Monthly Archives: May 2018

For Mother

If you didn’t make the most of the UK Mother’s Day before Easter, or the US/Swiss/many other countries’ Mother’s Day a couple of weeks ago, I give you your third time lucky. Sweden, tomorrow.

I happened to visit a bookshop yesterday, and found a display of books suggested for Mother.

Jenny Colgan, Den lilla bokhandeln runt hörnet

One of them was by Jenny Colgan, who hails from not too far away from Bookwitch Towers, so I feel some kinship, and it was nice to see her translated work some distance away, and it’s good to know she’s suitable for Mothers. (I’m not sure, but it might be The Bookshop on the Corner, which I suppose makes sense to encounter in a bookshop, even if not on a corner.)

Well, it’s that, or a bunch of handpicked Lilies of the Valley.

Or both.

(And since you ask, yes, it’s a terribly blurry photo.)

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Welcome to Nowhere

I was expecting a story about how life in Syria got so awful that Omar and his family had to leave, becoming refugees and ending up in Britain after much hardship on the way, followed by their life here, and how they were received.

Elizabeth Laird, Welcome to Nowhere

That’s not the story Elizabeth Laird wrote, however. Welcome to Nowhere is exactly that; it’s about a family of seven, who have to leave their home in Bosra when the troubles in Syria begin, and they move in with Omar’s grandmother. Soon they have to flee again, and again. In the end they really do end up in ‘Nowhere.’

Omar is about 13 when we first meet the family, with an older sister and an older brother, who has cerebral palsy, plus two younger siblings. The father works for the government, something that turns out not to be so good in a country where civil war is about to break out.

This is the Syrian crisis from the inside. I’ve read the papers and seen the news on television, but I didn’t know it like this. There isn’t all that much about the actual, physical war. It’s more how a normal family tries to survive, as the reality of the situation slowly dawns on them. How they realise that they might never go home.

Elizabeth Laird as always is very good at showing the reader how people in other countries live. It’s one of the most valuable things about her writing, as well as the thrill of her plots. So we learn how Omar is the one who does things, his clever older sister is destined to be married off, when all she wants is to go to school, and Musa is invariably described as a cripple and an imbecile, even by [some] members of his own family, when he is also extremely intelligent. Their mother has to obey her husband, and it is fascinating to see what it takes to make her stand up to the men in her life.

They all grow up in this story. I’m not sure who grows the most.

Welcome to Nowhere has completely changed how I look at Syria, leaving me wanting to do more, but feeling helpless in what has become a country against refugees.

Everyone should read this book.

Elizabeth Laird, Welcome to Nowhere (illustration by Lucy Eldridge)

(Atmospheric illustrations by Lucy Eldridge.)

Positively Teenage

Nicola Morgan is one of the best friends a teenager can have. I wish I’d had her [book] when I was young and agonised over life. Now when I read her Positively Teenage guide to teenage well-being, I can only nod sagely and agree, because over time I’ve also learned a few sensible things.

Nicola Morgan, Positively Teenage

But this – very yellow – book is a great guide to feeling well, feeling happier with yourself. Because you deserve it.

Today I might not [yet] have had my daily dose of laughter, even if it is great brain medicine. But I’ll work on it.

I did Nicola’s Quiz – she has many throughout the book – on ‘the flourish actions.’ I did abysmally. But it would be fairly quick and easy to improve such a score, and with Nicola’s help you at least know what to aim for.

Your body is just fine. Yes, you think your nose, or whatever, is horrible. But everyone has something like that, making them spend years agonising over some detail that will baffle the older you.

You can change your luck. It’s not as if you were born with genuinely bad luck. Learn to think and act positive. It will change you.

In every chapter there are links to websites and organisations to help you find out more, or to make contact with.

I reckon that for every little, or big, thing you worry about, Nicola’s book will have something sensible and reassuring to say. Read the book and see how you can improve your life. Even quite old ‘teenagers’ can benefit from this guide. Give the book to others, and keep a copy for your own needs.

What about Deborah?

The Breadwinner

When I got to the last page of the Guardian Weekend last week, I stared. It was a film poster for a new animated film called The Breadwinner.

I thought, ‘it might be based on the book by Deborah Ellis.’ I began searching for the proof that it had something to do with this marvellous, if disturbing, tale about the young girl in Afghanistan who ends up as the breadwinner for her family by pretending to be a boy.

But there was nothing. Angelina Jolie gets a prominent mention, as executive producer. Well done. The film is by Nora Twomey. Well done again. There are various quotes about the film’s excellence.

There is some small print, but I am fairly certain that I squinted enough, and Deborah’s name wasn’t there either.

So I googled the film, and lo and behold, it is based on the book. It’s not even pretending not to be. Wikipedia lists her, and an interview with Nora begins by mentioning her.

Deborah Ellis at MMU

Film posters are large. There would have been room for the name of the person who thought up this whole story in the first place. Even if they have altered a lot, there is the sense of the original plot, the original characters.

