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

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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.

 

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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!

 

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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!

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Vladimir Putin: Life Coach by Rob Sears

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

 

 

 

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

 

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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.

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Kids books for Christmas – non-fiction

As promised, the first of three blogs this week on book recommendations. Even though my children are now teenagers, they still get a book or two in their stocking – I live in hope! In my experience younger kids are easy – you can just buy them a story or picture in some subject they’re vaguely interested in and they will love it. Older children are not so easy, especially if you don’t know them that well. Having said that, I don’t always get it right for the kids that live with me either! Oh well, it’s ALWAYS worth giving a book, in my view, and you never know, you might even spark a new interest – kids are notorious for sticking with what they know.

So, if you are looking for some ideas for the young people in your life, here are some fab non-fiction titles that I have spotted.

Primary School

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There Are Fish Everywhere – Britte Teckentrup and Katie Haworth

Stunning illustrations, informative, weird and wonderful facts about sea creatures. Beautiful.

 

 

 

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Young, Gifted and Black: Meet 52 Black Heroes from Past and Present  – Jamia Wilson and Andrea Pippins

Short biographies of towering figures in Black history, some you will have heard of and some less well-known, but equally important. Boldly illustrated.

 

 

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The Human Body: A Pop up guide to anatomy – Richard Walker and Rachel Caldwell

Anatomical books make very popular gifts and the pop-ups in this one are wonderful. Has the added twist of presenting it from the perspective of a 19th century medical student, so something for those with an interest in history too.

 

Late primary/early secondary

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Code Like a Girl: Rad Tech Projects and Practical Tips  – Miriam Peskowitz

I’m all for a book that busts a gender stereotype – boys can like fashion, girls can like coding.

 

 

 

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Unlock Your Imagination: 250 boredom busters – published by Dorling Kindersley

When you try to peel your children off their devices, how often do you hear them cry “But, I’m bored!”? There is an argument that our kids should be more bored, as this can stimulate creativity. This book may help and many of the activities are short and straightforward, so could be done whilst travelling. Suitable for younger kids too, so good if you have children of different ages to please.

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An Anthology of Intriguing Animals – Ben Hoare

This is a beautiful book, taking a close-up look at 100 animals and their special talents and characteristics. Lovely short chapters with some off the wall facts, and a mix of stunning photographs and illustrations.

 

 

Teens

Many teenagers are happy with adult books, but we all know that they can also have some very unique and specific needs and interests. Thankfully, the book market in recent years has evolved to cater to this very special group, when interest in books can really fall off a cliff.

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Zen Teen: 40 ways to stay calm when life gets stressful – Tanya Carroll Richardson

This book will be published on 6 December and I’ve already got one on pre-order! Many teens are interested in mindfulness now as a way of managing the pressures in their life, and this can only be a good thing. This title looks as if it will be a worth addition to any teenager’s library.

 

xmas 18 8Cooking Up a Storm: The teen survival cookbook – Sam Stern & Susan Stern

Teenagers love independence and at some point that is going to mean cooking for themselves, so you may as well get them started sooner rather than later. This book dates back to 2014, but is a good one, with real food, and not just the sugary bakes that are often marketed at this age group, and particularly females. Boys need to know how to cook too!

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Would You Rather Randoms: A collection of hilarious hypothetical questions – Clint Hammerstrike

My kids’ favourite dinner table conversation seems to revolve around such questions as would you rather eat the same thing for the rest of your life or never eat the same thing twice???? Hmm. They love it though. This little book could spark some similarly edifying conversation in your household.

 

I hope there is something here that is useful to you. I’d love to hear your suggestions too.

Look out for my fiction recommendations later in the week.

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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!

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YA book review – “The Hurting” by Lucy van Smit

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a huge fan of literature for children and young people and that I review such books on here from time to time, not just because I think it’s good for ‘grown-ups’ to delve into these genres (you’re missing out if you don’t), but also because I know many of you often want recommendations for the youngsters you live with.

I picked up The Hurting from my local library recently (most now have online catalogues with a ‘What’s New’ section so you can browse new titles) and libraries are great for young readers because, unlike me, they often make a quick decision about whether they like something or not and if a book is worth their time, so it can be frustrating when they toss something aside after half an hour that you’ve paid £6 plus for!

Lucy van Smit is a first-time author and the publisher, Chicken House Books, has a good reputation for quality fiction for young people. It’s a YA book, for 15+ I’d say, as there are sexual references, some swearing, quite a bit of peril, and some challenging themes – cancer, alcoholism, death of a parent – all high-grade emotional stuff that teens seem to love! For me, it’s not the best YA book I’ve read this year, but then I’m judging it against The Disappearances, which I think is a phenomenal book, and Just Fly Away, which had a more concise and coherent plot and was for me more enjoyable. There is a lot going on in this book, perhaps too much.

The Hurting imgNell is in her late teens and lives with her father, a very religious alcoholic, and her sister, Harper, who has cancer. They are from Manchester but moved to Norway, ostensibly for Harper’s medical treatment. The girls’ mother, we learn, left when they were young and they have had no contact since. Nell is a confused young woman; she is the primary carer for her sister, their father either working or incapable most of the time, and she wants to be a singer-songwriter back in Britain, but finds herself cut off from any possibility of making a career in that field. She attends a local school where she experiences bullying and isolation. She decides to go back to the UK, without her family’s knowledge, for an audition, but gets into a spot of bother en route and meets Lukas, a handsome but mysterious boy. At first it appears he rescues her but we learn later that he in fact engineered the whole episode in order to entrap her.

