Children’s fiction: some books for primary readers

Last week I posted about public libraries and how they provide an indispensable resource for children and parents/carers. They offer an opportunity to do something cheap, easy and local with your kids. They provide much needed downtime for children who these days seem to be leading ever more busy lives. And they get kids looking at, thinking about and engaging with books, because, frankly, that’s pretty much what you have to do when you have a room full of books! And borrowing books is FREE!

At the beginning of January, I did a scan of some of the new titles in my local library and I want to share with you the ones that caught my eye. This week, I’m looking at titles for primary school age children, around 7-10. Both have short chapters, large print and illustrations so are probably more suited to the younger end of the spectrum, or reluctant readers at the older end.

 The Invincibles: The Beast of Bramble Woods by Caryl Hart & Sarah Warburton

2018-01-31 12.16.32I really liked this little book and it’s the third in the Invincibles series. The central characters are two friends, Nell and Freddie, and Mr Fluffy, a cat. Nell’s teenage brother Lucas, has a sleepover camping with his friends in the garden, which, of course, the younger ones want to be involved with. Through ‘Pester Power’ Nell manages to persuade her parents to let her and Freddie participate for a few hours. Noises in the woods (the waste ground next to the garden) terrify them all, but, of course, it turns out to be nothing more sinister than Mr Fluffy! It’s a great little story, with nice illustrations and a level of humour which children will love and adults will also identify with. Recommended.

Amelia Fang and the Barbaric Ball by Laura Ellen Anderson

2018-01-31 12.16.44Similar in style to The Invincibles, this book is along the lines of The Addams Family – set in Nocturnia, a land of comic creatures, ghouls, vampires, mummies, etc. The central story is that Amelia’s parents are to throw their annual Barbaric Ball. They are keen for King Vladimir to come, but he has not been seen in public for years. The king decides he will attend with his son Prince Tangine, and, in preparation for getting to know the people, the Prince will attend the local school. He is of course, very haughty and unkind, and Amelia is particularly cross when he demands, and gets, her pet pumpkin Squashy. It turns out that Prince Tangine hides a devastating secret – he is half-fairy (terrifying creature of the light!), though his mother disappeared when he was young, leaving his father bereft. Amelia discovers this as she tries to rescue Squashy from the palace, and, when the truth is revealed, Tangine owns up to his faults and they all become friends. It’s a fun little story, and the toilet humour will appeal very much to the irreverent side of children. Lovely illustrations and plenty of contemporary references. It is basically about friendship, inclusiveness and being nice to people. Recommended though less in this one to keep parent readers interested.

Next week I’ll be looking at books for 11-13 year olds.

Do you have any recommendations for young readers?

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Children’s book review: “Do you speak chocolate?” by Cas Lester

I promised you earlier in the week that I was going to do more on looking at children’s fiction this year. Well, here’s a lovely little book that I really want to tell you about – Do You Speak Chocolate? by Cas Lester. I wasn’t expecting to like it as much as I did as I’m afraid I didn’t find the cover particularly appealing, but I have to say that, even as a grown-up, I was gripped. I loved the characters, the writing style, the themes and the storyline, so it would be a great one to read along with your kids, so you can chat about it with them.

Do you speak chocolate imgThe central character is Jaz, a 12 year-old girl who is in Year 7 at secondary school. She is dyslexic, doesn’t care too much for school (“Boring!”) and lives with her Mum and three older brothers, their Dad having left shortly after Jaz was born. Jaz is a bit of a rebel with a big heart. She struggles a bit at school, she comes across as someone who finds it difficult to deal with the mainstream demands of sitting still, concentrating, and not least the focus on reading and writing; there does not seem to be much allowance made for her dyslexia. She also struggles a bit with friendship issues, having jealous feelings towards another girl who she feels is going to ‘steal’ her best friend Lily. So we see Jaz is a bit insecure too.

