Monday, 21 July 2014

You get to read more books without WiFi, but it's significantly harder to blog about them...

More actual books with covers and pages, obv, since, unless you've already downloaded them, it's pretty tricky to download anything without WiFi too.  Ah, modern living.  We are finally connected in our wonderful new home.  Apparently, now the removal man, as well as the postman, knows me as "the one with all the books". Books are quite heavy, it would seem.

However, now we're all settled in, books and all.  We have a shelf and a box in the living room for browsing - there were strict criteria for making it onto that shelf, and I'm pretty pleased with it.  It's already doing its job - cunningly positioned next to the comfy chair, family and friends have been tempted by its bookish charms. I love coming back into the room from making tea to find someone curling up with a book. It's like living in actual Waterstones.

The conservatory holds two shelves of "books I don't want to get rid of, but don't really need people to know I own".  There is a fair amount of Twilight and Philippa Gregory on it.

The dining room holds cookbooks and Bibles (of which we seem to have an inordinate number).  I am not quite sure why Bibles got lumped in with the cookbooks, but I think it's probably because they fitted there).

Our bedroom has a small wood and glass bookshelf that my Great Nan bought at the Ideal Homes Show in the 50s. My Nan gave it to me when I was a student, and it has always held my comfort reading (basically The Darling Buds of May and lots of history of food.) Also a book that's been on the shelf since I was actually at uni.  I was meant to read it in my first year.  It's called Holy Feast and Holy Fast and is about food and control among medieval women. I am sure it's very interesting, and I really quite want to read it - I have just never quite got past the first chapter. I am wondering how many decades I can keep it on my shelf without actually finishing it. 

The kids all have a bookshelf each in their bedrooms. The baby's belonged to my lovely friend, and was made for her by her Dad when she was a small girl.  Just the right size to hold his favourites (although to be honest, he is only really interested in Amazing Baby Baby's Day (about 37 times a day) at the moment.

There were some territorial disputes over Tom Gates and Wimpy Kid, but they were mainly resolved through the medium of pointing out that their rooms are actually only a few metres apart, and they can, in fact, read books that are not on their shelves.

So we've all been reading some rather wonderful books.  My favourite two recently have been The Child's Elephant by Rachel Campell-Johnstone, which, to my mind, should have won the Carnegie Award, and First Class by Christopher West, which is a history of Britain through it's postage stamps.  Sounds unpromising but is wonderful. 

Now I'm back online, I will probably mainly be reading Mumsnet.  But will try and make some time for the odd book too.  But probably not Holy Feast and Holy Fast...

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Little London by Sunshine Jackson and Kate Hodges

I have never really been one for travel. When I was little, families didn't really do travel in the way that they do now.  Very few of my friends went abroad, and if any of us did it was pretty much to the bits of Spain that are like hot England. I once made my parents laugh by saying that I wanted to go somewhere "cold and interesting". I now realise that that pretty much sums Britain up, so I was probably born in just the right place.  My disillusion with hot foreign holidays springs mainly from the fact that sand sets my teeth on edge and gives me goosebumps, which makes the beach pretty much a no-go area for me.

I've always thought that surely the point of travel is to go to some out-of-the-way places and see what the country is actually like for the people that live there.  Which is, of course, really quite hard to do somewhere where you don't know where the people go, or where the interesting out-of-the-way places are. However, for me, my best holidays have been to places where I have been able to return and visit places more than once, to feel that I know the place a little more deeply.

Luckily, we are able to visit one of the world's most interesting cities, London, regularly. We are able to do so as tourists, since, in London we don't have school or work or anywhere really to be at any set time.  Bliss.

The last time we were in London, at Easter, I was talking to a local Mum on the bus about the play area at the new Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park (which is excellent by the way), and saying how impressive it is, and all for free, of course.  "Hmmm," she said "normally you get nothing for free in London!". Now, OK.  I know London is ridiculously expensive to live in. However, I really don't think it's fair to say that there is nothing to do for free in London.  There is plenty if you know what you're looking for, and where to look. This is why I have an entire shelf of guides to London. Some give specific walking routes, some give broad-based ideas for activities, others are more explicitly touristy type guides.

