Book reviews: Young Naturalist Dara McAnulty can teach us a thing or two about truly glorious descriptive writing

Dara McAnulty (16), whose debut book Diary of a Young Naturalist has just been published


Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty is published in hardback by Little Toller Books, priced £16. Available now

DARA McAnulty, a Northern Ireland 16-year-old with autism – who was at one time bullied for his love of nature and conservation but now counts Chris Packham among his friends – brings readers these beautifully written diaries, which evolved from his blog, charting with great sensitivity how he finds peace in his connection with nature. The year covered is from spring equinox to spring equinox, from his 14th to 15th birthday, and his descriptions of wildlife and nature are mesmerising, from "trees like spindly witches' fingers" and caterpillars moving "like slow-motion accordions" to watching "origami take flight" as he observes bats at night. Dara, a pupil at Shimna Integrated College in Newcastle, Co Down, who last year became the youngest ever winner of prestigious RSPB Medal, also charts with feeling the anxiety he experiences as he navigates homework and friendships, which he finds difficult – "You want to belong, yet hate the notion of belonging" – and also the breakdown he experiences when the family move from Co Fermanagh to Co Down. Wrenched from a beloved forest, he soon finds a settling environment in the Mourne Mountains, close to his new home, providing the calm he needs to alleviate the storm of everyday life. Budding writers and established ones should read this debut – Dara can teach us all a thing or two about truly glorious descriptive writing.


Hannah Stephenson



The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett is published in hardback by Dialogue, priced £14.99 (ebook £9.99). Available June 11

THIS deft, many-layered, highly detailed and emotionally absorbing novel is just dazzling. Aged 16, identical twins Stella and Desiree Vignes skip town, leaving their southern Black 1950s community for the metropolis of New Orleans, where their lives diverge – Stella begins passing as white, while Desiree, despite all her dreams of escape, finds herself back home in small, rural Mallard. And it's in these new worlds they've built for themselves, that their daughters, Kennedy and Jude, must grow up and navigate their mothers' silences. Brit Bennett explores in searing detail the American history of passing, the impact of secrets, domestic abuse, white privilege, racism, class, homophobia and transphobia. She unpicks the terrible, wonderful, inescapable threads that bond sisters across time, place and lies, and does so with poise, grace and breath-taking prose. A beautiful, important and timely book.


Ella Walker


Keeping Mum by James Gould-Bourn is published in hardback by Trapeze, priced £14.99 (ebook £7.99). Available June 11

WILL Malooley has not spoken since his mum Liz died in a car crash 14 months ago. His father Danny misses Liz too and is struggling to pay the rent amid threats of violence from their nasty landlord Reg. Danny's problems worsen when he loses his job and, struggling to find work, the desperate dad joins the street performers in the park, despite having no obvious talent. While dancing in a cheap panda costume may not seem the most sensible way to solve their problems, it takes the family on a touching and often hilarious journey in Gould-Bourn's impressive debut novel. Danny and Will are likeable and believable, while Danny's friend Ivan and pole dancer Krystal are colourful characters who bring comedy and tenderness to the story. Even Danny's park rival, flamboyant magician El Magnifico, never veers into a one dimensional caricature. A truly joyful read.


Beverley Rouse


The House on Fripp Island by Rebecca Kauffman is published in paperback by Serpent's Tail, priced £12.99 (ebook £4.17). Available now

REBECCA Kauffman turns each cog of this compelling murder-mystery with a delightfully sensual slowness. Her taut prose and punchy observations add to her steady, assured delivery. The plot revolves around two families holidaying together on Fripp Island. We know a murder takes place from the outset, but it's only much later that each character's possible motives are revealed. The foreshadowing is, by contrast, delivered sharply, almost farcical in its horror. The novel throbs not from the urgency of a thriller, but instead from the escalating tensions of dark familial secrets that battle to stay contained. Friction between the wealthier Dalys and the less fortunate Fords spiral outwards, threatening to make each family estranged from the other. The novel is, at its heart, an exploration of family and wealth. The murder gives it its teeth. It's a shame the ending doesn't bite; arguably, the novel is several chapters too long. That said, it's still an excellent summer read.


Nicole Whitton



The Next Great Migration by Sonia Shah is published in paperback by Bloomsbury, priced £14.99. Available June 11

INVESTIGATIVE journalist Sonia Shah's critique of our fear of human migration uses, as its base, a comparison between the migration of humans and that of animals and plants. Shah explores how the early days of taxonomy, specifically Linnaeus' black-and-white classification system, gave rise to the notion that species is specific to one place, with migration perceived as an inherently chaotic and destructive force. However, advances in science have since revealed migration to be both natural and, at times, beneficial. Shah exposes the assumptions inherent in our ideas of migration. She dazzles when ripping apart the media headlines, and her examples of how migrants are treated are devastating. However, she doesn't posit why we should assume migrations of humans are comparable to those of animals and plants, and neglects to discuss the human psychology and emotions behind national identity. That said, there are many important insights in this book, making it a valuable read.


Nicole Whitton

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