Gift ideas for book lovers

With Christmas now less than two weeks away, I’m starting to get that ever so slightly panicky feeling. I think that people generally divide into two types: those who are incredibly organised, start early and finish most of their Christmas shopping by Black Friday; and those of us who can’t even think about it until the first window on the Advent calendar is open (at the earliest!) and then get it all done in a frenzy in the last week or so. I am in the latter category. If that’s you too, then you might still be looking for gift ideas. Last week I posted three blogs of book recommendations for children and adults, but I recognise that it’s not always easy to choose a book for someone else.

So, if you know a book lover, but can’t necessarily predict what they might like, here are a few ideas for you.

Bookends

xmas 18 19

I’ve seen loads of these this year, and they are great because you can combine two interests that your recipient has, eg bookends in the shape of bikes, dogs, children’s characters and many more. The Literary Gift Company has a great selection.

 

Tote bagsxmas 18 20

I have picked more canvas bags from courses, conferences and open day events than ever I had plastic bags! Most are just cheap advertising and will probably end up in landfill, sadly, but the literary ones I’ve seen are just beautiful. I love the Penguin classics ones which come in a whole range of titles.

 

Stationery

xmas 18 21

In my experience, most book lovers are also stationery lovers and list makers. There are some fabulous notebooks with literary covers, notecards, pens and pencils. My blog and websites like Goodreads enable me to keep track of what I’ve read these days, but I still love a reading journal. I love all the notebooks in the Listography range and the literary themed one is great too. Available from the obvious high street outlets and online retailers.

 

Bookmarks

xmas 18 22It’s an expensive time of year and sometimes you just need a little token. Bookmarks are wonderful for popping into a card and can be as simple or as elaborate as you want, can convey a warm message, humour, be beautiful or functional (eg have a reading light on the end!). Go as cheap or as pricey as you want, maybe even make yourself, like these gorgeous watercolour ones from The Hob-bee Hive

 

Games

xmas 18 23

Particularly good for kids, for example, there’s a great range of Roald Dahl themed options, such as Matilda playing cards and a game in the Brain Box range. There is also Roald Dahl Monopoly and, for the grown-ups, ‘Bookopoly’.

 

I hope that has given you a few ideas. There is always, of course, the option of a book token, either for a specific store or a National Book Token. Again, great for kids as it will actually get them into the bookshop, browsing and making them think about what they’d like to read.

If you have enjoyed this post, I would love for you to follow my blog. Let’s also connect on social media.

 

 

 

Books for Christmas – adults

And finally, that’s the children sorted out with fiction and non-fiction recommendations.  How about some ideas for the grown-ups? Walk into any bookshop at this time of year and you will be spoilt for choice; there are lots of celebrity biographies, cookbooks, beautifully illustrated books featuring plants and animals, compilations, self-help books and gorgeous coffee table books. Many of these can be quite expensive.

If you feel a bit overwhelmed, here are a few ideas.

xmas 18 10Becoming by Michelle Obama

You would have to have been living under a rock these last few weeks to have missed the publication of this! I wouldn’t normally recommend a celeb biography, but I can’t not. If it’s a bit big or a bit pricey, you could instead try the Pocket Michelle Wisdom which I spotted in Foyle’s in Birmingham last week.

xmas 18 18

xmas 18 11

 

A Keeper by Graham Norton

I loved Graham’s first novel Holding and I’ve read some good reviews of this one too. I hope Santa brings it for me!

 

xmas 18 12

 

Normal People by Sally Rooney

Recently announced as the Waterstones book of the year. The story centres on the intense relationship between Marianne, who is young, clever and affluent but shy, and Connell, a likeable boy, but living in the shadows of his family’s poverty and reputation. An unlikely pairing that will have consequences for them both.

xmas 18 16

 

21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari

More accessible philosophy from the bestselling author of Sapiens and Homo Deus. In this book Harari focuses on the present and invites us to consider issues such as nuclear weapons, fake news and parenting. With so much debate about the future of our species, this is a must for high-brow dinner party goers.

 

Notes on a Nervous Planet img

 

Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig

Listened to it, read it, loved it, reviewed it and will be giving it. Fab book about how to survive the challenges of modern life.

 

xmas 18 13

 

Codename Villanelle by Luke Jennings

For fans of the wonderful BBC series Killing Eve which was screened in the early autumn, here is the book on which the series is based.