This book appealed because it is cheap and newly published (which means that the info about opening hours etc is likely to be up to date). My first thought was "Sunshine? Really?" Once I'd got over this ridiculous and unnecessary prejudice, I was struck by the fact that I liked the weight of the pages, and the pictures, both of which are reassuringly expensive looking. (NB the book is relatively expensive on Amazon, but cheap as chips with the Book People).

It's ONLY downside as a travelogue is that it's quite heavy, and not ideal for stashing in your bag.  My favourite London guide for bag stashage is Dorling Kindersley's Eyewitness London Family Guide, which I picked up for virtually no money in The Works, and is excellent.

What is fantastic about Little London is that it is written by people who have lived the life they are writing about.  They have invested a great deal of time and energy finding things to do for little or no money in and around London.  You can tell they know what they are talking about.

Also, it's arranged by month. If, like us, you are seasonal visitors to our great capital, you can turn to the relevant chapter to find things that you might not have known about that may be happening during your visit. For example, the Imagine Children's Festival always fits in with February half-term, and is well worth a visit.

I've already added a few activities to my extensive to-do list. A must-buy for Londoners with children, or those who are regular visitors.

The Odd Egg by Emily Gravett

I have to admit to buying this one solely to boost my order to free delivery with The Book People.  So, essentially it was a free book.  Ahem. 

It's great.  It made BabyM smile. So much so that he didn't even attempt to eat it! It's about a duck who finds an egg.  All the other birds have an egg of their own, so duck pretends the egg is his.  The other eggs hatch (in lovely cut-away pages which are a pleasure for small hands to turn in the board book version). There are particularly nice touches on these cutaway pages - the baby owl emerges from his egg able to work out complex arithmetic, for example.

The end is surprising and hilarious.  This will become a firm favourite. Emily Gravett is an extremely talented artist and the storyline is sweet and amusing. Lovely for baby to pre-school (although me, A and C also enjoyed it deeply!)

*Sigh* Oh for goodness sake, it's just like school!"

At the moment, I am preoccupied by storage.  We are due to move in the next few weeks to a house which has some chance of fitting all of our things in it, without piles of books being the main focus of all the living areas. Although, having said that, I read a very trendy-trendy looking book from the library the other week called Books Make a Home, or something similar (I am not going to do it the honour of taking any more time out of my life for it to look it up online). It was truly, truly dreadful.  Pages and pages of extremely well-lit photographs of what looked to me like piles of books and magazines all over the place.  The message of the pictures seemed very strongly to be that if you live in an extremely large, trendy, and modern house and have no other possessions at all, then piles of books everywhere can look great! Except they didn't look great, they looked really untidy. One of the suggestions was to create your own glass coffee table by putting a piece of glass on top of four equally-sized piles of books. I mean, really?
  • That would look absolutely dreadful.
  • That is surely a ludicrous health hazard.
  • Most importantly - how are you meant to read and enjoy a book that forms one of the legs of a glass coffee table? Not entirely practical, is it?
I utterly agree with the premise that books make a home, which is why I borrowed the book in the first place.  But the book itself seemed to say that "using books you will never read and that look attractive is an interior design statement which shouts LOOK HOW CLEVER AND WELL-READ I AM! LOOK! PLEASE BE IMPRESSED! I'VE NEVER ACTUALLY READ A BOOK BUT THAT DOESN'T MATTER DOES IT SAY IT DOESN'T MATTER!" Not what I want for my home, thanks very much, Mr/Ms Author of Dreadful Book.

Anyway, back to actual useful book storage.  You know, the kind that displays books in an attractive way, but makes you want to look and them, and actually facilitates this. That kind. Although, apparently, this kind makes your living room a tiny bit like school.  Ah well, you can take the teacher out of school, and all that.

I bought the box from the Great Little Trading Company when they had a stonking sale.  At full price, it is a little wince-making.  But they are always having sales, so I suggest you sign up for the email newsletter and wait for a nice little "Please buy our stuff!" email to drop into your inbox.

It's called the Book Caddy, and is basically a white box with a  handle to store some books.  There is a little chalkboard area on the front.  Originally I put all of our WWI books in there, as a prelude to some village commemorations of the centenary said event.  The kids had a look at them.  BabyM tried to eat them.  A rolled her eyes and said the statement in the title of this post.  We all carried on happily.

