Tuesday, 16 December 2014

The Book With No Pictures


It may not be much to look at, this book is comedy dynamite! Open book for explosions of laughter. Books may not seem much fun if they don't have any pictures, but the person reading the book has to say the words in the book, no matter how silly they are! This was written by the American Office star BJ Novak, and cause a big social media stir when it was released; largely due to this video:

I got my library to order a copy straight away, because I could see straight away this would be storytime gold! It's been a loooong wait, but it finally arrived today! I read it to my 6 year old boy, and then had to read it again straight away. He was howling with laughter! It's not the ideal thing to read if you want them calm for bed, but it's the perfect thing to read if you want to help make your children enthusiastic about words and books!
Here's my son's reaction to the book, after its second consecutive reading:

Letter O! The Frozen/ Sesame Street homage that kids and parents love!

Anyone keeping even half an eye on this blog will have noticed that I've been as quiet as a ninja masquerading as a mime artist over the last year. It's not that I've been lazy, but I've had to make sure I dedicate writing time to the stories I'm doing if I ever want to get published! I'll try to post more things on here over the next little while, but here's something that you may like to see: a video that I made with my kids, that 's all about the letter O. If you have kids, then I'm sure they're obsessed with Disney's Frozen as well, and the chances are, you might be too! And as Sesame Street hadn't adapted Let it Go, I thought I'd do the job for them! I hope you enjoy it. And yes, it's me doing all the singing.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Fortunately, the Milk... A Hilarious Time-Travelling Adventure by Neil Gaiman!

Lots of children's books are fun. But some Peter Pan did it, with its cast of pirates, lost boys, Indians (even if I do cringe at that phrase), a fairy, a crocodile, mermaids, and a Nana that's a dog called Nana. On the Way Home by Jill Murphy did it, with a girl who may or may not have been attacked by a gorilla, a crocodile (again), a witch, a giant, a UFO, a snake and a ghost. The Boy Who Cried Ninja by Alex Latimer did it, with a boy troubled by a ninja (I approve), an astronaut, a pirate (again), a crocodile (again), and a time travelling monkey.
manage to cram the cast full of the characters that kids love, and elevate it into a cornucopia of children's booky pleasure.

But Neil Gaiman's latest quite possibly tops all of them (yes, maybe even Peter Pan), with his hilarious, bonkers, time-travel-adventure shaggy-dog story. It's the funniest Doctor Who episode you'll never see. When Dad pops round the corner to buy some milk, he's delayed. When he comes back, he claims it was because he ran into: a UFO (again) driven by big snotty aliens who want to redecorate the world; pirates (again); Aztecs; vampi - I mean, wumpires; Splod, the volcano god of people with short, funny names; a paradox in the space-time continuum; intergalactic space police; and a time-travelling dinosaur named Professor Steg, who rides a 'floaty-ball-person-carrier' (it's not called a balloon)! Oh, and some sparkly ponies. And piranhas.

All that would make it worthwhile anyway, but the fact that the British copy of this book is illustrated by my all-time favourite illustrator, the wonderful Chris Riddell, makes it even better. His drawings are so fun and quirky, so detailed, and so full of character. They're a blessing to any book they appear in.

All in all, Fortunately, the Milk... is a perfectly-plotted, great-looking, laugh-out-loud gem of a story. And one that would only take an hour for an adult to read to a child, which surely makes it an absolute must-read book for children of any age over five. And that includes one hundred and five. Seriously, a book like this can nudge a child that doesn't like reading towards being one that does.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

The Best Five Books I Read in 2013

Goodbye, 2013. Actually, we're all getting quite used to 2014 now really, aren't we? But seeing that I never quite finished this post on time (shame on me!) here are my five favourite books I read last year. And soon to come, my books to read this year!

The Knife of Never Letting Go, Patrick Ness (Ben's book of the year!)

Was there ever any doubt? This masterful, original, beautiful, ugly novel has been the gateway drug to reading six Patrick Ness books in 2013. Todd Hewitt is the only boy in a town of men; Prentisstown, where everyone can hear each other's thoughts, whether they want to or not. But when Todd discovers that his life is a lie, the only thing he can do is run. However, Prentisstown is far from finished with Todd.