 

 

 

xmas 18 14Ottolenghi Simple by Yotam Ottolenghi

I have followed Yotam Ottolenghi’s recipes in The Guardian for years but have rarely cooked them because they are usually far too complex or involve way too many ingredients. In this, his latest publication, Ottolenghi takes on that criticism and all the recipes in this book are said to be quick to make and contain fewer than ten ingredients, without sacrificing flavour. What’s not to love!

xmas 18 15

 

Vladimir Putin: Life Coach by Rob Sears

Browsed through this in the bookshop and thought it was hilarious. Great little stocking filler.

 

 

 

xmas 18 17

 

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

This book has been a sensation this year and is a must-read. The author grew up in rural Idaho as part of a survivalist family and was not allowed to go to school until at the age of 17 she took matters into her own hands. She went on to study at Harvard and Cambridge Universities, but at what cost to her relationship with her family? Has won oodles of prizes.

 

 

So, I hope all that gives you food for thought. Would love to hear any recommendations you might have.

If you have enjoyed this post, I would love for you to follow my blog. Let’s also connect on social media. 

Kids books for Christmas – fiction

Blog number two on book recommendations for the young people in your life…or perhaps the not so young! I read this week that about a third of books sold in the UK are those aimed at the children and young adult market. It seems that the golden age of children’s literature that we are in is prompting adults to turn to kids books as well. I think that’s fantastic. As with so many things in life now, boundaries imposed on us about what we should be/read/wear/do are being constantly challenged.

With so many truly fantastic children’s fiction titles about, it seems rash to pick a handful, but I’m going to anyway! You could pick almost anything for keener readers, including a book token which will be double joy to a book loving kid, so I’ve picked books that I think will have an appeal to those who may be a bit more reluctant. As ever, the age recommendations are fluid, it’s more about emotional maturity and awareness of issues discussed than it is about reading ability. Here are some books that have caught my eye.

Primary school age

Ella on the Outside – Cathy Howe & The Boy at the Back of the Class – Onjali Q Rauf

2018-12-03-13-05-33.jpg

I’ve grouped these two together since they both deal with the complex issue of childhood friendships and are both about children who find themselves on the ‘outside’. Ella is a new girl at school and is isolated at first, but then finds herself being befriended by the most popular girl in school, whose motives she does not understand. Ahmet is a refugee in The Boy at the Back of the Class and the story is about the challenge of integration and how other children who are at first wary, become interested in his story.

2018-12-03 13.06.51The Girl, the Cat and the Navigator – Matilda Woods

Beautifully illustrated and a magical story about smart, imaginative Oona who dreams of an exciting life at sea, on a voyage of discovery. Perfect for winter bedtime reading.

 

 

 

 

2018-12-03 12.57.28Ladybird Tales of Adventurous Girls 

A collection of short stories, some of which are a retelling of traditional fairy tales, where girls are the heroes who save the day (Gretel and Hansel?). Perfect for challenging some of the stereotypes that abound in fiction for children.

 

 

 

2018-11-30 16.15.43Dog Man Lord of the Fleas – Dav Pilkey

This is the fifth book in the Dog Man series, from the author who brought us Captain Underpants (which was a favourite of my 17 year old when he was younger), a new hero for a new generation. Love these books!

 

 

 

 

2018-12-03 13.06.04Flamingo Boy – Michael Morpurgo

Michael Morpurgo needs no introduction, and this is his latest book, published in October. Set in France during World War Two its central character is a young autistic boy. When the Nazis invade he makes a connection with a German soldier who has a son at home the same age.

 

 

 

Late primary/early secondary

2018-12-03 12.58.03

 

My Mum Tracy Beaker – Jacqueline Wilson

Tracy is all grown up and is now a Mum herself. She is a single parent, and is devoted to her daughter. This book will I am sure be a thrill for youngsters who read (or watched) Tracy Beaker when they were younger.

 

 

 

2018-12-03 13.07.26

 

The Guggenheim Mystery – Robin Stevens

The second mystery to be solved by young sleuth Ted Spark. Whilst in New York visiting his aunt and cousin, Ted has to solve the mystery of a painting stolen from the Guggenheim Museum when Aunt Gloria is accused of the theft. Kids love series, so this is a good one to get them started on.

 

 

 

xmas 18 2 1

 

The Graveyard Book Graphic Novels – Neil Gaiman

Death, ghosts, an eccentric childhood and a hunt for a murderer! Neil Gaiman’s book was a sensation when it was first published ten years ago. It is great to see it now in graphic novel form, a brilliant medium for reluctant readers, and a genre that has expanded hugely for all age groups in the last couple of years. This book is also available in two volumes if you want something slimmer and/or cheaper.