This week A said "We're doing myths and legends in literacy. I suppose we could put some of our books on that in the book box thing." "OK" I said, trying to hide my intense excitement that she was playing along with me.  Our box now looks like this:


It's quite Marcia Williams box-set heavy, but that's not a bad thing, in my opinion.  Marcia William's cartoon versions of myths are great. I am fully aware that most of the lure of helping with the box, was being allowed to write with the special chalk pen when we had finished filling the box.  Tbh I was slightly upset at not being able to do that bit myself.
I suggested (with probably what was, on reflection, a bit too much enthusiasm) that we did a week each, where we put in favourite books from our shelves, that we would like to recommend to the rest of the family.  "Oh, really, Mummy! If it's not making the house into school, it's like making it into Waterstones or something!" How can anyone really have any objection to living in a branch of Waterstones? OK, so the bedding is not all that comfy, and you might want some cooking facilities.  But other than that, I don't see a problem. Bagsie the Birmingham New Street branch.  There are plenty of decent eateries nearby, and the stairs and particularly attractive.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Putting together a Story Sack.

I've always absolutely loved the idea of Story Sacks.  The idea is that instead of just having a simple story to read, you make the process of experiencing a story more interactive for a child. As well as a copy of the book, you include in the cloth sack a toy based on the book, a board game to play with themes relevant to the book, a science-y type game to play (again based on the book), and a non-fiction text which builds on some of the themes in the fictional book (or vice versa if the book you are basing the Story Sack is non-fiction).

I used the guide here to show me how to put together my Story Sack.

I chose to create mine based on The Three Little Pigs, since I was absolutely sure we had a copy of said text lying around somewhere. After all, I have three children, the eldest of whom is 10, and I am a total bibliophile, therefore I must have a copy, surely. Hmmmm. The longest single task in the creation of this Story Sack was looking for the blasted book, which it turns out I didn't have anyway! I ended up ordering the Nick Sharratt lift-the-flap version from Amazon, which turned out to be very satisfactory indeed.

Then, there was the task of finding other items for the sack.  Happily, I did have all of these things lying around, more or less. This was very satisfying - to make something more concrete somehow, more enriching than they were when scattered around random rooms in my house.

First of all I had, from years ago, a wooden puppet version of the story from the Early Learning Centre. The kids refused to let me get rid of this, thankfully, and used to use it to act out the story and put on little shows.

For the game, I used a Nursery Rhyme sequencing board game which was another old favourite.  The aim of the game is to get all of the elements of a famous fairy tale in the correct order, by throwing the dice and picking up cards with parts of the story on them. The Three Little Pigs is one of the eight stories included.

The science game was fun to create :) My friend kindly donated some large stones from her garden, I harvested some sticks from a tree in my garden and found some raffia in the garden shed to act as straw. I then put them all in a Lock n Lock box and added a card to the top asking several questions about the properties of the different materials in the box, and which one would be the best to make a house out of.

Finally I chose Home Around the World by Kate Petty and From Mudhuts to Skyscrapers by Christine Paxmann to act as non-fiction texts about buildings and safe places to live.  One for BabyM, and one for the others, should they choose to get involved in the Story Sack action.

BabyM just wanted to eat the Story Sack, although the others were interested.  In fairness, BabyM is far, far too young for the idea, I just got a little over-excited about it. I am looking forward to sharing it with him when he's big enough not to try and eat the raffia, and chuck the three little pig figures across the room...

Monday, 21 April 2014

Carnegie Shortlist 2014 - Rooftoppers and All the Truth That's in Me.

Even though I am not at work this year to share my thoughts about the Carnegie shortlist, I am reading the shortlist as normal, as I always enjoy it so very much. 

I only started this week, but have managed to get through two of the titles already.

The first, I must admit, I was disinclined to like after the bio on the first page states very prominently that the author was born in 1987.  I felt it was a boast, until I realised that the target audience of the novel would consider anyone born before the 1990s to be "well old" anyway.

For someone fresh out of secondary school she writes very well.  The novel, Rooftoppers is very good.  The relationship between the main protagonist and her guardian is real and touching.  The novel itself seemed somewhat derivative of Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy.  However, there is a quote from Pullman endorsing the book on the front cover, so he obviously sees it as a homage, rather than a cheeky nicking of ideas.