Ness manages to get into his protagonist's head like few authors manage, and Todd's relationship with his two companions are strong and real and heartbreaking. The trilogy - scrap that, his books in general - aren't the chirpiest you'll read (in fact, some of it's pretty damned bleak), but they're original and utterly, utterly gripping. Bravo. There's a possible film being talked about, and I can't wait to see what they do with it. For more on this book, read my original review Here.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman

Gaiman is an absolute master of fantasy for both children and adults: but although this book is about childhood, it's definitely one for adults. The narrator, as an adult, revisits the Hempstock farm near where he grew up, and recalls the time he needed their help as a child. When something malevolent and supernatural broke into our world and into the boy's home, he turned to the three generations of Hempstock women, and there was something mighty strange about them: the youngest says their duck pond is an ocean, and the oldest says she can remember the Big Bang.

This book is an interesting creature, as it's similar in many ways to Gaiman's much-loved story Coraline. But whereas Coraline is filled with near unlimited levels of courage, determination and pluck (like most children's heroes), this boy feels rather more like us. He's brave, but not that brave. He spends much of the middle section powerless and locked up in his own house by the beautiful but terrifying monster that's posing as an au pair, and has the rest of his family in thrall. Coraline gets the book's title, but we don't even learn the boy's name.

The story is melancholic, and as tender and painful as a fresh bruise. Read it, and it will haunt you for a long time.

World Without End, Ken Follett

'Epic' is a word that'd bandied about thoughtlessly (yes, I'm thinking of you, Money Supermarket), but Ken Follett's books are the real deal. Framed against the backdrop of the 14th Century, World Without End features the usual power, corruption, murder, sex, love and treachery, with an unhealthy dose of Hundred Year's War and the Black Death.

The opening chapters see four children witness a brutal attack on a knight, and the incident has a profound affect on their lives. The two boys, brothers, see their lives take very different paths, as Ralph becomes a squire and seeks to restore his family's fortunes, whereas Merthin suffers the ignominy of becoming a builder's apprentice. Caris is a young woman who seeks to revitalise the city of Kingsbridge, and Gwenda is a serf who will do whatever it takes to survive. Their lives are intertwined with the each other's, and with the priory that rules Kingsbridge.

The central story, ultimately, is the love story surrounding Merthin and Caris, and they're very much portrayed as the visionary heroes, pitted against various small-minded, beauracratic foes. It's perhaps tempting to write off the story as formulaic in the sense that you know there's going to be another villain to stand in our heroes' way, but to dismiss it in that way doesn't do justice to the sheer breadth and majesty of the saga. Bravo, sir. Bravo.

Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl, Donald Sturrock
There can be few nowadays who have never read a Roald Dahl story. He remains one of the few sure bets among children, and his darkly delightful short stories are a favourite among many adults. And here is an involving, detailed, masterpiece of a biography that does the great man justice.

And he was great, there's no doubt about that. I was astonished at what he had accomplished, after his well-known but short lived time as a fighter pilot for the RAF, he became an intelligence officer in America, feeding them pro-British propaganda. He became a friend of presidents and film stars, and his very first story, about gremlins (a name he didn't coin, but popularised), very very nearly became a Disney film. He saved his son's life (and many others') by helping invent a valve to drain excess fluid from the brain. He rehabilitated his wife, actress Patricia Neal, to a near-full recovery after a stroke left her unable to even walk or talk. It seems that he was able to accomplish anything he set his mind to - except, perhaps, write an adult novel.

Dahl's biography is as fascinating as his stories: being his friend could be a risky business, as he could be cruel and rude, and several long-lasting relationships blew up in a terrible row, never to be fully reconciled. But he was extrordinarily kind and generous, too, and would happily help out his friends if ever they needed it.

Sturrock has done an excellent job. His approach is scholarly, yet never dry. This is quite possibly the best biography I've ever had the pleasure of reading.

More Than This, Patrick Ness

I'll stop going on about Ole Nessy in a moment, but his second book published this year (the first was also good, his adult novel The Crane Wife) was the excellent teen novel More Than This. The opening pages see teenager Seth drown in the sea, and smashed against the rocks. It's a brutal opener, and indicative of the story to come.

Seth reawakes an indeterminate time later in his childhood home, thousands of miles away from where he died. The town is a ruin, and absolutely deserted. The grass is taller than he is. And every time he sleeps, he dreams vivid flashbacks of the life he lived. And his life was a painful one: Seth was responsible for a traumatic event that left his younger brother not right, broke his family, and prompted their relocation. But what event led to Seth's death in the sea?

And More Than That, where is he now? Is he being punished in Hell for his terrible role in the family tragedy? Is it real life, somehow, and if so, what on earth has happened here? Or is this some form of Heaven teaching him the significance of his life? Answers are revealed, and when they are, wow, what a ride! As with Ness' other books, this can be a painful read at times. But utterly thrilling, too. For more on this, read my original review Here,

Well, that's one last goodbye from 2013.

