Category Archives: Humour

The ones I enjoyed the most

It suddenly struck me that perhaps it’s unwise to say anything about best books. Because this time of year I usually list the ones I liked the most, which isn’t the same thing.

And by the time December rolls round I often despair. Yes, I remember that marvellous book I read recently. This year that was La Belle Sauvage. Because it was recent. Longer ago and my memory blacks out, in much the same way as when someone asks what I did at the weekend…

No need to worry though. Out of the 137 books (2017 wasn’t the best year for finding reading time), the twelve that emerged more victorious than the rest, were closely followed by quite a few other excellent contenders.

Best of 2017

I’ve not picked a best of all, nor am I doing the alphabetical order.

Elizabeth Wein, The Pearl Thief

Sally Gardner, My Side of the Diamond

LA Weatherly, Black Moon

Joan Lennon, Walking Mountain

Michael Grant, Silver Stars

Joanna Nadin, The Incredible Billy Wild

Anthony McGowan, Rook

Phil Earle, Mind the Gap

Jakob Wegelius, The Murderer’s Ape

Hilary McKay’s Fairy Tales

Patrick Ness, Release

Philip Pullman, La Belle Sauvage

And as you can see, the 2017 colour for book covers is primarily black with some blue and teal. Rather like last year, in fact. I appear to have picked six women and six men, which feels nice and equal.

There is only one translated book, but there are two dyslexia friendly books, plus one prequel, one equel, one end of a trilogy and one middle of a trilogy. And two Scottish books. All good.

Books like these are what makes it all worth it.

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Eating the stale bread

You can’t mention Dave Allen’s stale bread too many times. It’s good enough to bring up again (the sketch, not the bread), which is why I’m doing so. (The idea that you can’t have today’s freshly baked bread until you’ve eaten the stale bread, and then tomorrow you…)

Usually at this time of year I plan what I will read over Christmas. I might have one or two really special books, and I decide that reading them will be my Christmas present to myself.

And every year I remember – too late – that I never have time to read, between getting food onto the table and taking it off again, and the odd other bit of household chore. The kind that’s quicker to do yourself than to ask someone to help you with.

So right now I’m reading a Christmas book. There are more than two weeks left, and whereas I’ve made no preparations at all, I’ve been feeling slightly off-colour, so am permitting myself to read.

It’s the one that arrived last week, but isn’t published until May next year, and it was either read it now or find that it has to be hurriedly done in five month’s time. Because somehow Christmas, the tables and fifty other books got in between me and it.

And, well, I reckon we can always buy food instead of cooking. Had a quick look online. Sainsbury’s believe party food is a packet of crisps, and Marks & Spencer had the most divine looking canapés [almost] ever. It’ll be a hard choice.

I know. I’ll be making them myself. But one can dream a little.

Spicy autism

You’ve heard of having mild autism? It’s a ‘kind’ way of describing someone as almost not autistic but nearly normal. Well, we won’t have it, so how about a t-shirt with the slogan ‘Spicy autism’ instead? Can you take it?

Monday night’s event for Book Week Scotland at Waterstones was like coming home, where I was surrounded by like-minded people, and they were clever and amusing and weird enough that they appeared normal [to me]. It was great. And we need more of this.

Nina Mega, Rachael Lucas and Catherine Simpson

The conversation between Rachael Lucas, who wrote The State of Grace about a teenage girl with Asperger Syndrome, and Catherine Simpson, whose adult novel Truestory features a boy with Asperger’s, was chaired by Catherine’s daughter Nina. I can’t think of a better combination of people to listen to on this subject.

It was Nina’s first experience of chairing, and her straightforward style and intelligence was just what was needed. When she was younger she caused Catherine much worry, mainly because neither the health service nor the education authorities were helpful or sympathetic. (I’ve been there. I know.) And there was one thing Catherine told us, which was uncannily close to what I’ve felt myself.

Rachael Lucas and Catherine Simpson

Rachael had spent a lot of time pointing out her daughter was unusual, but it still took ages for a diagnosis, for both of them. As is often the case; if one family member is diagnosed, another might be next.

With such interesting lives to discuss, I had very little need to hear [the usual] details about their books. It’s their lives we really wanted to hear about. This doesn’t mean that books about aspies are not needed, because they are. People like to find themselves in books.

‘Coming out’ as an aspie when you write a book about it, was both necessary and difficult for Rachael. Her daughter’s autism was not recognised because she didn’t line up her toys, and because Rachael helped her in trying to be normal. That in itself seems to be a sign of being on the autistic spectrum.

