#KeepKidsReading: Book review – “What not to do if you turn invisible” by Ross Welford

This is my third Ross Welford novel. I loved the two others that I have read – Time Travelling with a Hamster and The 1,000 Year Old Boy – and have recommended them widely. What not to do if you turn invisible explores some similar themes to the other books – a child who has lost a parent and who feels slightly set apart from their peers, childhood fears and worries, dealing with bullies, and choosing to be brave. It is also set in the same north east England neighbourhoods of Whitley Bay and Tynemouth (an area I know well as I lived there for a few years) and the made-up town on Culvercot (sounds rather like real-life Cullercoats to me!).

What not to do if you turn invisible imgThe main character in the book is a girl this time – 12 year-old Ethel Leatherhead; yes, it is an unusually old-fashioned name, but that is significant. Ethel lives with her ‘Gram’, a very conservative, very proper lady who has strong views about things that are ‘common’ or undesirable. We learn that Ethel’s mother died when she was young, and that she is not aware of her father. Ethel also has a great-grandmother, who turns 100 in the course of the novel. Great-gram lives in a nursing home and speaks very little until one day, after Ethel visits her, she grabs her by the arm and says to Ethel, rather mysteriously, “Tiger. Pussycat.”

Something else we learn about Ethel from the outset is that she suffers from severe acne. That fact is key to the story as it is her search for a cure that leads her to try a mysterious Chinese medicine she buys from the internet and an old sunbed. It is the combination of these two potent remedies that causes her to experience bouts of temporary invisibility. Once she discovers this, and comes to terms with it, she and her friend Elliot Boyd (another school outsider, who is teased because he is from the South and because he is overweight) seek to use the invisibility, firstly, to help Elliot in the school talent competition and, secondly, as a means of exposing the bad behaviour of school bullies Jarrow and Jesmond Knight, boy and girl twins who have been kidnapping local dogs and demanding ransoms for their return.

The scene is set for a number of interwoven plot threads – how will Ethel cope with her invisibility and will it have any long term physical effects? Will Ethel and Elliot succeed in getting the incriminating video evidence back from the Knight twins, who become aware of Ethel’s ‘power’? What did Great-gram mean when she said “Tiger. Pussycat.” to Ethel? And who is Great-gram’s mysterious visitor? Finally, what has the late pop-singer Felina, who apparently died from the pressures of fame, the paparazzi and alcohol problems, to do with Ethel?

There is a great deal going on in this novel, and some of it does not seem relevant at the beginning, but things start to come together towards the end, so it rewards patience. There are some brilliantly tense moments of adventure and peril, for example, when invisible Ethel breaks into the home of the Knight twins while they and their father are there, in order to wipe their computer hard drives and mobile phones (to destroy the video), but I found this book a much slower burn than the other two I have read. For that reason, I would recommend it more for the older end of the target age group (11-12 years) rather than say 9-10 year-olds. Also, the themes are quite mature – the problems of growing up, the loss of a parent (there is no miraculous ‘happy ending’ like in Hamster, but there is acceptance and reconciliation, and discovery of her Dad), the nature of true friendship and possible romance.

This is quite a long book, but a relatively quick read, thanks to the shortish chapters. A nice one for travelling with, I would say.

Recommended for 11-12 year olds.

I love having an excuse to read kids’ books – what about you?

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Kids book review: “The 1,000 Year Old Boy” by Ross Welford

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a huge fan of children’s literature and regularly post about kids’ books I have read. I would encourage all adult readers to dip into children’s literature from time to time. For many of us the love of reading was fostered in childhood, and it can be a lovely experience to rediscover that innocent joy. For some, that might mean going back to old favourites (for me it was Enid Blyton, Lewis Carroll and Puffin Books, and it was wonderful to re-read these with my children when they were younger) but I would also urge you to explore current authors and titles. If you have school-age children or grandchildren it can be a great way of understanding what their priorities are, their hopes and fears, and the challenges they face, which may be rather different to our own.

As you may know, I set up a Facebook Reading Challenge at the start of the year, with a different theme for each month. September was a children’s book and I chose Ross Welford’s The 1,000 Year Old Boy. This was Welford’s third book, published earlier this year. I loved his first novel Time Travelling with a Hamster which I read with a book group I used to run at my youngest daughter’s primary school. The children all loved it too.

