That’s Not My Unicorn – Fiona Watt & Rachel Wells

Okay, let’s be honest here – I’m not the target audience for this book. I’m not a toddler. I don’t have a toddler. I don’t have any toddler relatives within a few hundred miles. But…

These books are perfect. They are simple and tactile enough to fascinate the under 5s and also older children (usually on the autism spectrum) who respond well to sensory factors in books. Any small person you know will probably read their favourite ‘That’s Not My…’ book with you repeatedly. You’ll give up long before they do (but please do not say ‘that’s not my bunny, he hasn’t been put into a delicious pie with prunes and suet pastry’ out loud) and be begging to read Peppa Pig instead. They are my go-to gift for pre-schoolers because in the 49 volumes so far there is something for everyone – puppies, dragons, tractors, witches, pandas, dinosaurs – reasonably priced and, like all books, easy to wrap. The big question was what would Usborne Publishing choose for the 50th book in the series…?

9781474935975I think Usborne chose well with the Unicorn. Always popular with the smalls this will also appeal to adults (who still love them, in my case especially one particular specimen drawn by a friend who is known as Terence the Badass Unicorn. That’s the drawing not the friend…He draws under the name Monkey Ghost Presents – great drawings for grown-ups, not toddlers). And the book is just gorgeous. It sparkles. It has silver, rainbow-effect blocked board pages. This book has pizzazz. And we all deserve a bit of that in our lives – even if we are only 2.

Jane

P.S. I will be passing this book on to Bex’s little one. She’s 2. She already has pizzazz. I think she’ll love it….

Playing catch-up. Again…

Oh dear. I’ve gotten behind again with reviews and I don’t even have the excuse of a big work event to blame. I think I just got distracted and lost my mojo a little – so here is a round-up of some of the books I’ve been reading in the past few weeks. It looks like quite a varied mix of adult and YA fiction with a little history thrown in. Story of my reading life really (although I do usually read a better mix of male/female authors).

The Cows – Dawn O’Porter

the-cows-by-dawn-o-porterThis is the story of three modern women: Tara, a single mother, Stella, a PA who is haunted by thoughts of her dead twin and Cammie, a take-no-prisoners lifestyle blogger. It would be wrong to say they represent a full range of women today – they are all much of an age, all based in London, all white, all working in the arts in some way – but they do show different ways of being a youngish woman in their world. Women are often judged by their appearance, their sexuality and their ability to produce children – very much like the cows of the title – and these three are no exception. Their lives start to entwine when Tara becomes an internet sensation (after being filmed in an extremely compromising, and solo, position on the Tube) and we explore all three women’s attitudes to sex, motherhood, life and, possibly, death.

The book is very funny, fairly rude and, at some points, pretty sad. O’Porter doesn’t pull too many punches about the way women are expected to live their lives: her characters, rather wonderfully, end up refusing to conform to these expectations. Not because feminism told them to but because they realise that they need to live a more honest life – to be themselves rather than the women they are expected to be.

The Walworth Beauty – Michèle Roberts

walworthThis is the story of Walworth, a district of South-East London which I’ll admit I wasn’t familiar with (turns out it’s the bit with the Elephant & Castle and Old Kent Road). The story is told through two timelines: in modern-day Walworth Madeleine moves into a small garden flat after losing her job as a lecturer and in the 1850s Joseph Benson is working for Henry Mayhew on the articles which later became London Labour and the London Poor. Benson’s job is to interview the less virtuous poor – thieves, rogues and prostitutes – and, in the course of his work, he becomes fascinated with a Mrs Dulcimer, who runs a boarding house on the street where Madeleine will live 160 years later.

This book is an insight into the lives of various underclasses in the mid-Victorian era – Benson has a weakness for strong drink and working girls, Mrs Dulcimer is a black woman in a world which treats both her sex and her race as inferior, the girls who live with her struggle to survive without turning to prostitution. In the parts of the book set in the present day some of the characters are generally better off financially but they still have struggles – young women still have to fight hard to make their way in the world, older ones find themselves neglected and the pace of modern life leaves many struggling to make sense of the world. There is an air of slight menace as the two timelines wash up against each other – each era haunts the other as if the layers of history were two decks of cards being shuffled together. It is both a contemporary and a historical novel and we find that the two have as many similarities as differences.

What Regency Women Did For Us – Rachel Knowles

I recently reviewed a wonderful book of biographies of women aimed at primary-age children. This book is a little more specific, focussing on women who lived between the 1730s and 1850s, and is aimed more at an adult market but I feel it would still be useful for older children who were interested in women’s history. I love history and will happily (if I can make the time) read lovely big, thick, detailed histories of medieval queens or scientific movements. This book seems to be more along the lines of popular history so if you just want a quick overview of the lives of women in the Regency period this could be the way to go.