Catherine Simpson

Catherine needed something to do when she was stuck at home because of Nina, and eventually hit on writing, and did a course at Napier, before writing her novel which among other things features the f-word (as she discovered when starting to read to us), and growing cannabis. (It sounded much funnier when she said it. I suspect you need the book.)

Rachael decided to write about a teenage girl, partly because she had one herself, but also because everything people know about autism tends to be about boys. On the other hand, Catherine wrote about a boy, so people wouldn’t assume it was about Nina, but she regrets this now. And anyway, Nina has often been described as masculine, which is another situation I recognise. You can still love My Little Pony. And Doctor Who.

Rachael Lucas and Catherine Simpson

One side-effect after reading Grace has been that some people have got their own diagnosis, which both writers agreed was excellent, but they also pointed out quite how hard this can be to achieve. The internet is mostly for the good, and it suits autistic people well. You can pause your life briefly when online, and take a moment or two to think about how to respond to what someone has said. (Rachael aptly called this her ‘buffering.’)

And you don’t have to smile to look friendly (Rachael’s husband asked her what she was doing, and when she said she was trying to avoid looking scary by practising smiling, he asked her to please stop). Nor do you need to worry about eye-contact online.

These two women are funny. But it seems their books have too much of a happy ending. Autistic people are only ever allowed to be ‘tragic and inspirational.’ Happy is for neurotypicals. But when you’ve had your mothering skills questioned by (possibly well-meaning) staff at your child’s school, then you are surely permitted to rebel? “Have you tried the naughty step?’

Nina Mega

Looking at how Nina turned out, I’d say Catherine did as much right as any parent. And I’m sure the same goes for Rachael’s daughter [who wasn’t present]. There were lots of questions from the audience, but in case there hadn’t been, Nina was prepared with more of her own, as any good aspie would be.

Lists’r’us.

And yes, balloons are frightening things. The Bookwitch family has at least one member who always tenses up, in case a balloon will pop unexpectedly.

Hilary McKay’s Fairy Tales

Hilary McKay has re-written ten well-known fairy tales with her usual charm and warmth. I love them!

There is just one thing though; if you start a child off with these as their first fairy tales, I honestly don’t see how you can then give them a more ordinary version of the same tales later.

Sarah Gibb, Hilary McKay's Fairy Tales

I have read countless varieties of most of these stories, and they are much the same. Some are older and more traditional, while others might have been modernised and are easier to read aloud. But none are like Hilary’s, and I would love to read them to a child. And if it was a child who already knew the basic tales, I rather imagine they would experience the same warm glow from Hilary’s version as I did. That in itself could be a discussion point.

Let’s see, I especially loved Chickenpox and Crystal (that’s Snow White, to you), and The Prince and the Problem (The Princess and the Pea). And The Roses Round the Palace (Cinderella) and Over the Hills and Far Away (Red Riding Hood and the Piper’s Son).

And if I mention any more, it will look as if the whole collection was my favourite. I ‘quite liked’ all of them…

There is a flavour of the Casson family over these royal family tales. It’s nice to find that queens can be sensible in the Hilary McKay way. And to have a story featuring a noddle-offer is quite something. (I believe it’s what Kings use to remove the heads of Princes who have an interest in the King’s daughters.)

I absolutely refuse to tell you more about these tales. It would mean spoilers, and you don’t want that. You want to read this collection, and you want to come to it fresh, to see what Hilary has done with our old favourites. How she has made them into new favourites.

This is really something.


The illustrations by Sarah Gibb almost require a post of their own. They are the most glorious, traditional style, black and white pictures that you need for fairy tales.

And the cover! It incorporates all or nearly all the tales. You see Red Riding Hood, but you don’t yet know what Hilary has done to her.

Sarah Gibb, Hilary McKay's Fairy Tales

Resurrection

Thank god for authors like Derek Landy who change their minds! Resurrection is the tenth – of nine – books about Skulduggery Pleasant (not counting the extra book), and I am really grateful it’s here. I’d not understood how much you can miss a witty, and occasionally unrelieable, skeleton detective.

But you can. I mean, I can.

And here he is, back from where we left him, and well, I don’t know, but I can see more books where this one came from. I can, can’t I? Derek?

Derek Landy, Resurrection

The best thing for people like me who don’t always remember where we left things, by which I mean who lived and who died and who was your friend, or who was your enemy, is that it doesn’t matter. Characters change allegiance faster than they do hats, and when the dead can rise again, death means very little.