 

Teens

2018-12-03 12.59.19Dumplin’ – Julie Murphy

This book was published last year, but is set to be released as a film on Netflix next year. Willowdean Dixon is a brilliant heroine who starts a relationship with handsome and popular local lad Bo, whom she never thought could be attracted to her. She is then beset by self-doubt and to overcome she takes part in her town’s beauty pageant, busting all sorts of myths about what is meant by beauty.

 

2018-12-03 13.00.32

 

Obsidio: The Illuminae Files 3 – Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff

The third book in the Illuminae Files series, the first and second being Illuminae and Gemina. The books are set 500 years in the future in a dystopian universe, it is about warring factions, survival, has loads of action and is presented in an unconventional style that many teenagers may find a bit more engaging than the traditional chapter format.

 

2018-12-03 13.01.08

 

Scythe – Neal Shusterman

Another sci-fi novel set in the future where death from disease, crime and war have been eliminated and the only way left to die is to be randomly taken by professional ‘scythes’. Citra and Rowan are teenagers who have been chosen as reluctant scythe apprentices who must come to terms with their new roles.

 

 

2018-12-03 13.03.10

 

I Am Thunder And I Won’t Keep Quiet – Muhammad Khan

Muzna is a young Muslim teenager who starts a relationship with Arif, a handsome and popular boy. However, Muzna learns that Arif has a dark secret and is forced to confront a choice that challenges her integrity and beliefs. This proves very difficult for the girl who is normally very reserved and not used to pushing herself out of the shadows.

 

I would just love to read all of these myself!

If you have any other recommendations, I would love to hear them. Or, if you buy any of these books, I would love to get your feedback.

If you have enjoyed this post, please follow my blog. Let’s also connect on social media.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s that time of the year again!

cinnamon-stars-2991174_1920As I have been told many times by some of the people in my household, today is the official start of Christmas as it is the first Sunday of Advent (sounds like a bit of an excuse to me since we are not a religious family). Not quite feeling it myself yet, but then I tend to prefer to hold off for another week or two so as not to feel too exhausted by it all when the big day finally arrives. There is no doubt though, when you have children, or just a larger extended family with some children in it, you kind of have to get a little organised otherwise things can get a bit stressful.

So, as days 1 and 2 on the Advent calendars lie open, your thoughts might be turning to what gifts to give your loved ones this Christmas. Like an increasing number of people, I do worry about excess consumerism, about ‘stuff’, and about the environmental impact of both. Many people I know are trying hard to reduce the amount of single-use plastic and non-recyclable materials they consume. Books, of course, are mostly recyclable, certainly re-giftable, have little and usually no non-recyclable components, no batteries and use very little gift wrap. They make the perfect gift and are an antidote to the pace the season often takes on as well as the blue-screen glare!

I’ve been doing plenty of research these last few weeks, building up a list of recommendations for books you might like to give, and I’ll be sharing it all with you next week. So look out for blogs on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday, starting with children’s non-fiction.

In the meantime, enjoy the rest of this first weekend of Advent. I will be watching my daughter perform in a Christmas musical concert later today and will no doubt have a mince pie, so perhaps the festive spirit might grip me later on!

star-17075_1920

 

Time for a little light reading

Regular followers of this blog will know that I have recently been reviewing each of the Man Booker shortlisted books. It’s a month since the winner, Anna Burns’s Milkman, was announced, and I still haven’t finished all six books – I don’t know how on earth I thought I’d get them all read before the gala dinner! I’ve found them all pretty heavy going, to be honest, which is perhaps why it has taken me so long. And, I have to say, it’s been a bit bleak too!

The Mars Room imgSo much so that I had to have a break from all the heaviness to read something a little more uplifting and which didn’t tax my brain quite so much. I wasn’t very well last week and simply couldn’t face into The Mars Room (next on my Man Booker list) – if you have heard it is bleak, well it is! So far (not quite finished it yet). So, with my blanket, hot water bottle and cups of tea to hand I settled onto the sofa and read Rachel Joyce’s The Music Shop cover to cover in one day. I simply could not put it down.

