Sometimes the things we see everyday become so familiar that we forget all about them. I swear I’ve had mornings when I’ve managed to make and consume cereal, fruit and a refreshing cup of tea and I don’t even remember opening the fridge. And I can get home after work and have no memory of the bus at all. Odd isn’t it, how the stuff that is the most use, is just not even on the radar? I mean, I’d really notice if the bus wasn’t there as it would be a 4 mile walk home (and uphill all the way…), but once my bum hits the seat it is virtually invisible to me. The very clever people at Bloomsbury noticed this phenomena and have commissioned a series of books called Object Lessons – which they describe as a series of short, beautifully designed books about the hidden lives of ordinary things. Objects covered include remote controls, dust, bookshelves, bread, passwords and hair (which sounds like my average day to be honest) but the volume I read covers a slightly larger subject: the Earth.
I’m not sure how the other books in this series are written but this one takes the form of a series of dialogues (letters, emails, transcripts of conversations) between two academics in very different fields. One a scientist who studies planets and their formation and the other an English professor specialising in medieval studies they don’t seem (even to themselves) a natural pair of collaborators but they find that they have enough in common to write this book. I found their discussions fascinating – they both sound like interesting people who don’t allow themselves to be limited by their academic disciplines – and they ranged from why Noah encourages us to be selfish in our attitudes to climate disaster, how hard it is to grasp the scales involved when thinking about space, time and temperature to the Dream of Scipio. They talk about the Earth but also about their lives and families: birthdays are celebrated, cake is eaten and many questions are pondered.
If you are interested in science or intelligent discussion then this book could be worth a read. Science used to be known as ‘natural philosophy’ and this book seems to combine the scientific and the philosophical. And, of course, if the earth isn’t a subject which particularly interests you then you could always check out other books in the series – I’ve got my eye on Bookshelf (but that’s possibly just a professional interest…)
You think you know what to expect with certain genres – heroines in romances are usually attractive (even if they have to work to be noticed), heroes are brave (even if they need to convince themselves) and heavy metal guitarists have long hair and tattoos. And, of course, folk singers have beer bellies, beards, and fingers in their ears. So it was a very pleasant surprise a few years ago when Seth Lakeman hit the folk music scene (and crossed over into the pop charts) with his song The White Hare. I’d like to say I was mostly struck by the energy of his playing (I’ve seen him destroy a bow in two or three songs when he plays the fiddle), or the dark undertones of the song but, to be fair I was mostly drooling slightly at his good looks. I know, shallow…So I thought I would make amends by reading a book called the White Hare to see if the slight air of mystery and menace in Lakeman’s lyrics transferred to this story.
The story is centred around a young boy, Robbie, who has been troubled and angry since the death of his mother. That anger seems to have followed him, his dad and his dad’s new partner, as they have moved to a small rural village. Robbie has few friends but is drawn to other outsiders – Mags, an older girl who knows the land and its creatures intimately, and Alice, a sensible girl in his class who stand out as one very few black faces in the village. Mags shows him a mysterious white hare and swears him to secrecy – but will not say why. We gradually discover that the hare is strongly linked to some dark local legends but also that, just because something is legendary doesn’t mean it isn’t also very real.
This book is an exploration of Robbie’s path through loss and grief but it is also a story of the mythology of an area. It delves into the mysterious and into the rather more mundane (although unpleasant) lives of a family with power over a small community. The mystery and menace are there – once again, folk music has not lied to me…
Anyone with siblings will know that each child is often assigned a characteristic within the family (in our family we even had little poems for each of us which I won’t repeat since my sister is not hairy and my brother is by no means bandy – I do, however, have a laugh like a drain). Famous families are no exception – like an episode of Friends we tend to think of the Brontës in terms of the rebellious, passionate one (Emily), the one who spoke out for the underdog (Charlotte), the one with the life tragically cut short (poor old Branwell) and, well, the other one. Anne seems to be the sibling who is relegated to being ‘the pretty one’…Now there’s nothing wrong with being pretty but it seems rather damning with faint praise if you are a Brontë. Seeing Samantha Ellis’s new book about Anne shortly after seeing Sally Wainwright’s thought-provoking To Walk Invisible over the Christmas period I was eager to read about the most invisible of the three sisters.
