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Highlights in the Charts

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy


Published over a year ago, Charlie Mackesy’s debut work has received much critical acclaim, from surpassing 800,000 sales to winning Waterstones Book of the Year 2019. If you have not had the pleasure of sitting down to devour this book, you might have seen Mackesy’s work on Twitter, featured on the latest Books Are My Bag tote, or even on a t-shirt to raise money for Comic Relief or WWF. However, none of these formats do justice to the beauty of the story of The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse.


The authentic delivery of the tale is illustrated through Mackesy’s cursive handwriting, with occasional bloopers such as a tea stain or his beloved dog Dill desperate to make his own contribution to the book, which only adds to its charm. Mackesy begins by introducing the four loveable characters – all relatable in their own way – who flourish into friends that we know and express feelings we can recognise within ourselves. Although there are not many words, it is rich in story and is one that you could read from cover to cover an endless amount of times, or, alternatively, one that you could open at a random page when you feel a little bit hopeless. Every word has intention and, although the book was published before the pandemic, it is no surprise that it is still so popular now.


Initially, you may mistake The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse as a coffee table book – something to display rather than digest. However, Charlie Mackesy’s immense talent for illustration comes second only to his storytelling abilities, and I can’t wait to see what he will do next.


The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang

What makes a good fantasy? For me, it’s a combination of sumptuous world-building, enticing socio-political tension, a sprinkling of magic and, most of all, believable relationships. Fantasy may be out of this world, but it’s also got to be fundamentally recognisable through the beings on the page. Meet Rin, a head-strong orphan in a country ravaged by war and its ensuing destitution. Nikara is being ripped apart by long-standing regional disputes, poverty and fraught international relations not helped by the opium smuggling market. Fighting tooth and nail to change the path of her life by getting into Sinegard, an elite military academy, tensions come to a head as Rin discovers a newfound ability.


The world building of R. F. Kuang is exceptional, from overarching geopolitical pressure to the intricately detailed cityscape of Sinegard (complete with urinating baby statues). Kuang has crafted a world which is both vividly clear and enticingly mystical. Fantasy should be beguiling. It should push the boundaries of our reality whilst remaining emotionally recognisable. The Poppy War is a masterclass in this. Rin is frustratingly flawed, making for a delicious story. I would like to stress, however, that Kuang’s world is one of brutality, not justice. Alongside moments of lightness, there is war, rape, genocide and violence in physically visceral quantities. The Poppy War is raw and unpredictable. It is everything I look for in a fantasy novel and, even better, the final instalment in the trilogy is out in a matter of days!


The Salt Path by Raynor Winn

Despite being published in 2018 and spawning a successful follow-up in 2020, Raynor Winn’s earnest travel memoir, The Salt Path, has become a memorable feature on the bestseller charts.


Why is this book resonating so profoundly with audiences in 2020? Perhaps we are reaching for nature writing as escapism in a time when so many of us can’t access the immense landscapes written about by Winn and her contemporaries. But The Salt Path is a bit different. Yes, the South West Coast Path is a stunning, if brutal, landscape treasured by nature writers. But The Salt Path is the story of Winn’s battle with homelessness and Moth’s terminal illness. The South West Coast Path is their escape as well as the backdrop of their tragedy, and The Salt Path is a truly heartfelt and life-affirming meditation on finding a home in landscapes, people and yourself. The reflection on homelessness, in particular, is poignant at a time when we are stuck in our homes – but lucky to have one at all.


So perhaps it is no surprise that The Salt Path is one of the books defining our reading experience in 2020. It is an accessible, heart-warming tale of resilience under injustice and, alongside Angela Harding’s exquisite cover design, it demands its pertinence in 2020.