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?

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Summer holidays

We arrived in France yesterday for our family summer holiday. We had a week in Ireland last week visiting family, travelling between Dublin and West Cork. It was wonderfully full-on so there was precious little reading time. However, now that it’s just the five of us I’m looking forward to a slower pace. My children are all well into the teen zone now so my husband and I find ourselves twiddling our thumbs in the mornings, waiting for them to get up. Perfect reading time!

We are staying in Cancale, a smallish coastal town in Northern Brittany, arriving here on the overnight ferry from Cork to Roscoff, which was very pleasant indeed – good, reasonably-priced food, decent cabins and plenty to do.

I’ve been unusually restrained with my holiday library this year, just the three books: Harvesting by Lisa Harding, a harrowing account of child prostitution, child trafficking, abuse and neglect, Death on the Nile, by Agatha Christie, the August choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge, and The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier, one of my book club’s summer reading titles.

I’ve almost finished Harvesting in the first couple of days! It’s not for the faint-hearted, but is gripping. I’m told it has been thoroughly researched and is not an outlandish account. If this is the case, I have truly led a sheltered life. It’s tough stuff.

If I manage all three books there is always the Kindle back-up! I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

What are your holiday reading choices?

Kids book review: “Hamish and the Baby Boom” by Danny Wallace

Some kids don’t find it easy to read or don’t find books appealing. I find the 9-12 age group can be a real make or break time when it comes to books; parents often stop reading to their children around the age of eight or nine, reading can become a chore, associated with school and homework and the need to reach certain literacy targets, and it’s often when kids get mobile phones, tablets, gaming consoles, all of which compete for time and attention. Not only that, but some kids find it difficult to concentrate for longer periods and so the more substantial books that are often suitable subject matter for this age group may be just too boring for them.

Hamish and the baby boom imgI am a firm believer that all reading material is good, just keep them at it, and adults should not judge if their kids want to read comics and picture books when they might think they ‘should’ be reading something more mature. If this sounds like a child you know, I’ve found a great little series they might find interesting. Hamish and the Baby Boom by Danny Wallace and illustrated by Jamie Littler is the fourth book in a series. Hamish Ellerby is the central character, a 12 year-old boy and leader of the Pause Defence Force in the town of Starkley. Hamish’s father is some sort of secret agent, ever engaged in defending earth against the evil Scarmash. Hamish has inherited some of his father’s abilities and leads his small group of friends in the PDF against strange and hostile happenings in the town of Starkley.

In this book, Hamish and the PDF uncover a secret plot by Scarmash to create an army of superbabies, fuelled by ‘Formula One’, a powerful food that makes them grow at an extraordinary rate, and develop remarkable strength and skills to overpower their parents and carers. That’s about the sum of the plot! So, you see it’s not complex stuff.

It’s silly, it’s gross (the opening scene is set in the nursery of a hospital where all the babies start weeing simultaneously, traumatising the nurse on duty) and it’s action-packed. The characters in the PDF are diverse, so a wide range of readers should be able to identify with them, and they are at once ‘like us’ but also in a pure fantasy world. There are illustrations on nearly every page so although it’s quite a long book (over 300 pages, so acceptably thick-looking in the playground) it’s a quick and easy read with short chapters. There is a website to accompany the series (worldofhamish.com) so plenty of opportunity for extension activity and to get them hooked on other books in the series.

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Reading this book reminded me of both the Captain Underpants books (which my son and I loved) but also of Tin Tin (although the plots there are more complex I think). Both of those are quite masculine, though, whereas I think Hamish has a wider appeal.

Recommended for 9-11 year olds, especially reluctant readers.

Do you find it a challenge to keep your kids reading?

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What’s new in the children’s library

read-2841722_1920I am a passionate supporter of public libraries, it’s where my reading journey started as child and I have never lost my fascination with them. With so much pressure on local council budgets, our libraries are under constant threat of closure. Many have already succumbed. Those that have survived have had to innovate, and this is great to see, becoming information and community hubs, putting on more and more events even becoming tourist information centres as well, but for me, their role as first-line guardians of our reading lives is foremost.

I love going into my local library and just browsing the shelves; I almost never leave without borrowing another book. I have stacks of library books around the house and I confess I sometimes lose track of what’s due back when. Thankfully for me, Trafford libraries recently abolished library fines (well done Trafford!) – whilst I have always paid my dues, I wouldn’t say ‘happily’ but always with a sense of ‘it’s a fair cop’, a few hefty fines, inadvertently accrued, can certainly dull one’s borrowing appetite. And when you are a busy parent, it is inevitable that you are going to miss renewal dates from time to time. Sometimes, I have paid fines which have equalled the price of a book! There are online renewals of course, so there is really no defence, but….the dropping of fines is great news and takes the shame out of library borrowing.