 

Jaz is asked to take care of Nadima, a new girl in school, recently arrived from Syria as a refugee. She does not speak English but the two find common ground over their love of confectionery. They also find innovative ways to communicate, such as using text emojis! Over time, Jaz and Nadima’s relationship develops, but is not without the occasional bump in the road. For example, Jaz gets to know Nadima’s family, and realises what a difficult time they have had, escaping their home country and how little money they now have in the UK. When the school organises a charity fund-raising event, which Jaz and her team win, she stands up in front of the whole school and announces that she thinks the charity money should go to Nadima’s family because they are so poor. Jaz’s intentions are good, but, clearly, she has no idea how embarrassing this is to Nadima and how patronising it seems. Jaz learns quickly and is horrified, but it takes time to rebuild the bridges.

It has a happy ending of course – Jaz and Nadima do make friends again, and they also have a huge success in their drama class at school with an interpretative performance they create, about the situation in Syria. So, even at school, Jaz comes out on top in the end.

Jaz is 12 and in Year 7 so this book will appeal to 10-12 year olds in particular, and although Jaz is a girl, there is something slightly androgynous about her, so I think the book could easily appeal to boys as well. There are plenty of boys in the book (it’s not girly), although some of the friendship issues Jaz has are, in my experience, more common amongst groups of girls than boys. Jaz’s dyslexia is also an important element of her personality and her non-self-pitying discussion about her difficulties is illuminating and sensitively handled.

I love the mix of themes in this book – friendship issues, both the petty jealousies and the bigger fallings-out (subjects which some of us might think of as trivial, but which are really important to kids on a daily basis), are dealt with alongside HUGE issues such as religious and cultural tolerance, the war in Syria and the refugee crisis. The author deals with all these issues without being patronising or preachy and in ways that kids will understand. An achievement indeed.

I’ve passed this on to my 11 year-old to read immediately! Highly recommended.

What’s new in the children’s library?

One of my objectives for the blog this year is to focus a lot more on children’s books. Those of you who read my posts regularly will know that I am passionate about children’s literacy and ensuring that, in this electronic age, reading remains an activity that all kids do. We know that reading improves a child’s mind in many ways, improves their vocabulary, writing skills, and academic outcomes, to name just a few of the benefits. But it’s still something that I know many parents struggle with. There are just so many distractions – for adults and children alike!

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Books are also not cheap: you can expect to pay £6-7 for the average paperback, and often more for the hardback and picture books that are so vital when they are younger. A book every week or two is therefore a big ask for parents on a budget, especially if it comes with a bit of a risk – what if they don’t like it after 20 pages? Money wasted?

The answer for many is the public library. As we know, many local libraries are under threat, so it is a case of “use it or lose it”, I’m afraid. In my local borough, under 13s can borrow up to 20 books and four audiobooks at any one time. The loan period is 3 weeks and can be extended many times before you have to return (unless someone else has reserved the title). You can reserve books, search the online catalogue and renew online as well. What’s not to love? And all for free.

The only downside is fines – 6p per day per book for children, 15p for adults – so you need to keep on top of the due dates. However, my local library service sends emails a few days ahead of time to remind me what is due back when. It can be easy though if you build in a visit to the library every 2-3 weeks. I guarantee your kids will look forward to it and it’s time you get to spend with them, talking about, handling and looking at books.

I spent some time earlier this month scanning the new releases on my local library service online catalogue and picked up a few very interesting looking titles.

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I’m going to be reviewing these over the next few weeks, starting with titles for primary school age children.

So, why not make it a goal to spend more time at the library with your children this year. Give it a try, there’s nothing to lose!

If you are a parent, what do you think are the biggest challenges to getting (and keeping!) your children reading?

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Book review: “The Girl in the Green Dress” by Cath Staincliffe

Last week I posted a review of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, the first of two crime fiction novels I read over the Christmas holidays. The Girl in the Green Dress could hardly be more different, despite also being a crime novel and it is indicative of how the way we entertain ourselves has changed in the eighty odd years that separate the publication of these two books. Where Agatha Christie provided escapism, upper class characters, exotic locations and traditional murder mystery with the big reveal at the end, Cath Staincliffe’s book provides gritty realism, some repellent characters, familiar locations and a limited amount of mystery. There is no job here for the reader to play the detective, spot the clues and guess the outcome. The job of the reader is to engage with the characters at a deep level.

The girl in the green dress imgThe book starts with 18 year-old Allie Kennaway, and her friends heading out for their college prom night. They are at Allie’s home with her father Steve and younger sister Teagan. Steve is a single parent, his wife, the girls’ mother, Sarah, having died a couple of years earlier from cancer. Allie, we learn is a transgender woman, formerly Aled.