WRWDFU cover for blogThe book covered an interesting selection of women including those I’m sure most people will have heard of, like Jane Austen or Madame Tussaud, some known to those with a little knowledge of the era, like Maria Edgeworth (for those who know more on the literature side) or Caroline Herschel (for those who lean to the scientific). There are short biographies, a summary of their work and achievements and also of their legacy, and they should serve as a great starting point for any more detailed reading. I think I may now be led on to investigating further into the life and works of some of the women here who I was either unaware of or only knew by name. Harriot Mellon sounds like a place to start, or maybe Mary Parminter….Ah well, all the best reading just leads onto more books!

Best of Adam Sharp – Graeme Simsion

The whole ‘difficult second album’ thing seems to be an accepted thing and it can also apply to novelists. I, like an awful lot of people, absolutely loved Simsion’s first novel, The Rosie Project. I read the follow-up and, while I enjoyed it, it didn’t have quite the same impact. The first book, however, was wonderful enough that I will leap on anything new which the author produces so I was glad to find that this book is at least as good as the previous one.

41Ui3mMfFfL._AC_UL320_SR200,320_Adam Sharp is an IT consultant approaching his 50th birthday. He earns decent money, has a house, as much work as he needs and is a fixture on the local pub-quiz scene (specialist subject probably pre-eighties music). But he has worries, he’s not as fit as once was, his mother is getting frail in her old age and his marriage could be described as amicable at best. This situation could have been enough for Adam if, out of the blue, an email from an old flame hadn’t reminded him of the heady days of his youth when he fell in love with an Australian actress, played piano in a bar for tips but turned his back on that life when his IT job demanded he move on.

The novel shows us how that relationship played out twenty odd years ago, and how it ended. We also see Adam’s rather staid relationship with his wife, Claire, and the rather more unusual one, in the present day, between the actress, Angelina, and her husband Charlie. Although these relationships are at the heart of the story for me the main point of the book was Adam’s gradual acceptance of the fact that he was a real adult. As a young man of 26 he was torn between what appeared to be the love of his life and the need to establish himself in his chosen career. At 50 his decisions will affect more people than just himself – he has to be the grown-up he thought he already was twenty years ago.

There is a lot of music in the book – like all ‘best of…’ albums it highlights moments of the characters lives with songs – mostly from the 60s and 70s. I was good with most of the pop and rock songs although I’ll admit to not knowing quite a few of the more jazzy tracks. So as well as giving me a story I enjoyed Simsion is adding to my ongoing musical education…

Running on the Cracks – Julia Donaldson

If the previous book was a departure from the author’s previous books (less obviously humorous, change of main character) then so is this one. Julia Donaldson is known and loved by virtually every child and parent I have ever met and she is, quite possibly, the queen of storytellers in the 0-5 and 5-8 age groups. Lets face it, I probably don’t need to even tell you this, you probably (like most of us) know most of the words to The Gruffalo without needing to look at the book….This book, however, is a bit different since it is aimed at a much older readership and is being marketed at the younger end of the teen market.

978140522233415-year-old Leonora (Leo to her friends) has run away. Her parents have died in an accident and she is living with her aunt, her bitchy cousins and her slightly creepy uncle. She runs to Glasgow in the hope of finding her chinese father’s family but ends up sleeping on a bench until she is taken in by an odd but kind woman named Mary. She makes friends with would-be Goth Finlay and sets about searching for her family, avoiding her uncle (who gets even creepier) and working out how best to help Mary, who is obviously struggling with her mental health. I would say this is a book firmly aimed at the younger teen – it is generally restrained in its language (hovering at the ‘bloody’ level of swearing), the slightly predatory uncle is creepy but never gets as far as being overtly sexual and there is no romance angle to the relationship between the youngsters. There are serious issues covered, the plight of runaway children, the problems inherent in mental health care, immigrant communities and the difficulties youngsters have in feeling like they ‘fit in’. I liked the main characters, particularly Finlay and Mary, and thought the plot was good. This isn’t a new book, it came out in 2009, but I hope that Donaldson makes some time to write more for older children.

Jane

 

 

The Giant Jumperee – Julia Donaldson & Helen Oxenbury

We do like to appoint people as the King or Queen of whatever. In baking Mary Berry is our reigning monarch, Kylie is the Princess of Pop (with Michael Jackson still the prince) and Elvis is, and possibly always will be, the King of Rock and Roll. In books for very young children Julia Donaldson has established herself as a very longstanding ruler. A Squash and Squeeze was published in 1993 and, in 1999, she cemented her place in the heart of every 5 year-old ever since, by creating the Gruffalo. Both of these books, like many of her best beloved stories, were produced in collaboration with illustrator Axel Scheffler but she has also worked with many others. Nick Sharratt, Lydia Monks and David Roberts have worked with Donaldson on a number of titles  but The Giant Jumperee is the first book done with the equally wonderful Helen Oxenbury.  Oxenbury’s illustrations are adorable whether they are for her own books or for classics like We’re Going on a Bear Hunt or Alice – obviously the latter is a favourite of mine, her Alice is such a wonderfully real child, more of a real likeness than just an illustration.