Monday, 16 December 2013

The Best Christmas Scenes and Stories!

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat, but there’s nothing quite as Christmassy as a Christmas story: Christmas how it should be. Where it snows, and Father Christmas brings presents. And so to get you in the mood, here are my selection of Christmas scenes and stories from (mainly) children’s books. Do you agree with the list, or have I missed something? Leave a comment, and let me know!

Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame
There can be few things as quintessentially English as The Wind in the Willows, and here Kenneth Grahame delivers a very English Christmas indeed. Mole and Ratty are taking a winter’s walk, when Mole smells as scent that’s familiar yet lost: his little house that he hasn’t returned to since the day he met Ratty. He’s filled with both homesickness for Mole End, and shame at its dreary shabbiness. Ratty is (as ever) the steadier of the two, and calms and comforts Mole, whilst praising his home. They’re then joined by some field-mice carollers, who accompany them for a miniature feast and mulled ale: “soon every field-mouse was sipping and coughing and choking (for a little mulled ale goes a long way) and wiping his eyes and laughing and forgetting he had ever been cold in all his life.” The scene raises Mole’s spirits from despair to joy in the company of friends, and in home comforts, which are the twin pleasures of all sensible animals in Wind in the Willows. It also nicely shows the underlying structure to Mole and Ratty’s bromance. A lovely scene, and one that will never cease to make me smile.

The Snowman, Raymond Briggs
There are very few cases where an adapted film is superior to the original book, but I think in this case, the wonderful cartoon definitely manages it. It’s never been bettered (sorry, Snowdog; although you are cute). The book is very charming however, and like the film, is entirely wordless. The tragic final picture will haunt snowy days forever, but my favourite part is the sudden run, jump and soar into the air. Absolute magic.

The Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
If you don’t count that one with the baby, this must be the Christmas story. It’s a great tale of redemption: we can really enjoy Scrooge’s miserly villainy, because we know he’ll come good in the end. Once he’s met the lovely Ghost of Christmas Past, the jolly Ghost of Christmas Present, and the deeply scary Ghost of Christmas Future, he repents of his meanness and starts to care about others. Mr Fezziwig’s party is a fun Christmassy scene, but the classic moment has to be when Scrooge awakes on Christmas morning: “What’s to-day, my fine fellow?” asked Scrooge. “Why, CHRISTMAS DAY.” “Do you know the Poulterer’s? Do you know whether they’ve sold the prize Turkey that was hanging up there? Go and buy it. I’ll send it to Bob Cratchit’s!” whispered Scrooge, rubbing his hands and splitting with a laugh.” What a classic. And The Muppets Christmas Carol is of course the best film version.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, CS Lewis
The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is a controversial one. Tolkien hated it, and one can see why: having Father Christmas (or indeed, Christmas at all) in a world without humans is rather a surprise. But give logic a rest, and enjoy the fairytale magic of the scene. In the bewitched land of Narnia, where it is “Always winter, and never Christmas”, the goodies are trying to reach Aslan in order to defeat the White Witch, and rescue their turncoat brother Edmund. Are the sleigh bells they can hear the White Witch’s? Don’t worry, it’s just Father Christmas! Peter gets a sword and shield (“Tools, not toys,”), Susan gets a bow, a quiver of arrows, and a magic horn, and Lucy gets a healing potion and a dagger. Poor Edmund never gets a thing from Father Christmas, who never seems to make a repeat appearance, so it just goes to show – if you make his naughty list, even becoming a king and being titled “the Just” isn’t enough to get you back on the nice list.

It may be tempting to dismiss the Father Christmas scene as silly, but it shows that the White Witch’s power is waning – and it’s an essential plot device for Prince Caspian. And it’s nice and Christmassy. So there!

The Empty Stocking, Richard Curtis and Rebecca Cobb
Speaking of naughty lists, Richard Curtis, he of Blackadder fame – alright, and Four Weddings and Notting Hill – has written a picturebook. And the result is as fun as you’d hope, even if it isn’t an out and out comedy. Santa is coming, which is fine for Sam, who is a good little girl. But what about Charlie, who can be really
rather naughty? Santa comes, and this being a story, things don’t turn out quite as they should do. Which twin will wake up to an empty stocking? The illustrations are lovely, with pictures by Rebecca Cobb, whose story Aunt Amelia was included in my Top Picturebooks of 2013.

