Monthly Archives: March 2018


Here is a book about Space for the youngest readers. Well, the over-threes, anyway. It all depends on when someone might show an interest in space.

Heather Alexander’s new book with the usual fun illustrations by Andrés Lozano is like an advent calendar. There are so many doors to open. To be perfectly honest, I don’t know who wouldn’t be interested in ‘reading’ all those doors. What’s behind them, I mean.

Oops, I see they are lift-flaps, and there are 70 of them.

Heather Alexander and Andrés Lozano, Space

Deep questions, such as what is the universe, how did the universe begin and how old is it? Plenty of pictures of cheerful looking astronauts, although I must say I do not want to know what happens to their eyeballs in space. Read the book yourself, to find out.

Despite – or because of? – being aimed at such young readers, the pictures are very appealing. I especially like the heavy rocket launch one. And the telescope.

As you are an adult, you know what the difference between meteors and meteorites is, right? If not, this book can let you cheat, so that you will seem quite knowledgeable.

Was it one of them that killed the dinosaurs? And why isn’t poor Pluto a planet any more?

Pupil Library Assistants

The other night I had a dream about one of the pupil library helpers at Offspring’s secondary school. It was probably the effect of reading about the finalists of this year’s Pupil Library Assistant of the Year Award. They went to London last week for an Award Ceremony, which involved lots of authors and librarians. And at the end they marched over to Downing Street to let Theresa May know what they think is important about libraries. (I suspect she has no idea.)

I’d have loved to have been there.

As I said, Offspring did this kind of thing, back in the day. I was so keen on the whole library thing that I joined them there. Hence me knowing other library helpers I can dream about.

I think we all enjoyed it. At first I was taken aback when I discovered Son joining up immediately on arriving at his new school. I didn’t disapprove; I was just not expecting it. Younger siblings clearly need to follow in the footsteps of older ones, so Daughter went along on her first day. And I doubt Bookwitch as you know her would have existed without that school library.

There was one fail, though. When asked if I could suggest any new helpers, I came up with the sister of one of Daughter’s peers from primary school. I felt she’d be perfect. However, she’d got to the stage where she needed to be cool, and the library wasn’t cool, so she declined. I think she’d have fitted in well, so it’s a shame that peer pressure can take you away from books.

The Unpredictability of Being Human

I loved this book.

I’d have read it much sooner if there had been any mention of it being an aspie novel. This is not – necessarily – something you discover by leafing through a few pages. To me it looked like your typical Americanised school relationship story, albeit a good one. And I could never get my head round whether it was translated or not. Seems it’s not, as Linni Ingemundsen is Norwegian, but presumably wrote her book in English. Americanised English. I am being aspie about this, I know. But I believe Malin, the main character in this book, would understand what I mean.

Linni Ingemundsen, The Unpredictability of Being Human

14-year-old Malin watches the time and keeps us posted on how many hours and minutes and seconds it has been. She is open-minded, but clueless, which leads to her doing whatever the others at school tell her to do, when really it would have been better if she hadn’t. Very temporarily Malin acquires a friend, one who looks out for her, until she loses her by not understanding what you say or don’t say to others.

This is the story of her life, as Malin goes from one slightly baffling thing to the next. You can Google life, but that still doesn’t mean you get it right. As happens all the time in real life, she is suitable fodder for the mean girls in her class. Her dysfunctional family are more ‘normal’ than Malin, but not normal enough to realise quite how much she needs their help.

This book has it all; sex, drinking, how to avoid drowning, lying, how to kiss a boy, what not to do with scissors, dislocated shoulders, and death. If you’re not Malin, it comes across as mildly humorous. For Malin everything is puzzling. Unless it’s maths.

There is a genuinely Norwegian flavour to everything, including words and phrases not translated. I think I can guess what lapper might be.

Malin is a wonderful character and I wish her well for the future. I hope for someone to explain the weirdest aspects of ‘normal’ life to her, when she needs it.

One man’s rubbish…

By now you have probably seen the article[s] about the Ankara rubbish men who began collecting books for a library for themselves. I find that re-reading the story does not make it any less interesting. In fact, it would seem I have something in common with these Turkish men; we like the idea of having lots of books at our disposal, and we can’t bear getting rid of books by just chucking them away.

What’s fascinating is how many they were able to pick up for their collection/library. The books can’t have been in too bad a condition or so desperately boring that no one would want to read them.