We meet the other characters who will form the main part of the drama, in quite quick succession: Donna, the workaholic Detective Inspector, who has four children and a less than happy marriage; Jade, a new detective, Asian, and whose mental health problems are hinted at early on; Martin, a long-standing colleague of Donna’s, a horny-handed old-fashioned copper. The murder takes place quite early on; Allie’s body is discovered in a deserted street near the nightclub where the prom was being held. Soon after, we meet Sonia, single mother of the feckless youth Oliver, who spends his days eating junk food, hanging out with his mates and playing online games. His culpability for the crime is fairly obvious.

If we know whodunnit, then what is the story about? Well, there is a fairly major and dramatic plot twist, which, of course, I shan’t reveal. Mostly, though, it’s about the characters and their internal lives, their hopes, dreams, motivations and frustrations. The police (Donna, Jade and Martin) are all flawed in their own individual ways and are trying to deal in a systematic and process-orientated way with a terrible event, trying to set aside their personal selves, and yet completely unable to do so. Work and ‘home’ cross over in the most challenging ways. Much like the crime shows I watch on television (I’m thinking Happy Valley, Morse, Prime Suspect), the issues of the central character are part of and not separate from the story. Although, for Agatha Christie, Poirot’s personality is key to the narrative, it does not form part of the plot in the way that more modern crime fiction does. Or perhaps you would disagree?

There is also the storyline of transgender young people and their experiences, which the author handles deftly with great care and sensitivity. It is a huge and topical issue to tackle and the result is commendable.

I struggled to get into this at first. The clipped writing style, which reminded of the way police officers narrate radio dramas, ie not in fully-formed sentences, was off-putting to me, and I found the structure, short chapters within chapters focussing on a different character in turn, meant it did not flow so easily. Having just read Agatha Christie, however, knowing the murderer from the outset seemed odd and I wondered what on earth the rest of the book was going to be about! There is that twist, of course, and as I got to know the characters, so I began to engage with them and their stories more.

I did get hooked and enjoyed the book immensely. It’s a quick read, though its grittiness makes it hard-going in places; the reader is not spared any detail! I’d recommend this book, though, and I will definitely read more of Cath Staincliffe’s work.

If you are a reader of crime fiction do you prefer the modern or the more old-fashioned Christie-style writing?

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Book review: “Murder on the Orient Express” by Agatha Christie

I am not a big reader of crime fiction, but I read two over the Christmas holidays, as I feel this has been something of a gap in my education. I read Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie, first published in 1934, and The Girl in the Green Dress by Cath Staincliffe who gave an excellent talk at the Northern Lights Writers Conference which I attended last year. Separated in terms of their publication by over 80 years the two titles are so different they could hardly be said to be part of the same genre but I don’t know enough about crime fiction to understand the path that links the two. I enjoyed both, but for very different reasons. I’ll start by reviewing the older of the two books.

Murder on the Orient Express img  To my shame, I have not read anything by Agatha Christie before, although I have stayed at the Old Swan Hotel in Harrogate, to which Agatha famously disappeared for nearly two weeks in 1926 after a row with her husband! She is quite extraordinary when you look at the stats: said to be the best-selling author of all time, her books have sold around two billion copies (yes two billion!) worldwide, second only to Shakespeare and the Bible. She wrote 72 novels, 14 short story collections, and one play, The Mousetrap, the longest-running in the world. Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot are perhaps two of the best-known literary characters of all time, and her work has been adapted for film and television countless times. She is truly a literary giant.

Murder on the Orient Express was released as a film once again last year, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, and a clutch of other huge names including Johnny Depp, Judi Dench and Penelope Cruz, although it has not been well-received critically. The release of the film prompted my book club to give this title a go. We subsequently watched the 1974 film adaptation starring Albert Finney as Poirot, and an equally stellar cast including Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman and Sean Connery. The film was very close to the book and we thoroughly enjoyed it. It was true escapism.