The 1000 year old boy imgThis book, like Welford’s others, is set in North Tyneside (where I used to live, so it resonates with me for that reason too), on the coast east of Newcastle. Alfie Monk is over 1,000 years old, having been born at the time of the Danish invasions of Britain. When he was young, his father was custodian of some ‘life pearls’ within which were stored an elixir of eternal life. To access the elixir the life pearls had to be smashed and the liquid consumed. Alfie’s father was involved in a fight with someone who tried to steal the life pearls, and he was killed. Alfie (unfortunately?) smashed two of them accidentally; he and his mother (and their cat!) drank the liquid, meaning they will never age and therefore never die of natural causes. The curse can only be lifted by drinking another dose of liquid, but there is only one life pearl left. This is hidden on a remote island off the Northumberland coast.

Alfie and his mother live a quiet and discreet life in a secluded cottage in the woods. By moving around every few years they have managed to avoid discovery and the authorities. Alfie’s existence is awkward though; if he makes a friend they soon become suspicious of the fact that he does not grow up like them, and it is the betrayal of one former friend in particular which leads to a fire at the cottage which destroys Alfie’s home and kills his mother. Alfie finds himself in the care of the local authority and is unable to reveal anything about himself, fearing the consequences. Fortunately, Alfie makes two good friends, Aiden and Roxy, both of whom live on the estate close to Alfie’s cottage. He reveals his secret to them and they set out to help him.

Roxy is a feisty young girl, and a wonderful character. Shrewd, able, quick-witted and intelligent, she has a resourcefulness which no doubt comes from her being the sole carer for her disabled mother. Aiden is less sure of himself and is a thoughtful young boy, whose family moved onto the estate after running into financial difficulties. His parents argue a lot and his friendship with Roxy and Alfie helps him get away from his problems at home. All three main child characters are strongly developed, well-rounded and believable. The narration switches between Aiden and Alfie and I loved the way the author uses their different speaking styles to convey character.

I love the way Welford writes; he has a real ear for the language that young people use and there are great comic touches in this book which will appeal to kids’ sense of humour. There are some challenging themes here – I read Matt Haig’s How to Stop Time earlier this year, where the main protagonist has a condition which means he ages extremely slowly. Rather than being some miracle to be aspired to, Tom Hazard, like Alfie Monk in Welford’s book, finds it lonely and isolating because it prohibits normal human relationships. Alfie says throughout that he just wants to be a normal boy, to go to school. At one point he talks heartbreakingly about the “Prison of my deathless life.

This novel has everything you want from a children’s book – pace, plot, great characters who grow and learn from their experiences, and suspense. It has a happy ending. Although I believe that children should not be completely shielded from some of the tragic realities of life (Alfie’s mother is killed and for a time he believes his cat was also), I also think it’s important for the 9-12 age group that there is positive resolution and that good things can come out of bad. That way, I believe, we can help build children’s resilience, a role that books have always had in my life for sure.

Highly recommended for 9-12 year olds.

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

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Book Review: “Three Things About Elsie” by Joanna Cannon

I was fortunate to be given a signed copy of Joanna Cannon’s second book by friends for my birthday back in January. (Her first book, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, is on the list of books I want to read, but I haven’t managed it yet.) My book club picked this for our most recent read, and we all loved it! It’s the best thing I’ve read in ages, the most human, the most touching and the most interesting and unusual plot. It’s beautifully written, the dialogue and characters are authentic and wholly recognisable and it’s an engaging and compelling read.

three things about else imgThe central character of the novel is Florence Claybourne, elderly resident at the Cherry Tree sheltered housing development. Each of the residents has their own apartment, but the block is warden-controlled by Miss Bissell and Miss Ambrose, and there is a Day Room where communal activities are held. Some of the residents are frailer than others and there is the sense that this is the feeder facility for the local residential care home, Greenbank. The eponymous Elsie is Florence’s best friend, that’s the first ‘thing’ about Elsie; they have known each other since they were at school. The second ‘thing’ is that Elsie ‘always knows what to say to make me feel better’; Elsie always sounds a note of calm and reassurance whenever Florence becomes tense or upset, as she does frequently when the events of the novel unfold. Elsie and Florence are constant companions.