Jesus’ Christmas Party, Nicholas Allan
And yes, another Nicholas Allan picturebook! His book Heaven appears on my ‘Picturebooks dealing with death’ post, and The Royal Nappy is on the ‘Royal baby’ post. But what can I say, he makes good books! Here, the Innkeeper is trying to have a good night’s sleep, but keeps getting interrupted. Firstly by Mary and Joseph, then some shepherds, and three kings – and as for those angels…! Nicholas Allan sometimes deals with serious topics, but is always fun – and this is as fun and humorous a nativity story as you could want. NB: His book "Father Christmas Needs a Wee" doesn't count as a serious book, though it probably feels pretty serious to him.

 Hogfather, Terry Pratchett

Alright, this one isn’t even Christmas, actually. Because on the Discworld, people celebrate Hogswatch, when the Hogfather rides his magical flying pigs, and delivers presents. But the Hogfather has disappeared, and the one person who can take his place for the night is… Death, with the help of his granddaughter, Susan. Even though Death is, well, Death, he’s a decent sort of chap. He cares. And he knows that if he fails his mission – then the sun won’t rise the next morning. As funny, inventive and insightful as ever, this Discworld novel makes for a great alternative seasonal treat. The standout scene isn’t especially… Hogswatchy, but a discussion between Death and Susan on the nature of the Hogfather (or indeed, Father Christmas):

“All right," said Susan. "I'm not stupid. You're saying humans need... fantasies to make life bearable."
"Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—"
"So we can believe the big ones?"
"They're not the same at all!"
"Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what's the point—"

 Lollipop and Grandpa’s Christmas Baby, Penny Harper and Cate James
Lollipop and Grandpa is a fairly new picturebook series, and a thoroughly charming one, too. They introduce childhood experiences (going swimming, exploring the back garden, having a wobbly tooth etc) and use imagination to turn the day into an adventure! This book manages to combine two picturebook staples: Christmas, and babies. Lollipop is sure that her new baby brother is going to ruin Christmas. But Grandpa is on hand to help out, and even if they can’t cook a turkey, they can still make it a fun Christmas! And does the baby spoil Christmas? What do you think?

Harry Potter, JK Rowling
Thanks to Harry Potter’s annual structure, it fits nicely with special times of the year (Hogwarts students: be extra careful in Spring Term, as the story’s climax will be approaching), which means that there are lots of Harry Potter Christmasses to choose from. But as wonderful as Hogsmeade is, the one that sticks in my mind the most is his very first Christmas at
Hogwarts (in Philosopher’s Stone), where Harry discovers the Mirror of Erised. Erised – desire, backwards – “shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts.... However, this mirror will give us neither knowledge or truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible.” Harry aches to be in a loving family with his parents, and you can feel his heart breaking. Beautiful but melancholy.

Compare that with Harry’s final Christmas in the series, (Deathly Hallows) where Harry returns to the house his parents died for the first time. Standing in the graveyard, he discovers their graves, whilst Hermione hears the carol concert inside the church, and realises that it’s Christmas Eve. The (once again) beautiful melancholy is interrupted by one of the creepiest passages in the whole series: Bathilda Bagshot turning into scary snake lady. After a frantic battle for their lives against Voldie’s snake and Horcrux Nagini, Harry spends Christmas Day out cold. Not a good one.

The Nativity Play, Nick Butterworth & Mick Inkpen/ The Christmas Show, Rebecca Patterson
Both of these picturebooks are a fun look at children’s nativity plays. Butterworth’s Nativity Play sticks more closely to the story of Jesus’ birth, but with bad donkey outfits. Patterson’s Christmas Show doesn’t go into the details of the Christmas story, because the narrator isn’t really listening, and isn’t sure which part he is. But it doesn’t matter if he sings the wrong lines – because his Granny thinks he was brilliant! The Nativity Play is perhaps the better one for families looking at the story of Christmas, but they’re both good entertainment.

It’s a long list, but there are plenty of others. What are your favourite Christmas scenes and stories? Should I have had The Night Before Christmas? How the Grinch Stole Christmas? The Nutcracker? (There’s a gorgeous pop-up version, that’s almost like being at the theatre!) Raymond Briggs of course did a good Father Christmas – and so did Tolkien. What are your favourite Nativity stories? Do leave a comment and let me know!

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Nelson Mandela's "Long Walk to Freedom": The Picturebook

Nelson Mandela will be mourned around the world. He was a great man who inspired world change in a way only a few in a century manage; a man who united people in peace rather than war.