 

 

The Music Shop imgThis book came to my attention last year. I really liked the sound of it and recommended it in one of my ‘what to look our for this season’ blogs, so it was on my TBR list. Then I saw Rachel speak at a Writers & Artists Conference I was at in September. She was such a wonderful speaker, really warm, authentic and engaging, that I had to get a copy of this book and have been eager to start it. It was a joy and just what I needed, when I was feeling unwell and when my brain was starting to hurt from the Man Booker. Look out for my review of The Music Shop next week.

 

The Mars Room is quite good, but, for me, just unremittingly bleak. Yes, good fiction should challenge us, but sometimes you just need something that makes you feel up rather than down. I’ve found it quite a dark shortlist this year and I haven’t even started The Overstory yet which, since it is meant to be about climate change, I am fully expecting to be a sobering if not depressing read. Maybe that reflects the times we find ourselves in. It’s not just the subject matter though; some of the books, though I have admired them, have, at times, felt like wading through treacle. I felt like that about Everything Under, and I’m rather getting that feeling about The Mars Room. It is only the colourful prose style, with its American prison vernacular, that is keeping my attention at the moment, because it has little story to speak of, it seems to me.

The Music Shop on the other hand, was all story, all character, all cliffhanger, all page-turner. This high-brow literature, which, don’t get me wrong, I dearly love and support, is all very well, but sometimes you just need a jolly good read. Especially when your sinuses are blocked and your head hurts!

So it’s more Rachel Joyce on the TBR list for me, and a second wind to finish The Mars Room and complete that shortlist.

Happy reading everyone!

Are you drawn to literature that is dark or do you feel reading should always be about pleasure?

If you have enjoyed this post, I would love for you to follow my blog. Let’s also connect on social media.

Fantastic television this Autumn

I posted earlier in the week about how much I love this time of the year and how I find it a very energising and creative time, but also a time of great beauty in the natural world. Well, it’s all looking pretty good indoors too, as television seems to take a step-up in quality at this time of the year. Frustrating really when you should be out and about making the most of these rapidly shortening days and precious sunshine, but surely one of the great inventions of modern life is ‘catch-up’!

There are so many shows on television to enjoy – I love watching the Great British Bake Off with my daughters, and it inspires a flurry of cake-making in our house. I’m coming round to watching it on Channel 4, though it’s not the same with ads, and without Mary, Mel and Sue. We also love Strictly, even if it does make me feel like it’s the countdown to Christmas.

It’s in the genre of television drama, however, that the schedules are very rich. I was glued to Bodyguard on the BBC, where the momentum in the media built up so much that catch-up was impossible – you had to be there. I wasn’t sure about the first episode, but then I was hooked and found the dramatic tension compelling. I really wanted it to be the Security Services, but perhaps that reflects my cynicism about UK politics at the moment.

I was also very excited about ITV’s new adaptation of Vanity Fair, but sadly, after two episodes, and the third still to watch, I’m not greatly moved. It’s great to look at and has the most amazing cast (Martin Clunes is a highlight), but I’m finding it very superficial and simplistic, and the Becky Sharp in the series is not the one I remember from the book, although it’s years since I read it.

I’m also looking forward to catching up with Killing Eve. I loved lead actor Jodie Comer in Doctor Foster and it looks as if she has really come into her own with this show. And Black Earth Rising is a must-see for me. I have been fascinated by the history of the Congo for years and have read a number of books on the subject. I only hope it is safe enough to go there one day. I was delighted to see this new drama and can’t wait to delve in. The Cry also starts this weekend.

All this at a time when I’m trying to work my way through the 2018 Man Booker shortlist (two books a week, yikes!), and as for radio, well, I can’t miss The Archers at the moment, wondering what is going to happen to Freddie and Lily!

How do you rate the television offerings this Autumn?

What are you doing when you’re not reading?

If you have enjoyed this post, I would love for you to follow my blog and let’s connect on social media.

 

Book review: “The Last Runaway” by Tracy Chevalier

This was one of my holidays reads and one of two books my book club chose for our summer break. It’s only my third Tracy Chevalier novel, but each time I read her I just want more! I read Girl with a Pearl Earring years ago when it was first published and then The Lady and the Unicorn a year or so ago, which I thought was wonderful. I have since picked up Virgin Blue from my local secondhand bookshop so that will be next on my list.