If Deborah had been a really well known, big name, I suspect it would have been plastered all over the poster.

That said, I look forward to seeing the film. It’s out on May 25th.

The danger of libraries

I can’t remember where I borrowed the quote below. Or from whom. But it has to be shared. It’s not hard to understand why they are so frightened of libraries.

Terry Pratchett on libraries

And I seem to have missed what would have been Terry’s 70th birthday a few weeks ago. Not only did I not know the date, but I had the year wrong. I must not have visited libraries often enough.

Ghost Boys

It’s heartbreaking.

Especially because this is for real, by which I mean the fact that black boys in the US have a very high likelihood of being harassed by police, and far too frequently are the victims of police shootings. Often in ‘self defense’ or because the police officer ‘feared for his life.’

What about the black boy’s life?

This short novel by Jewell Parker Rhodes is about 12-year-old Jerome in Chicago, who is shot dead when playing with a toy gun. It’s hard starting a book when you know that the main character will be dead immediately. Contemplating reading about his grief-stricken family is equally difficult.

Jewell Parker Rhodes, Ghost Boys

But this is a strong book. It shows us how easily a well-behaved child could end up dead because of his skin colour. It shows us the ghosts of many more such boys, standing quietly, looking for an explanation maybe, or for a fairer future for other boys. It shows us how easily the white police officer can get away with it, even if it might be the end of his life as he knew it.

Jerome learns a lot about life after he’s died. And we learn much about what Jerome’s life was like, in the bleak part of Chicago where he lived, having no idea what the rest of the city was like, or the lives of the [mostly white] people who live there.

I almost felt a little bit of hope at the end of the book.

That was probably a mistake. But please let there be a change for the better! Don’t see black and think dangerous!

Steve Cole – ‘Made to eat salad’

Steve Cole

On the 482nd anniversary of Anne Boleyn losing her head, Steve Cole walked into the Tolbooth in Stirling for his Off the Page event, to ‘deafening applause’ on a day when a few other things were also happening. Royal weddings, football, warm sunny weather. That kind of thing. He was going to tell us about writing, with the help of a ukulele. The telling, more than the writing, I believe.

Stirling Off the Page

I’d successfully climbed the hill, almost all the way to the castle, and Steve had come all the way from England, and this after his first – very eventful – encounter with oysters. The plane’s cabin crew had apparently questioned whether he really should be flying, but Steve insisted, and with a huge stack of sick bags at his side, he made it all the way.

Steve Cole

He treated us to his version of the Sick Man Blues, on ukulele. I shouldn’t think anyone in the audience will be having a meal of oysters any time soon.

This man who has written 157 books in the last 20 years, got his career started with the diary they had to write for Mrs Cave at school, every Monday. It got so boring he began to make it up, and seemingly Mrs Cave was also bored, so she told him to continue making things up.

Steve Cole

From oysters to salads, and more vomiting, this time courtesy of the dinner ladies at school. Once Steve’s parents realised they made him eat salad every Wednesday, an early introduction of packed lunches occurred. This was the dark days of the 1970s. But let that be a lesson to you; tell your parents if you are ever forced to eat your salad.

Some years after the eight-year-old Steve wrote his own Mister Men book, Mister Paint, he moved on to his Astrosaurs series of books, partly with the help of Enid Blyton’s daughter. The nice one. He told us in great detail how the dinosaurs got their names, but I suppose it’s what you should expect from the office junior at Noddy magazine.

Steve Cole

From Astrosaurs Steve went to writing Doctor Who stories, but then felt the need to return to writing about his own characters. Which must be why he borrowed Lucy the labrador from a child in the audience, and made Lucy – who I am sure is an upright, if doggy, citizen – into a secret bank robber, Canine X, master of crime. It was really to show how you can play with everyday stuff, or dogs, and make them do surprising things. Stories are everywhere.

Steve’s own alternate reality features cows. On this sad anniversary (for Anne Boleyn) he tested the audience on their knowledge of the wives of Henry VIII, and we eventually arrived at ‘the other Anne’ [of Cleves] who appears in his first CIA book. Something to do with a concrete cowpat.

This was a suitably Royal ending to an event on a day when we could hardly avoid hearing about other royal wives.

Steve Cole feedback, or book selling

The children bought books, and filled in feedback forms. (I didn’t, as I was a bit embarrassed about my age. I almost claimed I’m a year older than I am…)

Steve Cole

Steve encouraged the children to ask him questions over the book signing, and as far as I managed to overhear, there were several who required some writing advice.

Steve Cole

Steve Cole

There just might have been a hug for me as we swapped questions. I asked if he’ll ever eat oysters again, and Steve asked after Daughter. I almost suggested that next time it might be she who dedicates a ‘space book’ to him.

And no, he won’t have more oysters and advised me not to, either.

As I walked down the hill, I thought, not for the first time, how very dutiful my authors are, whether it’s murderous new boots, or oysters. They persevere, and come to talk to their fans. It’s why I love them.