This book was interesting because it was as much about Samantha Ellis as it is about Anne Brontë in some parts. Ellis, at the start of the book, is a single(ish) fan of Wuthering Heights who thinks Anne is a bit, well, boring. After seeing Anne’s last letter, full of a desire to do more in the future despite her failing health, she realises that maybe the view we have of her (largely from Mrs Gaskell’s rather fawning biography of Charlotte) could be flawed. Each chapter looks at Anne through her relationship with other members of the Brontë household, through her own writing and through Ellis’s growing respect for her as both a writer and a woman. She is shown to be courageous, loyal and a gifted writer – in many ways showing the qualities her sisters are famed for. Agnes Grey showed the reality of the life of a lowly governess before Jane Eyre (although the vagaries of publishing meant that it looked like Charlotte’s novel was written first) and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was as groundbreaking as Wuthering Heights in its portrayal of a woman who leaves an abusive husband. And this at a time when women were generally considered the property of man…
As well as being a fascinating insight into the life of an underestimated author this book is also an incitement to reinvestigate Anne’s work. It seems the very least that posterity owes her…
In my fairly limited experience of having to explain difficult concepts to children ( just don’t ask what I told my young niece, at my stepmother’s funeral, when she asked where Granny was…) I would imagine talking about war is right up there with the hardest. This isn’t just a case of being naughty, or risking a broken limb or even making mum, dad or Aunt Jane sad – this is trying to explain politics, greed, mindless violence or killing in the name of a ’cause’. On the one hand I can understand wanting to protect children from even the knowledge of such things but, on the other, I’m sure any parent wouldn’t want their child to learn about such huge issues without them being at least present.
Elizabeth Laird’s Welcome to Nowhere seemed to me to be a good way for older children (9/10+?) to explore issues raised by war in general and the war in Syria in particular. It is the story of Omar, a young boy who dislikes school and wants to be a rich businessman when he grows up. So far, so much like kids all over the world (including any who have ever seen The Apprentice…) but Omar and his family live in Bosra, a city in Southern Syria with a rich history. The city is popular with tourists until it becomes caught up in the conflict in 2012 and Omar’s displacement begins. At first they move cities and then to the country as their new home also becomes unsafe. Omar isn’t interested in politics, although his brother Musa (who has cerebral palsy) does become involved, but it is very hard for anyone, even children, to avoid fighting and religious conflict in Syria. Eventually the family has to leave the country altogether and they make their way to a refugee camp in Jordan.
I liked the characters in this book. They seem very much like real children (even if they are in situations you would hope that no child could ever be in) and all the politics and dangers are seen through their eyes. I didn’t feel that these dangers were glossed over but, because our main storytellers are children and therefore, perhaps, a bit more adaptable to change they are moved on from quite swiftly. I would imagine that this book could help youngsters (and adults) to understand what it could be like to experience war first hand yet from a civilian viewpoint.
It has been comprehensively established (on Facebook and elsewhere) that having to be a responsible and grown up person is hard work sometimes. Adulting is, frankly, tough. Having to go to work (every day – the horror!), deal with personal finances, relationships and health issues can take it out of you. It is no surprise that many people like to escape from reality into the world of film, tv and, particularly, books. Sometimes, however, even the world of fiction seems a bit too adulty for me (what with the likelihood of things like work, health and relationships coming up in the plot of whatever I’m reading) and I then like to escape even further into children’s books. There are still issues to be overcome but they tend not to be the ones I am trying to forget in real life so I’m happy to deal with them. Here are some of the children’s books I have been reading recently…
Animalcolm – David Baddiel
Malcolm’s family love animals. All animals. Malcolm, after an unfortunate incident at the zoo involving chimps throwing, well, whatever came to hand, does not love animals so when he gets a pet instead of a laptop for his birthday the only thing that could cheer him up is going on the year 6 school trip. Until he discovers that they are staying at a farm where he rather rashly asks K-Pax (a goat rescued by the farm’s rather hipster owners from a village in the Himalayas) why he doesn’t like animals. Strange things then happen and Malcolm learns first hand what it is like to be a variety of animals. There are lots of jokes about wee and poo for the kids, lots of asides for the grown-ups (in footnotes – I love footnotes) and a message about learning to be yourself which is not too preachy. With something to amuse all ages this would be a great book to read with primary school aged kids.