The Last Runaway imgOne thing that is so impressive about Chevalier is how beautifully she creates the  historical setting: the two novels I have read so far have been set in 17th century Holland and 15th century Paris and Brussels and I can only begin to imagine the amount of research she has to undertake. The Last Runaway is set in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century when parts of the country were only just being settled. Honor Bright, our main character is a young Quaker woman from Dorset in England. She has led a modest and sheltered life, but her world was turned upside down when her fiancé left her and their close-knit Quaker community for another woman. This was not only a scandal but it left Honor distraught and in a very difficult position. When her sister, Grace, is persuaded by her fiancé that they should move to America, Honor decides she must go with her, not only to support her sister, but to escape the oppression of her situation and have some chance of making a life for herself.

Their journey from Bristol to New York is arduous and Honor suffers with debilitating seasickness. As they travel the long distance from New York to Ohio, Grace contracts Yellow Fever and dies. This places Honor in a further difficult position: not only must she tell Adam Cox, Grace’s fiancé, that she is dead, but she is also in fear about where that leaves her as he, of course, has no obligation to support her. Honor, however, cannot face going back to England either because of the journey or the shame.

On the final leg of her journey, Honor has a frightening encounter with a local slave-hunter, Donovan. Honor is appalled both by his profession and his dangerous air, and yet also finds herself strangely drawn to him when he seems to flirt with her. This also sends her into a tailspin as it conflicts with her Quaker outlook and moral code.

Honor arrives in the small town of Wellington, close to Faithwell, her intended destination. There, she finds quarters with Belle Mills, the local milliner, who, it transpires, is also the half-sister of the mysterious Donovan. Belle warns Honor about him and it is clear there is a tension between these siblings. During her stay with Belle, Honor adapts her talent for quilting (quilting, its traditions, the patterns and its place in Quaker culture, are a strong and fascinating motif running through the novel) and shows promise as a hat-maker, endearing her to Belle and her many customers. Belle’s designs are often flamboyant, which is an anathema to Honor, who, as a Quaker, must observe plainness and modesty in all forms of dress. The two women develop a firm friendship, however, and Honor begins to feel more confident.

Honor first realises there is something strange going on when she finds a black man under a woodpile in the yard of Belle’s home. Honor is aware of the existence of the slave trade, indeed, the Quakers were an important part of the movement calling for its abolition, but this is the first time she has come so close to an escapee. She is terrified, particularly when Donovan comes searching at his sister’s property, sensing the presence of the runaway. Honor later learns that Belle is part of a network of citizens who provided the means of escape, food and shelter for runaway slaves fleeing the South to states which had already outlawed slavery – the ‘underground railroad’. Belle was what was known as a ‘station-master’.

Honor is collected from Belle’s by Adam Cox, Grace’s fiancé, and taken back to Faithwell, to live with him and his sister-in-law (also widowed) and to work in their shop. The domestic situation is uncomfortable for Honor, however, and her prospects only  brighten when she is wooed and then married to fellow Quaker Jack Haymaker. At first it seems like a good marriage that will improve Honor’s situation, but her mother-in-law proves to be a formidable presence, who does not conceal her contempt for her daughter-in-law and how little she has to offer when Honor goes to live with them on their isolated farm. At first, Jack is attentive and loving, but quickly becomes complacent and Honor grows increasingly miserable, despite her efforts to feel and appropriate degree of godly gratitude. Tensions deepen when Honor decides she will provide support for runaway slaves passing through their property. This is against the expressed wishes of the Haymakers. A law has been passed which makes it illegal for anyone to help a runaway, and the penalties are severe. Whilst the Quakers are against slavery, they are also against law-breaking and Honor’s actions are seen as a threat to their livelihood. Honor finds herself increasingly in conflict with the family until the point where her position becomes untenable. All the while, Donovan hovers in the background, stalking Honor and sniffing out runaways.

I will say no more as the events of the story then take quite dramatic turns. I loved the unexpected twists of the plot. I also love the way the author wove in details about the slave trade and the underground railroad (which I confess I knew very little about). Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel The Underground Railroad brought the existence of this movement to the attention of many readers for the first time, I think. I was not aware that Tracy Chevalier had also written this novel about it. I also loved the domesticity of this novel, its femaleness and the feminine craft of homemaking, particularly in relation to the skills required for good quilting. This seems to be a common theme in Chevalier’s work. I loved how strong the women were in this novel; the men do not come out looking so good!

I recommend this book highly. It’s a great story, a fascinating read and will give you an insight into worlds you may not know much about.

If you have read this book, I would love to hear your views.

If you have enjoyed this post, do follow my blog and let’s connect on social media.