The book, also, was true escapism, though I’m glad I read it before watching the film. The structure is linear and to us would seem quite old-fashioned, but it’s a joy. It is split into three distinct parts: the facts, which sets the scene on the train, and gives us the background to the tragic Armstrong child abduction and killing case in America five years earlier. In part two Poirot hears evidence from each of the characters on the train, one of whom MUST have committed the crime, and the final part is Poirot’s analysis and conclusion, a set-piece beautifully played out in the film.

The plot is genius (I don’t want to reveal any spoilers, though I think most people who know anything about the book will know the ending – this will not detract from your enjoyment), but the way that Poirot makes his intellectual leaps is at times, totally contrived. For example, I am still not clear how he could have made the connection with the Armstrong case on such an insignificant piece of evidence. This matters not a jot, however, because it is Poirot’s cross-examinations, his exposition of ‘the facts’ and his closing revelatory monologue, which provide the real pleasure for the reader. The writing is also joyous, laced with irony, brilliant characterisation and the evocation of place….sublime! On this latter point this was the real escapism for me. I have always fantasised about travelling on the Orient Express in the golden age of steam (as long as I can travel fist class!) and this book took me right there. The opening scene of the book is set in Aleppo, which was rather poignant.

I’ll definitely be reading more Agatha Christie. This was quite a quick read, in just a couple of sittings, because it flows so beautifully and once you start it is hard to put down. Highly recommended.

If you are a fan of Christie, which of her books would you recommend I read next?

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Book review: “Norwegian Wood” & “The Strange Library” by Haruki Murakami

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Gorgeous covers

Murakami is a giant of Japanese literature, and it was Norwegian Wood that sealed his international fame. Prior to its publication (in Japan in 1987) his reputation and readership were more modest, but when he became internationally famous with this book, he fled the country and eschewed all publicity (oh for that luxury!). I had read nothing by Murakami before this although a friend told me (when I’d only just started it) that Norwegian Wood was his favourite book of all time and after reading he went out and got hold of everything else Murakami had written.

It’s a book that really defies description. To say it’s a love story (which it is) does not do justice to the complex interweaving of themes, the darkness, the painterly portrayal of intimate relationships and the forensic examination of the dilemmas of youth and coming of age.

Toru Watanabe is on a plane at the age of 37, about to land at Hamburg airport, when the song Norwegian Wood by The Beatles is played on the aircraft’s PA system. It takes him immediately back to his youth, when he was at university in 1969. His girlfriend at that time was Naoko, a fragile young woman with whom he used to walk miles around Tokyo. Naoko was, previously, the girlfriend of his best friend Kizuki, who committed suicide. Thus the scene is set that this novel is going to explore some challenging themes.

Naoko and Toru become lovers, but their relationship stalls when Naoko is admitted to long-term psychiatric care for severe mental health issues. Toru remains loyal to Naoko, visits her occasionally at the special hospital where she lives, some distance from Tokyo, and also strikes up a friendship with Naoko’s roommate Reiko, who, because of the very close relationship she has with Naoko, appears to know everything about Toru. A further character then enters and places Toru in something of a love triangle; Midori is a feisty, passionate fellow student to whom Toru is immediately attracted. They become friends but nothing more, mainly because of Toru’s loyalty to Naoko. Midori also has a boyfriend, although she says is not in love with him.

It is a novel in which nothing very much happens, so I don’t want to say more about the ‘plot’, and I have had some difficulty explaining to myself what is so engaging about it; I had high expectations after my friend’s endorsement. When we discussed it in my book club, we all said we found it a slow read; it is not a book you can read quickly. In a weird sort of way it forces you to read at reading out loud pace. You have to take in and savour every word, and every word has been written to be savoured. The level of detail in the observations is extraordinary. The main characters, especially Toru and Naoko, are so gentle and sensitive, that it almost has the same effect as when you hold a newborn baby – they are so fragile that all your movements become softer, your heart and breathing seem to slow down. The purpose of this, I think, is to try to take the reader deeply into the private worlds of the characters, to feel what they feel, see what they see.

There are some brash peripheral characters in the novel, such as Toru’s dorm mates, and there is a strong sense of time and place – student revolts in Japan in the late ‘60s – which serve to highlight the quietness and sensitivity of the main characters, even Midori, who comes across initially as a strong personality, but who is masking deeper insecurities.