There is an instant attraction between Nell and Lukas and Nell quickly falls in love with him. Lukas pursues Nell (and yes, that is the right word), and she is drawn into what can only be described as an edgy relationship with him. It turns out that Lukas is the son of the late Harry Svad, a Norwegian minerals entrepreneur (and Nell’s father’s employer who, mysteriously, her Dad seems to hate). Svad, along with his wife Rosa, has recently been killed in a helicopter crash. Lukas was not his biological son, however; he was discovered as a very young child living in a wolf pack in an area of forest Svad wanted to mine. Svad ‘rescued’ and adopted him, but Lukas cannot forgive him for killing the wolves he loved, and says he was also treated cruelly. This draws Nell further into a web of sympathy. Lukas has a baby brother, Pup, who, now an orphan, is in the care of social services. Lukas wants to adopt him when he turns 18 (very soon) but feels he needs to get Pup back now before events spiral out of control, and he says that by the time they catch up with him, he’ll be 18 so he’ll be able to adopt without a problem. By this stage he is well able to coerce Nell into kidnapping Pup from the foster carer.

Still with me? Yes, I struggled to suspend my disbelief too, but I suspect some young people would not! Nell goes along with Lukas’s plan, they kidnap the baby and then run away, back to the grand, extraordinary but isolated Svad home, via stolen car and light aircraft. They are pursued of course, though Lukas is careful to shield Nell from too much contact with the outside world where CCTV images of her are being splashed across news screens.

Spoiler alert: once at the Svad home, Nell begins to realise that Lukas has tricked her, that he actually wants to kill Pup, and frame her, and yet she cannot reconcile these facts with her intense passion for Lukas, the only person who appears to have shown her any love. His behaviour frightens her sufficiently, however, that she decides to escape with Pup (who it turns out is her half-brother, his dead mother, Rosa Svad, having also been Nell’s estranged Mum) but this involves a perilous trek through dangerous wolf-inhabited forest. With a baby.

Yes, there is a lot going on here; rather too many events, strands and themes for my liking, and I felt a bit overwhelmed. It rather lost me in the last third of the book, I’m afraid. However, for teens who need a lot of stimulation to keep their interest, this may suit. As I said, I found it hard to believe in the events, but, again, teens who like a touch of fantasy may be able to lose themselves in it and be more forgiving about the lapses in credibility. There were, in my view, some editorial oversights which annoyed me (including a frustrating number of typographical errors, grrr!), but most teens will overlook these. I loved the evocation of place – Norway provides a great setting for the book – and the author does well to convey the sense of threat as well as beauty in the natural world. Nell is a great character and her vulnerability and confusion, her difficult life, and her thwarted dreams may have a resonance for young people. Also, her journey, her survival against the odds and her ability ultimately to overcome her fears, some seemingly insurmountable obstacles and the effects of her first-love blindness, make her a positive role-model.

Recommended for the young people in your life, even if it wasn’t quite for me.

Have you read any good YA titles recently?

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Listening versus reading

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I loved listening to Matt Haig read his wonderful book Notes on a Nervous Planet. I downloaded the audiobook in the Summer and blogged about it here in October. I decided that it was definitely a book I wanted to have on my bookshelves, to dip into occasionally, to read certain chapters at specific times, and to be able to jot notes down. I also decided that it would make a great gift for a few people I know.

I set it as the November book for my Facebook Reading Challenge and so far the feedback seems to be positive. Apart from a handful of my very favourite books (eg Wuthering Heights) I seldom re-read books. I always feel I should; my husband is a great re-reader and says he gets different things out of a book each time he returns to it, and he is right of course. For me, though, there seem to be just too many books to read first time around!

Notes on a Nervous Planet imgI have made an exception and decided to read Notes on a Nervous Planet again. I’m surprised at how different the reading experience is versus listening. Firstly, the author has a wonderful reading voice and I suppose because it is non-fiction and is very much about his experiences of anxiety and depression, you can sense that it comes straight from the heart. I really think that the narrator of an audiobook plays such an important role in the experience. For example, I loved Hilary Huber’s narration of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, but I struggled with the reading of 1984 by Andrew Wincott…who is Adam in The Archers. I just couldn’t get Adam out of my head!

The second interesting difference is the speed. I read quite fast, and I am aware that this means I don’t always take in every detail. With listening, however, I listen at the natural pace (I dislike the 1.25 and 1.5 speeds). It does mean that you absorb a lot more of the text. I was surprised reading Notes on a Nervous Planet how many passages I remembered virtually word for word.

The third difference for me may be a very subjective one, but it’s about the way the content of the book organises itself in my head. Here, my preference is for the tangible book. Listening to this book I found it more of a continuous narrative, but reading it is more useful to me in terms of taking forward some of the ‘recommended’ actions – I use the term loosely as it’s not a smug, instructional just do as I say and your life will be perfect, sort of book! For others who are more aurally oriented the experience may be different.

Audiobooks are great, especially for long car journeys (if you have the appropriate technology), or, my particular preference, walks into town. I have found with this book, though, that reading again has brought me some extra insight, and that can’t be bad.

Are you a fan of audiobooks? Have you ever both read and listened to a particular title?

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