His death will no doubt cause some children to wonder who he was: knowledge one generation takes for granted becomes vague the next. If children want to find out more about him, they may like this picturebook for older children, based on his acclaimed autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. It's an easy to read but informative book, and is a great starting point for children who want to learn more. Or for people who won't get through the 800 page book.

And if they like that, then they could find a worse book to follow it up with than Barack Obama's inspiring Of Thee I Sing.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

SJ Bolton made me "Dead Scared". #ALLD13

Aylesbury Library is holding its first ever Literary Day on 30th November, which will be host to several great local authors. One of them is award-winning, bestselling crime-writer SJ Bolton...

Some crime novels are as cosy as tea and cake by the fireside; where everyone ends up happy (except for the deceased, presumably), and the world is a happy, bubbling place. And then there are crime novels that snare you like a fishhook to the mouth; where you know you shouldn't continue reading past dark, but you just can't put it down. Books where no one survives unscathed, and the world is a fearful place that ends ultimately in death.

Guess which sort of book SJ Bolton writes?

I was thirty pages into my first SJ Bolton book, when I realised I should have paid more heed to the title: Dead Scared. You know a writer is good when a table covered with pine cones is enough to give you goosebumps.

Dead Scared sees a surprising number of young, attractive and fragile Cambridge students committing suicide in a number of ghoulish and inventive ways. Student councillor and psychiatrist Evie Oliver is suspicious that these deaths are more than they appear - and she's also certain that someone keeps breaking into her house...

Lacey Flint, a young police officer with a past, is drafted in to pose undercover as a student so that she can observe the campus, and keep an eye out for any secretive suicide death cults. Of course we know that things don't go to plan - in fact, Bolton makes that plainly clear by her prologue: Lacey standing at the top of a building, dead-eyed and suicidal. And about to jump. The rest of the story is a countdown to this ending, and each new day in the story gives a heading of how many days to go to this cataclysmic event.

This is a modern gothic thriller that really knows how to deliver both the thrills and the chills in the story. It feels as if the story has been well-researched (hopefully not too deeply researched), and Bolton has a good understanding of the effects of the both media and social media. The characterisation is good - Lacey and Evie particularly have distinct, believable personalities and voices. Both characters had appeared in previous SJ Bolton novels: Lacey in Bolton's previous novel, Now You See Me (no magians here, but a Jack the Ripper copycat fixated on Lacey) , and Evie in Blood Harvest (a disturbing thriller revolving around the discovery of two children's bodies). Despite this, you don't have to have read the previous books to enjoy this one - and you learn Lacey and Evie's backstories as you get to know them better. As Evie pines for her lost love Harry, there's a good building romance between Lacey and her DI, Mark Joesbury, who's clearly in love with her. All the recurring characters are truly human, and are still dealing with the fallout from the earlier novels. 

But it's as a crime nasty where the book really stands out. The inventive suicides (I won't spoil them for you here, but one in particular was jaw-dropping), the pervading sense of fear and dread (I had to make sure my door was locked and the curtains were pulled tightly across the window!) and the clues, red herrings, and plot twists work really well. Of course, savvy crime readers watch out for the red herrings, but there was one clue in particular that I just couldn't decide upon. Some of the scene-setting descriptions were exceptionally creepy, and I couldn't help but repeat it out loud to my fellow library ninjas. Lines like, "The January chill comes drifting over the Fens and wraps itself across the city like a paedophile's hand round that of a small, unresisting child." And a villain who clings to her boyfriend "like a bad smell around rotting meat." The book opens with a graphic, detailed description of what happens when a person falls a long distance to their death, and despite the factual, deadpanned tone, I can imagine SJ Bolton cackling with glee as she wrote it. This is an author who knows how to scare people, and likes it.

If you don't like being scared, then keep away from this book. But if you like authors like Mark Billingham or Phil Rickman, or are on the lookout for a well-written, original thriller, then SJ Bolton is a must read.

I'm currently reading her latest novel, Like This, For Ever. It's about a serial killer targetting ten year old boys, and draining their blood. I don't think it's going to end well...

Don't forget, you can meet SJ Bolton at Aylesbury Library this Saturday (30th November), at 12.50, where she'll discuss the art of a good scare. Her Twitter page (@AuthorSJBolton) describes her as "Nice Author. Nasty Books. (Or should that be the other way round?)" I sure hope not, because if she's as nasty as her books, I don't think I'd survive meeting her!