I know very little about Turkey, so one of my potentially prejudiced views would be that they are so poor that they are happy with any old book found. But then, there were clearly many people throwing books away. And the library they built seems to have been sanctioned by the mayor in their municipality. And surely there wouldn’t be teachers clamouring to borrow books for their schools if they weren’t worth reading? Although teachers needing to ask for formerly thrown-away books suggests there are few funds for books by other routes.

I look at my own books, which I attempt to dispose of as sensibly as I can. How nice it would be if the Ankara men could inspire others in my neighbourhood to do the same. A kind of larger version of the Little Libraries you might have outside your house.

But then, we have libraries in Scotland. For how much longer, I don’t know. At that point maybe my cast-offs will be more welcome. I look at my books every day, thinking that someone not too far away would really like ‘this book’ and my main problem is finding that someone.

Maybe a small shed on my drive? You know, halfway between a Little Library and actually inviting people into my house. I’m still too unsociable to be able to do that.

While I’m vacillating, doing nothing, I’m in awe of these people in Turkey who seem to actively like the books they’ve found.

Oh Tracy Beaker

Who’d have thought Tracy Beaker would return?

Not me. Although when I think about it, I do realise it makes sense. Authors can and do revisit old characters. In this case for Jacqueline Wilson it does mean she needs to work round Tracy’s age.

Because it’s been a while. It’s easier to forget the passage of time when it’s someone outside your immediate family, even if Tracy almost, nearly, is family. I am aware that Daughter has got – a lot – older, so obviously Tracy has too. She was always a little older, anyway.

Jacqueline deals with the 27 years by making Tracy the adult, which sort of feels an unlikely thing, but why not? Tracy has a daughter of her own now, Jess.

And you know, when you get that far, it does make a lot of sense. Mothers and daughters can read together. I had just about come to the conclusion that I am unable to keep up with Jacqueline’s two new books a year, but this news has made me rethink. I need to meet Jess. But more than that, I have to see how Tracy is.

The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare

As I read The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare by Zillah Bethell, I was already in a mood for a very good book, Cambridge scientists were topical, and I do think about the environment quite a bit.

I love it when a middle grade book is more than a fun read for that age group, and actually appeals to me, for my own sake. Admittedly, Zillah has a publicist adept at twisting arms, but then some of the best books I’ve read have been the result of arm-twisting.

Zillah Bethell, The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare

Auden is eleven and suffers from achromatopsia. And also ‘slightly’ from sarcasm. The first one means he can’t see colours, and the second means he’s rather fun. In Auden’s world they are at war, over water, which is so scarce that they are always thirsty and they smell, because washing doesn’t happen much.

His mother and Auden move from London to Cambridge, to live in his [dead] Uncle Jonah’s dilapidated house. Jonah was a scientist, and before long Auden and his new friend Vivi make a discovery in the garden. At first they don’t know what any of it means, but they are intelligent children and they work things out.

While this is a sort of eco adventure, you can’t get away from the horror of a world with hardly any water; where soldiers from the Water Allocation Board are armed to stop people from stealing a few extra drops to drink. It makes you think.

I really liked this book!

Black holes and other fun

The image of Stephen Hawking, who died yesterday, that generally comes to [my] mind when I think of him, is the happy one of him floating weightlessly inside one of those planes where you can simulate being in space. It tells you that this was a man who was up for fun, and not someone always weighted down by his reputation in science or the fact that he’s very famous, or even as ‘someone in a wheelchair.’

In other words, Stephen was a role model to lots of people, in many different ways.

If you only encountered him as the ‘Stephen’ who writes about science in his daughter Lucy Hawking’s books about George, you’d probably think he sounded like an OK guy. Not old, not filled with his own importance. And if you’re ten, which you could well be as a reader of the George books, that might be the only thing you know about him.

But he did get to grow fairly old. All right, 76 isn’t that old, but to outlive a life expectancy of a couple of years by another fifty is pretty good going. And I admired his public – and political – stance on what the government is doing to the NHS. It needs people of some importance to speak out, because the rest of us don’t seem to count. And as a user of the NHS, Stephen had more of a track record than many of us.

It’s also heartening to know that a man considered to be so brilliant now, was seen as more average or mediocre when he was young. That, if anything, is a sign that you can pull yourself together, and that you can turn into someone who inspired many young scientists, my own little one included. Nine years ago in Edinburgh Lucy Hawking shared an early opinion (school report, maybe?) on her father, just after he had received the Medal of Freedom from President Obama. ‘This boy will never amount to anything.’

He showed them.