9780141363820I think I would recommend the Giant Jumperee to younger children, mainly under fives, because it is rather gentler and more old-fashioned than much of Donaldson’s other work. I adore the Gruffalo but it is possibly a bit too exciting and scary for some toddlers. I’ve learnt, from experience, that it is not an ideal book to read at bedtime (especially not with the voices and everything) as it isn’t particularly soothing. This book has a similar storyline to the Gruffalo – many large animals are scared by the words of a much smaller one – and, to the possible relief of storytellers everywhere, it is a much shorter story. Ever with all the voices and the obligatory six repetitions, you should be able to get away with about a 15 minute bedtime routine with this one.*

Jane

*Unless the child involved wants a second story/a glass of water/needs to know where the moon comes from/to hear what that word was that Daddy said when he dropped that cake on the floor/to have a baby brother and/or puppy, now. You know the drill…

Fish Boy – Chloe Daykin

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this before but I used to live in Durham. I worked both there and in Newcastle and would happily spend my days off exploring the bits of the coast you can reach via the Metro network. This means I now have quite a weakness for books and stories set in the North-East (and always make an effort to watch the Great North Run on the tv – although, since Rob is running it this year I will also hopefully get my first real life view too). I’m even considering a box-set of Byker Grove…Anyway, I do find myself gravitating towards books with a Tyneside setting and then, at other times, it creeps up on me. I loved the chapters of the Mirror World of Melody Black where the main character rebuilds her life on Lindisfarne – which I didn’t expect until it happened – and now I find I have picked up another books which features the glorious North-East coastline.

51vnfzet0lChloe Daykin doesn’t come right out at the start of the book and say that the waters her main character, Billy, swims in are the chilly ones of the North Sea but it becomes clear that they are. But even before that point I was captivated by Billy and his family. His Dad is loving and funny (even if all his jokes are definitely in the ‘awful dad joke’ category), his Mum is caring and warm. The problem is that his Mum is loving, warm and suffering with a mysterious illness which means she spends a lot of her time in bed. School contains bullies but no actual friends until a new boy, budding magician Jamie, joins his class – the only thing that seems to keep Billy grounded is swimming. Grounded, that is, until a mackerel swims right up to him and says his name…

I don’t really want to say much else about the plot – there are plenty of developments but they are not very easily explained. This is a story full of wonder and magic – the fact that Billy’s invisible friend is David Attenborough is part of the charm of this book  – but it doesn’t shy away from difficult issues. Billy has to learn how to deal with the often difficult and confusing world of school and with his Mum’s illness – swimming with a shoal of fish may not seem the best way to achieve this but, with twists of language and some interesting new friendships, anything is possible. I loved the way the way that the magical and the real were woven round each other and, in particular, I found the ending very satisfying. It is a happy ending because, by that point, Billy feels happier and more confident about his situation but it doesn’t solve all the problems. It just shows that, with love, friendship and self-belief we can cope with so much more than we think we can.

Jane

Radio Boy – Christian O’Connell

It seems that one of the signs of aging is what radio station you choose to listen to first thing in the morning. As a child I listened to Radio 2 (because my Mum did): Terry Wogan, the Floral Dance and Jimmy Young. Funnily enough if you listen to Radio 2 now they’re playing The Clash and The Who…After that I went through the obligatory Radio 1 phase but had to give that up when the DJs (all of them, they seemed fairly interchangeable) just got annoying. I then started on commercial radio, since the adverts couldn’t irritate me more than Radio 1’s offerings, and settled with Virgin. And I’ve stuck with it, through Mark & Lard, Pete & Jeff, the name change to Absolute and on to the era of Christian O’Connell. I wasn’t sure what to make of O’Connell when he started (because I’d really loved Pete & Jeff’s particular combination of slightly left field music choices and comedy) but I knew I was going to stick with him when I heard his on-air interactions with kids. Never patronising and always interested in what young callers have to say  – O’Connell’s two young daughters are probably not ashamed to admit the connection in the playground (which is high praise at that age…). When I heard that the OC – as we listeners call him – had written a children’s book I was encouraged to give it a try.

