excited about, well, perhaps that did not work as well as I thought. I wasn’t down about it though. I have a long list of tasks again, but feel generally positive.

Emily Bronte, John Keats and George Orwell are among the many artists who died young from TB, giving the disease a ‘romantic’ image

An area where I felt I needed more information was in understanding tuberculosis (TB). This disease was rife in Britain in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The numbers are astonishing: in England and Wales about four million people are thought to have died from TB between 1851 and 1910. TB-related deaths began to fall from this point onwards but were still shocking: in 1913, there were 36,500 deaths from TB in England and Wales (reaching a peak of 46,200 in 1918, at the time of the European Spanish ‘flu pandemic). By 2013, there were just 280, down from a rate of almost 100 per 100,000 population in 1913, to 0.5 per 100,000 a century later. (Source: Office for National Statistics)

The decline in the mortality rate for the disease can be put down to a number of factors: mainly improved living conditions and sanitation, but also better understanding of the disease (it was once thought to be hereditary, not contagious), the discovery of an effective antibiotic treatment in the late 1940s and, latterly, a nationwide vaccination programme (remember the BCG?). The virtual eradication of the disease in this country is a cause for celebration, but, worldwide, it remains a devastating killer: 1.4 million people a year die from TB.

Catching Breath imgOne of the books I consulted as part of my research into understanding more about the disease, its symptoms and its effects, was published very recently, in 2017. It’s called Catching Breath: the making and unmaking of tuberculosis by Kathryn Lougheed. The author is a former scientific researcher and is now a journalist and science writer. The book is excellent. It is fantastically well-written, even funny in parts (the author has an interesting sense of humour – her Twitter handle is @ilovebacteria!). She is out to make some serious points, however, about this, one of the oldest diseases known to humanity, which has so successfully mutated, crossed species and diversified and which just keeps on winning. Her main argument is that TB remains a disease of poverty and inequality. Globally, it affects the weakest – the young, the old, the poor or those who are already sick.  She argues that, although it is a complex disease, if there was sufficient political will, many more lives could be saved. If there was as much resource and international effort put into tackling TB as there has been, say, to addressing AIDS, there would have been far greater success to date. In 2015 the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced its ‘End TB strategy‘, which set a goal to reduce worldwide deaths from the disease by 95% by 2035, although it would seem that nothing short of a heroic research effort will be required to meet this.

If you are at all interested in the politics of health and disease, inequality between the developed and the developing world, and about humanity’s ongoing battles with diseases old and new, this is a fascinating and engaging read. I had intended merely to dip into the bits that interested me for my own research, but I have ended up reading the whole book. In Kathryn Lougheed, science’s loss is the publishing world’s gain. I hope this book gets nominated for some non-fiction or science-writing prizes.

Have you read any good science or non-fiction books recently?

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