I have no idea how close to the truth the Eddie Redmayne film The Theory of Everything came, but in it you will see some of that playfulness. On Wednesday’s Today programme John Humphrys seemed taken aback at the idea that Stephen Hawking might have danced in his wheelchair.

I don’t see why not. Just because you can’t walk doesn’t mean you have to be boring. Or not want to dance.

Lucy Hawking, 'with' Stephen Hawking

(I borrowed the above photo from Lucy. It’s such a great illustration of how she travelled the world on her father’s behalf, even if he turned into a hologram on occasion.)


My heart is still beating. I mean, that is obviously good, but it did go thump thump thump rather a lot towards the end of Teri Terry’s Deception, the sequel to Contagion. This, too, ends with, if not exactly a cliffhanger, then with lots of questions left unanswered. And there has been much deception, and probably will be even more in the last instalment.

Teri Terry, Deception

More people die. Lots more. So if this was real, I’d definitely be dead. And as in Contagion, Teri kills both good characters and bad ones.

The disease keeps spreading. The carrier knows it’s their doing, but for a long time no one else realises who’s the guilty party.

We gain a few more major characters, because all this couldn’t be left to Shay and Kai and Callie to sort out. Some of them die. Some don’t. Not necessarily the right ones. But I quite like the set-up over dinner one night when one character demands of another that she teaches them to kill. ‘Show us again,’ … ‘If anyone comes around with a flame-thrower I want to be sure how to do it.’

The bad guy has become more obvious in Deception. Unless he’s merely misunderstood, of course. But I don’t think so. And while believing that we all have some good and some bad in us, I’m not counting on this one rescuing us all in the end.

There is deception in most of us too. We don’t always admit to everything, and sometimes we deceive. Intentionally. All is fair in love and war?

If you want a dystopic thriller, Teri Terry is your woman.

Bath time

Many years ago as I was at home in central Brighton, waiting for Mother-of-witch to arrive, I heard what could charitably be described as a motorbike on steroids drive up our little cul-de-sac. It was the right time, but definitely not the right sound. But as I looked out, it turned out to be her after all. Seems she had lost a bit of her exhaust en route.

At the time I thought nothing about her driving around England. It’s only as I’ve got really old that I understand how brave she was being, getting her car on and off the ferries, and driving on all those roads with roundabouts everywhere, and on the wrong side, too.

I gave her tea. It was the least I could do after her exhausting ordeal, and she told me about her drive from the Lake District. Earlier that day she’d had a look round Bath. And after she had seen what there was to see, she had gone up to a policeman and asked him where she had parked her car.

Bath policemen are obviously really good, because he was able to tell her. (It probably helped that she had made a note of the name of the street.)

As a parent myself I have occasionally ‘entertained’ Offspring with this story. I’ve never expected them to listen, or to remember it.

But last week as Son made his Bath debut with a day trip to this beautiful city, he came back and asked about that story about his grandmother losing the car in Bath. Had I been with her?

I explained that if I had, I clearly wouldn’t have permitted Mother-of-witch to lose a car like that.

But I’m quite impressed. He’d listened. He’d remembered, and even placed the lost car in the correct place.

I may need to be more careful what I say. More silly anecdotes could resurface when I least expect it.

And we had the exhaust fixed before she drove home.

The Children of Willesden Lane

This is not a fictional tale about WWII, but the memoirs of Lisa Jura, who at the age of 14 came to London from Vienna with the Kindertransport. Written by Lisa’s daughter Mona Golabek with Lee Cohen, it is a simplified version of what Lisa used to tell Mona about as she grew up.

It lacks a little of the good quality story that you come to expect from this topic, but in the end I found I just wanted to see what Lisa’s life would have been like in England during the war. And as with many other books about refugees in the past, the reader marvels at how differently [from today] the new arrivals were treated by the British. At how many opportunities were offered them, even during the war.

And it makes you feel ashamed.

Lisa was one of three sisters, chosen by her parents for her age – not too young and not too old – and for her skills in playing the piano. They hoped she would be able to make something of herself in a new country.

Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen, The Children of Willesden Lane

Things didn’t always go to plan, but the new arrivals were looked after. In Lisa’s case in a house full of child refugees, in Willesden Lane in London. And that confirms my theory that when you lose someone, while no one can replace dear family members, if you have someone else, your life isn’t empty. The children of Willesden Lane had each other, and they were looked after and loved by Mrs Cohen.

While not unique, this is still a very heartwarming, true story. Bad things happened, but the good things carried people through.

I would like to hope for a few more Lisas today.