It is a novel about coming of age, about growing up, but also about the deep darkness of depression and suicide. Insofar as it is a love story, it asks the reader what the limits of human beings’ commitments to one another are, but it will not give you a straightforward answer.

After reading Norwegian Wood I was given a copy of another of Murakami’s works, published in the UK in 2014, The Strange Library. This is a work of short fiction, a very surreal and fascinating story about a young boy who is imprisoned in the bowels of his local library after being tricked into following a strange old man in search of a reference book about tax collection in the Ottoman Empire. Whilst trapped inside he meets a collection of other weird and wonderful characters also trapped in a kind of time and space limbo. Like much short fiction it concludes in a way that leaves more questions than answers. The edition I read is beautifully illustrated, which added to my appreciation of it immensely, and it has left me wanting to explore more of Murakami’s work.

Norwegian Wood is a strange and powerful novel that will certainly leave its mark. It stays with you long after you finish it. Highly recommended.

If you are familiar with Murakami, which of his books would you recommend?

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Short story review: “Cat Person” by Kristen Roupenian

2018-01-10 10.43.49I concluded my 2017 Reading Challenge with something a little less challenging (in terms of length anyway), a short story. I knew it would be a busy month so I did not want to set myself up to fail by choosing some lengthy tome. (I’ve done the same for my 2018 Reading Challenge). December was so busy that it actually took me a couple of weeks to get around to choosing what to read, and then Cat Person fell in my lap, so to speak!

It’s hard to write a review a short story without spoilers so you can read it here, and then move on the reading the rest of this post, if you wish. It will take you no longer than 20-30 minutes, or you can actually listen to the author reading it herself via the same link.

Cat Person imgCat Person, by Kristen Roupenian has caused a social media storm. Set in America it is a story about Margot, a 20-year old college student, and a brief relationship she has with 34-year old Robert. Margot works at a small independent cinema and she meets Robert when he buys some confectionery from her stand before watching a movie. She feels mildly attracted to him:

“She did think that Robert was cute. Not so cute that she would have, say, gone up to him at a party, but cute enough that she could have drummed up an imaginary crush on him if he’d sat across from her during a dull class.”

Margot flirts lightly with Robert, to ease her boredom, but, initially, at least, he does not reciprocate. He returns to the cinema a week later and this time they exchange phone numbers. Over the next few weeks they develop a text relationship, then he meets her late one night at a convenience store. She expects that he will try to kiss her but he merely gives her a peck on the forehead. They eventually go on a date, to see a movie about the Holocaust that Margot finds slightly inappropriate for a first date. Afterward, when they have been for a drink at a bar, he kisses her, ineptly, and she finds she has mixed feelings about him. Despite this, Margot seems to feel she cannot back down from the inevitable, at this point, and they go back to his place to have sex. Margot finds the sex repellent and decides that she does not want to see him again, but she also feels that her flirtatious behaviour may have ‘led him on’.

This is a highly topical story about the complicated business of dating and sexual relations in the 21st century. The “cat person” of the title refers to Robert; when they go back to his place he announces that he “has cats”, although Margot never sees them. This is clearly meant to convey a slight ‘oddness’. In Margot’s eyes Robert falls well short of expectations (on all levels not just physically and sexually, she does not even feel completely safe with him) and she decides she wants nothing more to do with him, which he clearly finds confusing. When she finally rejects him by text (encouraged by her roommate who becomes impatient with Margot’s dithering and takes the matter into her own hands), Robert reacts in quite a needy way, before becoming angry (all by text). His final text “Whore” clearly echoes the aggressive and unsolicited sexual behaviour we are hearing too much about at the moment, but it could be argued that Margot’s behaviour, her flirtation, her initiation of the sex, means she created that situation for herself and it is no wonder that Robert, clearly no master at relationships, does not know how to react to her seemingly unpredictable behaviour.

It is a story that left me somewhat morally adrift.  There is no clear right and wrong party here. How you judge Margot, or Robert, will depend entirely on your perspective – your age, your gender, whether you have male or female children, etc. And it perhaps goes to show how the sexual politics that are currently being renegotiated make for a complex environment for both men and women.

A thought-provoking read, highly recommended.

If you have read this story, what did you think?

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