I loved the first 7/8 of the book, but the ending felt rushed, unrealistic and incompletely explored, and was rather disappointing. A good read, none the less, for ages 9+.

Over the last two days I have read All the Truth That's In Me by Julie Berry.  What an outstanding book.  I was heartbroken, angry, speechless, upset and joyful all in a great deal of very short chapters.  I've only read two books, but I have a feeling this one is going to be my favourite. Set in pioneer America, it conjures up an extremely compelling picture of a society beset by lies and prejudice, and it has an exciting and satisfying resolution. Wonderful, and highly recommended for older teenagers, perhaps as a moving-on point from Celia Rees' Witch Child series, or as a text to read to enhance understanding of The Crucible, that old GCSE stalwart.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Adrian Mole - helping generations of teens through their growing pains.

I was really saddened to hear of the death of Sue Townsend.  Although I know she said herself that she wouldn't "make old bones", part of me hoped that she would be proven wrong, and that she would go on for as many years as old Bert Baxter himself, smoking woodbines, buying a Communist newspaper and eating nothing but pickled beetroot.

She spoke at the Oxford Union when I was at university, and I went to see her.  She seemed like the sort of person you could have a good chat with if you ended up being stuck together waiting at a bus stop, or similar. By which I mean she seemed down-to-earth, wry, interesting.

She was certainly an exceptionally talented writer.  Not only the Adrian Mole series, but her other works were often hilariously funny, but heart-breaking, all at the same time.  Whenever I see the Queen on TV, I always feel a bit warmer towards her because of her close and trusting relationship with her neighbour Violet in The Queen and I and Queen Camilla, even though, of course, both Violet and the relationship, are completely fictional. 

I was introduced to Adrian Albert Mole when I was 8 and a half. I often have very clear memories of where I acquired books which turned out to be lifelong favourites, and this is no exception.  My Nan and Grandad lived in Wolvercote, near Oxford.  In order to buy a 3-bed semi in Wolvercote now, you have to be independently wealthy, or some kind of hedge-fund gambling crazer, but back in the 1960s when Nan and Grandad bought their house, you could buy a family home in a pleasant village within walking distance of Oxford on the income of a factory foreman and home help. The past is, indeed, another country.

Anyway, there were regular jumble sales at Wolvercote Village Hall. This place seemed huge, and miles away from Nan's house (it was neither), and there were often jumble sales.  Mum and Nan would always take us along, about which we often moaned.  I wouldn't moan now - a) because I'd dearly love to be able to spend some time, any time, with my dear old Mum and Nan again, and b) because you just don't really get jumble sales any more, do you?  Even bring-and-buy sales seem not to occur with the regularity they once did.  I'll blame ebay, I think - that fits in nicely with my prejudices.

So, it was at one of these Wolvercote Village Hall jumble sales that I acquired The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, aged 13 3/4. I thought it must be a children's book, because it had a picture of a Noddy toothbrush on the front.  I bought several books (I was allowed because they were only 5p each, and it meant that Mum and Nan could look at jumpers and cream jugs, and other really boring things that adults are interested in).  When Mum came over to pay the lady at the stall said "How old is she?  I'm not sure this book's totally suitable?"  Mum explained that I was 8, and, yes I was tall for my age, wasn't I, and that she'd long since given up trying to control what I read, and that I probably wouldn't understand any bits that I shouldn't, because I didn't know any swear words and wasn't very worldly-wise. This was all an accurate representation, so off I went, clutching my Adrian Mole.

I am glad I read it so young, as I knew that whatever teen trauma came up (and they certainly did), I never had it as badly as Adrian Mole.  There were a few copycat type series, such as Diary of a Teenage Health Freak, which were more overtly trying to help you with puberty and nowhere near as rude or funny.

There are so many expertly drawn characters in the series.  The first few are still my favourites - I found the hope that teenage Adrian still has for his future deeply touching, and did feel that the later novels were a touch dark, and not quite so life-affirming (perhaps not a surprise given what Sue Townsend was going through). 

If you've not read the series, I would strongly encourage you to do so. They paint the whole of life in its true colours.  A real gift to the world.  Thank you, Sue Townsend, for sharing your gift with your readers. And thank you Adrian Mole, for being an even bigger geek than me.