Valkyrie isn’t feeling so good. Guilt does that to a person and being responsible for so many deaths – even by proxy – isn’t much fun. But hey, we have Skulduggery and we have a whole host of new young things, good ones and bad ones.

Omen Darkly is one of them. Aged 14, he lives in the shadow of his brother, who is the Chosen One. I reckon Omen is really Derek. And/or really me. I have a lot in common with poor Omen. Brave Omen. Except I wouldn’t be brave. As Valkyrie says, ‘The world is a scary place, and it’s only getting scarier. The American president is a narcissistic psychopath. Fascism, racism, misogyny and homophobia are all on the rise…’ And let’s not mention any more cheerful facts about our world just now.

Resurrection is a fantastic return to the magic Ireland we love. Please let there be more! After all, by reviving people, it’s not as if we are running out of characters. Trust no one.

Fathers and their children

Ah, fathers! You’ve got to love them, don’t you? They’re so wise and gentle and handsome.

In Dragons – Father and Son, by Alexandre Lacroix, with beautifully fierce dragon drawings by Ronan Badel, and translated by Vanessa Miéville, we meet young Drake and his father, at home in their cave.

Alexandre Lacroix and Ronan Badel, Dragons - Father and Son

The time has come for Drake to go out and burn down a few houses where the humans live. It’s tradition. Drake’s not keen, but he goes. But of course he doesn’t burn anything down; the humans are too canny. I mean, they are so kind that he just can’t.

He learns a few things from the humans he encounters, though. Enough to placate his father when he gets home. It’s better to be admired for your good looks than how much you scare people. I’d like to think that in future Drake can continue just breathing fire on his intended meals (which seems awfully handy, as skills go).

In Me and My Dad by Robin Shaw, we find a little girl going out for a walk past the local shops with her Dad. She likes everything about their walks, but the best always comes last.

They see dinosaurs and crocodiles (this is a typical British town) and all kinds of magic creatures. But the best bit is at the end.

And when you get to the end you realise why the little girl can see all these fantastic things en route. It’s because of what’s at the end. It’s teaching her to use her imagination.

Robin Shaw, Me and My Dad

It’s a bookshop, with a café. She and her Dad choose a book, and sit down with a hot chocolate and read.

They might even read about dragons. Humans like them. And if not, there’s always hot chocolate. Potentially another crocodile in the puddle on the way home.

Farewell Tour of a Terminal Optimist

When you’re at death’s door, life’s not expected to be much fun, even – or especially – when it’s the door to Room 9, the one with the smiley. But then you don’t know Connor. He’s fifteen and he’s got terminal cancer. Well, we’re all terminal, because as Connor keeps saying, ‘nadie deja este mundo vivo’ which means no one leaves this world alive.

Which is very true. I don’t like ‘cancer books’ and I hate bullies and irresponsible behaviour. But while Farewell Tour of a Terminal Optimist has all this, it also has a lot of charm and fun and happiness to offer the reader. And before anyone says ‘well that’s easy for the author to write,’ the very sad fact is that John Young wrote the book as his own child was dying. I can’t even begin to understand where he got his strength from.

John Young, Farewell Tour of a Terminal Optimist

At the beginning, Connor is getting another kicking from his bully Skeates. Well, he did put a dead bird in his dinner. So Connor might be small and weak, but he’s not one for hiding. He’s got one friend, a girl called Emma, or Emo.

But when things turn really weird, it is Skeates he ends up running away with – although not in a romantic way. Connor’s father is in jail, his mum temporarily ill, and his sister died years ago. And he has cancer. Skeates decides they should try and visit Connor’s dad in jail, so they embark on a truly crazy, but also inspirational, trip across the Scottish Highlands towards Glasgow.

Unfortunately Connor escapes Stornoway without his medicines, and he’s not sure he can trust Skeates. It’s a good thing he’s feeling adventurous and positive towards most of the often illegal suggestions Skeates makes.

At least the adult reader sits there knowing this will not, cannot, end well. But what kind of not well will it be? How soon might Connor die? Or will Skeates or the Glaswegian football supporters kill him before the cancer does? Or maybe the skiing in Aviemore, wearing unsuitable clothes? The joyriding?

And then, there really is no avoiding death’s door.

This is sweet (yes really, Skeates), incredibly funny, and tremendously exciting. And there is a smiley on the door to Room 9. As Connor waits, he thinks ahead to what sandwich fillings his mum might choose for the funeral.