The Girl Who Saved Christmas – Matt Haig
I’ve read quite a few Matt Haig books but mostly the ones for adult readers – and he does the adulting stuff very well – so I was looking forward to reading the Girl Who Saved Christmas. I was also a little worried since I had not read the first book a Boy Called Christmas but I found that this was not a problem. Any references to events in the first story were understandable and any recurring characters were properly introduced.
Amelia has a very difficult life – her mother dies, she loses her job as a chimney sweep and ends up in the worst workhouse in town. Father Christmas should be having a much better life – what with all the Elves, chocolate money and toys – but he is having a lot of trouble with trolls. It looks as if Christmas may end up being cancelled until Father Christmas and Amelia get together and rediscover the hope and optimism which that time of year should involve. Even the trolls are happy by the end. I can see this book (and the first one) becoming a family tradition for Christmas – enough adventure to keep the pages turning and a happy enough ending to get the visions of sugar plums going on Christmas Eve. (Also there are fab illustrations from Chris Mould who is also responsible for the artwork in my new favourite cafe in Halifax)
Oi Dog – Kes & Claire Gray and Jim Field
If 9-12 fiction is still a bit too adult then how about some picture books? Oi Dog is a follow-up to the hugely popular Oi Frog in which frog re-assigns who gets to sit where in the animal kingdom. Very silly (I laughed out loud more than once) and I particularly liked where the cheetahs had to sit. And, of course, there is an important lesson to learn about those who get to tell people what they must do keeping the best stuff for themselves….
Nadiya’s Bake Me a Story – Nadiya Hussain
Finally, for the ultimate in comfort reading, how about a book which combines well-loved fairy stories with yummy recipes? Nadiya (otherwise known as Nadiya from Bake-Off) has taken lots of stories, given them a bit of a twist in the retelling and then added a relevant recipe to each. And the recipes have little tweaks to them as well – adding star anise to gingerbread men or using the beans from Jack’s beanstalk to make veggie burgers. Even better, all the recipes are suitable for children to make (with adult help) and there is a good range of savoury dishes alongside the cakes and bakes. A great book for anyone trying to encourage their kids to eat different foods or to get involved in cooking.
Of course I don’t have any kids. But that doesn’t mean I don’t actively enjoy books meant for youngsters. And if they are very good I may even be getting some of these books for the children I know for Christmas…
I generally like my crime fiction to be either classic Golden Age stuff (I’m a huge Dorothy L. Sayers fan) or a bit silly. I’m still hoping that Jasper Fforde will write more in the brilliant Nursery Crimes series – it took the mickey out of all the clichés of crime fiction and finally answered the vital question of whether gingerbread is a cake or a biscuit – and am planning to work my way through Ian Sansom’s County Guides book. Of course I also enjoy a good historical sleuth, like C. J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake or Ariana Franklin’s Adelia Vesuvia, and I’m not immune to the lure of a psychological thriller like Gone Girl and the Widow. Oddly, what I don’t read much of is traditional, gritty, detective novels. I read a couple of Jo Nesbo novels, the Big Sleep (for our book group) and a couple of Donna Leon’s Brunetti stories but not much else. But, at Harpercollins’ recent Big Book Bonanza, I had a copy of a crime novel pressed into my hand (while in the presence of the author, ex-policeman and Bill writer, Paul Finch). In these circumstances it would be rude not to, surely?
The author gave a bit of a talk about the background to the story – he was moving away from his usual character Mark Heckenberg and the fictional National Crime Group to write about a young female officer in Manchester – and, I have to admit, I was intrigued. I know Manchester reasonably well and the officer, PC Lucy Clayburn sounded like an interesting character.
The story gripped from the beginning as we meet Lucy (in a sort of prologue), a very young officer who makes a near fatal mistake while left in charge of a dangerous prisoner. Her ambition is to be a detective and this seems to have scuppered her chances for advancement. Ten years later she hopes to impress and resurrect her career by getting involved in the search for a very unusual murderer – a female serial killer. This is dangerous work, involving going undercover among the street prostitutes of the North-West and, potentially, contact with the biggest names in the Manchester underworld. In the end, however, it is the secrets Lucy discovers about her own family which could be the most dangerous.
I really enjoyed this book. The plot was nicely convoluted, the characters were well-defined and the action fairly rattled along. I particularly liked the way that female officers were shown in both junior and senior roles – and that they were shown to have as many flaws as their male colleagues. If you enjoy a fast-paced, northern detective story with lots of gruesome detail then I think I can recommend Paul Finch to you…