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Radio Boy is the story of Spike, an eleven year old boy who isn’t clever or sporty or popular. In fact there is only one thing in life he’s really any good at: radio. Of course his talent isn’t appreciated by the local hospital radio station where he has a show – in fact they sack him – but when he starts a show from his dad’s shed (using the name ‘Radio Boy’ and a fancy piece of technology which disguises his voice) he becomes an overnight success. Partly because he is a bright and funny kid but mostly because he just can’t resist using his anonymity to mock the school headmaster.  He has lots of help with the show from his best mates – Holly the tech-geek and Artie, who seems to be the youngest muso in town and has a vinyl collection I really envy – as well as his Dad and at least one teacher but success does eventually go to his head. He’s 11 – of course it does!

This is a funny and fast-paced story suitable for children 9/10+. If they like music, technology or radio even better but this is, in the end, a story about a group of friends tackling what they see as injustice. Spike is our main character but he has to learn to take Artie and Holly into account since his action affect them too – there are some lessons learned by the end of the book (but not in a dull, moralising kind of way). I’m sure Spike and his friends will be just as entertaining in their next planned adventure.Jane

A Girl Called Owl – A.J. Wilson

When I’m asked for recommendations for children’s books at work things seem to go one of two ways. If I’m talking to an adult then we have to go through the whole ‘how old?’, ‘boy or girl?’ and ‘do they like David Walliams/Jacqueline Wilson/Harry Potter/Horrid Henry?’ routine. Which I quite like as it can often lead to a good natter with the adult about what kids books we remember enjoying back in the day but it is a bit, well, removed from the person who will actually be reading the book. So when the child is asking for themself (even when they are being gently prodded into asking by a parent/guardian/teacher) we can go directly to what matters. My questions then are usually simpler (but would probably be harder for an adult to answer) – ‘do you like books which are funny/scary/magical/about animals etc?’ I find youngsters generally know what kind of thing they like and yet they don’t mind if their genres get all mixed up. Funny magical stories, scary animal tales, silly scary sad books about families – they’ve all got their fans…

9781509832460a-girl-called-owlMy latest read in the 9-12 age range could best be described as a scary, sad story about families and belonging with more than a hint of magic.  A young girl, saddled with the name Owl by her hippyish mother, has always wondered who her missing father was. Apart from that she only seemed to have fairly normal problems – school, friends and, as she gets older, boys – until the moment she starts to realise that she’s possibly not totally normal. (My own theory on teenagers is that they are totally torn between wanting to be a unique individual and hoping they are completely normal – the pain is real…) Strange patterns appear on her skin when she is stressed or upset – like frost on her skin – and she thinks she has managed to hide them from everyone except maybe the new kid at school, a boy with the equally odd name of Alberic. She finds that the fabulous stories which her mother told her about a strange and magical world are not only true but they involve and endanger her, her best friend Mallory and the mysterious Alberic.

This is a great story for children of 9+ who enjoy stories with magic and a bit of peril. Which could mean lots of Harry Potter fans…It has hints of Narnia in its glittering wintry landscape and the perilous world of the fae reminded me enormously of Alan Garner’s books. Owl is a recognizably modern child who is having to deal with mysterious dangers (and still has to get her homework in on time). All she really wants is to find out who her father is – but discovering that he is Jack Frost leads to all kinds of trouble.

Jane

Superhero Street – Phil Earle

When I was a kid I seem to remember the one thing I really disliked was when you read a story and just knew, all the way through, that there was a moral to it. You know, the kind of story where the message (usually something that you thought was a bit soppy or daft) was more important than a good plot? I can recall stories I read at my aunt and uncle’s house, probably in some church magazines, where awful things happened to children who cycled in bare feet – I only liked them because something awful happened to the rather daft shoeless kid and I was a bloodthirsty little thing. I certainly wouldn’t want to read them again, talk about them with my friends or even tell my teachers about them – none of the things that make children love books.

Superhero StreetAnd this is what I loved the most about Phil Earle’s Superhero Street – the fact that the most important thing is that it is a cracking good story. Young Michael (known as Mouse) lives with his parents and five younger brothers (twins and triplets) and wants to be a superhero. When his father disappears and two desperate jewel thieves cross his path he gets his chance. There is an awful lot of just the right kind of sillyness (fart jokes, daft nicknames and the like), some wonderfully disgusting descriptions of nappies and an exceedingly wicked baddie.

As an adult I can also appreciate the fact that there is an underlying message – about who can be a hero and what heroism looks like – but for a child this would just be part of the overall package. The fact that a large part of this message is that kids who act as unseen carers, and overworked (and suddenly single) parents, are often the true heroes will, hopefully, mean a lot to children who are in that position. As Mouse points out all any youngster wants is ‘to be seen, and seen as special’.

Jane