Children’s libraries are great and even if the most up to date titles are not on the shelf when you visit you can usually go online to reserve them when they are returned or from another branch. What’s not to love? A library card costs nothing (my children all got theirs virtually from birth, not least because baby books can be repetitive so the more variety the better) and if you are on a budget, offer a much more economical way of feeding your kids’ reading habits, fines or not. A library visit is also a cheap half day out during school holidays, especially combined with a walk there and back and an ice cream thrown in (though not in the library of course!)

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Here’s some kids books I picked up from my local library last week, all newly published, and picked out from the ‘What’s New’ section of Trafford Libraries website and reserved online:

Hamish and the Baby Boom by Danny Wallace

The Explorer by Katherine Rundell

Flying Tips for Flightless Birds by Kelly McCaughrain

How to Hang a Witch by Adriana Mather

Could not have been easier. I’ll look forward to reading and reviewing these over the coming weeks, so look out for my thoughts and recommendations.

Support your local library by taking your kids along this half term.

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Kids book review: “Tin” by Padraig Kenny

Tin is a debut children’s novel from Irish writer Padraig Kenny which is receiving a lot of publicity and has had some really good reviews. It’s set in pre-War Britain, and concerns the production of highly sophisticated robots (‘mechanicals’). Parts of the book take place in central London and the English home counties, other parts in the dreadful dystopian setting of Ironhaven, an ugly metallic landscape populated by  junk, by discarded and disfigured ‘mechanicals’ and by fearsome robots designed to terrorise. As such it is somewhat timeless and placeless. Reading it, I was struck by similarities to 1984, to Frankenstein (which strangely enough, I reviewed recently), to Oliver Twist, to dystopian fantasy as well as the Wizard of Oz! Most readers will be in the 9-12 age group, though, so may have little knowledge of these references.

Tin imgThe story begins near Aylesbury where the spivvy disgraced engineer Dr Absolom is trying to sell ‘mechanicals’. These are child robots which were initially created to perform tasks that society no longer wanted humans to do. We learn some vague details about how the experiment got out of hand when some rogue scientists tried to instil their creations with a soul. This was considered a step too far and laws were put in place to limit the capabilities of these creations, and, in particular, to forbid the building of adult-sized mechanicals. The environment we are observing, however, appears somewhat lawless, and it is clear that Absolom is operating on the margins and that there is a black market in mechanicals.

The main characters at this stage are the ‘child’ mechanicals Jack, Round Rob and Gripper, the slightly uncategorised Estelle (who works for Absolom as a specialist in making skin) and Christopher who believes himself a human orphan. Late one evening Christopher is involved in an accident which breaks his skin and reveals wires – he is not a human child, but a particularly sophisticated mechanical. He is later kidnapped by some rather shady officers from ‘The Agency’. They are merely masquerading as the authorities, however, and are in fact operating on behalf of Richard Blake, son of one of the rogue scientists, the egotistical bully Charles Blake, who was involved in illegal activity in the experiments he conducted. He is keen to get hold of Christopher who, it turns out, is the only remaining example of ‘Refined Propulsion’ – a mechanical with a soul – and to take over the world with his own giant robotic creations.

Meanwhile, Absolom’s small band of misfit mechanicals decide they must go in search of Christopher and rescue him. They seek out Richard Cormier, another one of the famous rogue scientists, for help. When they find him, however, he is hostile and uncooperative. He is an angry and disillusioned man who wants no part in society. We later learn that he lost his son in the Great War and then later his only grandson; it was in fact he who created Christopher out of grief, as a replacement for the lost child. He instilled him with memories that his grandson would have had.

The story takes the form of a quest – a group going in search of their lost friend – and the setbacks they face along the way. At the heart of it is their love for their friend, and this challenges the notion that the mechanicals do not have a ‘soul’ or feelings, because, clearly, it is their anger at his kidnap and their desire to rescue him that motivates their search. There is action and adventure, some mild peril (the sinister scientists reminded me of Dr Strangelove!) but nothing that should trouble the average ten year-old too much. Younger readers might need some guidance. The plot is quite complicated in parts and I did not always follow it easily, and some of the language of mechanics could be off-putting to some readers. It is ultimately a heart-warming story with a happy ending – good triumphs and evil is defeated.

It’s a wonderful achievement for a debut novel and I commend the author. I also like that it is not obviously a ‘boy’s book’ or a ‘girl’s book’, it will appeal to both genders and has strong male and female characters (as well as non-gender-specific mechanical characters). My only criticism would be that there are no adult females to counter the rather domineering male scientists!

Recommended for 9-12 year olds, a good and engaging read. There are some interesting references for the adults to enjoy too: Blake at times reminds us of a certain American President (he wants to “Make this nation great again”), and it raises issues around AI and the nature of warfare.

Do you find it more enjoyable to have references or jokes that are especially for the grown-ups when you read books with your kids?

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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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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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