In the opening chapter of the novel, entitled ‘4.48pm’ we meet Florence lying on the floor in her apartment. She has had a fall and finds she is unable to reach her emergency cord, wondering who will find her and when. Florence’s abandonment on the floor proceeds almost in real time (at the end of the novel it is 11.12pm and she has still not been discovered, don’t worry that’s not a spoiler!) and whilst she is lying there she has flashbacks about recent events at Cherry Tree and the connection with her past life and her relationship with Elsie. It is through these flashbacks that the story of the novel unfolds. It’s a clever structure and works very well.

Life at Cherry Tree was predictable and dull until the arrival of a new resident. Florence immediately recognises him as a figure from her and Elsie’s past, a former boyfriend of Elsie’s sister Beryl, who appears to have had an abusive relationship with her and was somehow connected with Beryl’s mysterious death, though nothing was ever proved. Florence is convinced this new resident is Beryl’s former lover, Ronnie Butler, but unfortunately, this resident is called Gabriel Price and Ronnie’s body was allegedly found in the canal a little after Beryl’s death. Florence manages to convince Elsie and another friend and fellow resident, Jack, that Gabriel is Ronnie and has some sinister intent in seeking them out after all these years. Certain odd things start happening, such as items in Florence’s flat being moved, the sudden appearance in her kitchen of a cupboard full of Battenburg cakes, and a fire averted in Florence’s flat after an iron was left on while she was out. These events set Florence up against Miss Ambrose, Cherry Tree’s manager, who has been charmed by the amiable and charismatic Mr Price, and who already finds Florence rebellious and truculent, and now feels she may be declining into dementia. She puts Florence ‘on probation’, warning her that if her behaviour continues in this vein she will have no choice but to send her to the dreaded Greenbank.

The rest of the novel is about Florence, Jack and Elsie’s quest to uncover the truth about Gabriel Price and his involvement with Elsie’s family, and particularly the circumstances of Beryl’s death. It is at times laugh out loud, as the intrepid trio grapple with the challenges of old age, but it is always poignant. It is a moving and sobering tale about how often elderly people in our society are lonely and disempowered, shuffled off to care homes to await the end of their lives, and not always with respect.

“’How can you talk to somebody when even their eyes aren’t listening.’”

Florence and her friends reflect on the futility of possessions as you approach the end of life, and the greater importance of love and relationships. It is not just in old age that this happens, however; some of the employees at Cherry Tree lead equally unsatisfying lives without meaningful human connection.

As the book progresses, the Ronnie Butler/Gabriel Price mystery unfolds and we learn more about Florence and Elsie and Jack, about Handy Simon, Cherry Tree’s resident maintenance man, Miss Ambrose, and the events of their earlier lives. There is a stunning denouement at the end, when we find out the third thing about Elsie, which I absolutely did not see coming! The book is wonderful as an observation of old age, and that alone would have been enough, but coupled with a sophisticated and brilliantly worked plot it is a tour de force, truly a novel for our time.

There are some really powerful and moving observations in this book, beautifully expressed in some wonderful passages – I wish I could quote them all. So, unusually, I’ll end with some extracts that I hope will give you a flavour of the novel.

I recommend this book highly.

Florence reflects on the death of a fellow Cherry Tree resident:

“The skip was filled with her life – Brenda’s, or Barbara’s, or perhaps Betty’s. There were ornaments she had loved and paintings she had chosen. Books she’d read, or would never finish; photographs that had smashed from their frames as they’d hit against the metal. Photographs she had dusted and cared for, of people who were clearly no longer here to claim themselves from the debris. It was so quickly disposed of, so easily dismantled. A small existence, disappeared. There was nothing left to say she’d ever been there.”

“When your days are small, routine is the only scaffolding that holds you together.”

Florence reflects on the changes to the high street:

“’And every other shop is a hairdressers. I never realised people had so much hair.’”

Florence on the swift passage of time:

“’You always think “one day”, don’t you, and then you realise you’ve reached the point when you’ve run out of them.’”

“It’s only when you get old that you realise whichever direction you choose to face, you find yourself confronted with a landscape filled up with loss.”

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