Category Archives: Reading

There’s a Dragon in my Dinner!

You can do a lot with a Mini-Dragon. But even if it turns up in your dinner, it’s best not to take a bite out of it.

I enjoyed Tom Nicoll’s book debut very much. There’s a Dragon in my Dinner! is probably most suited for seven or eight-year-olds, but it worked really well for me too. It’s not every day you find a nice, easy to read, book for young (dare I say it?) boys, that is truly entertaining for the adult reader as well, while being both intelligently written and fun.

Tom Nicoll and Sarah Horne, There's a Dragon in my Dinner!

The Mini-Dragon turns up in the beansprouts, when the Crisp (yeah, I know) family orders a Chinese for dinner. Young Eric finds he doesn’t like beansprouts, which may be why he didn’t order any. But he quite likes Pan, the Mini-Dragon, although not to the extent that he eats him. (His little sister tries that…)

It can be fun to have a new friend who is only the size of a spring roll, one who has a lot of conversation and is good at all sorts of things. Pan sleeps in Eric’s sock drawer (by sheer coincidence I’d thought a lot about sock drawers just before reading this book), and when he doesn’t eat mountain goats, he eats school uniform.

How to introduce your friends and family to a Mini-Dragon though? It’s hard. And the dreadful boy next door? Even worse.

But all in all, just as well Pan didn’t end up in Mexico the way his parents had planned.

(Illustrated by Sarah Horne, who obviously has some experience of beansprout dragons.)

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K Larsen

‘Sometimes I wish Jesse was alive again, just so I could kill him.’ Henry is 13 and his brother Jesse is dead. That much we can work out from the beginning of Susin Nielsen’s The Reluctant Journal of Henry K Larsen. We just don’t know quite what the IT he refers to might have been, except that IT was bad and he’d like to kill the two years older Jesse for IT.

Susin Nielsen, The Reluctant Journal of Henry K Larsen

Life is tough for the three family members who are left. Henry’s mother is in hospital, and he and his dad have moved somewhere new. He feels like a loser, and when the obvious other loser in his new school insists on befriending him, he resists. For a while. And just as there was a bully in his old school, so there is in this one.

Their new and nosy neighbours also annoy him, but not as much as Cecil, the not very expensive psychologist he has to see every Friday, what with the man’s holey socks, greasy hair and writing-a-journal idea.

But slowly life goes on, and not necessarily the way he wanted or expected it to. We find out what happened to Jesse, and we grow to care about Henry’s new friends, ‘hopeless’ though they may seem. His grieving parents also have to move on, a little bit.

All this sounds very hard and very sad, and it is. The novel, however, is life affirming in every respect, and I hope other children and their families in similar circumstances will find some help in The Reluctant Journal of Henry K Larsen. There is plenty of humour alongside the sadness. And it’s worth keeping in mind that previously annoying people have an annoying habit of growing on you.

Opening doors

For a short while – well, more like at least five minutes – I lost a French philosopher. I reckoned I could cope, as I had a government minister instead, and I could make up the philosophy bit, but then I found him again, where he should be, in the trolley.

I’d read about the Östersund football team, and how they dance, read, visit schools, behaving in a generally very cultural way. Apparently it has improved the soccer as well. They have a culture coach, whose favourite French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu’s thoughts are helping the team advance. (I don’t even have a philosopher, let alone French or favourite or anything.)

So, these young men act and perform and read, and I believe one of them even wrote a book. Judging by their names many are of non-Swedish origin. Many also seemed to think this culture stuff was stupid, until they discovered the benefits, like intelligence, and a better game.

Bourdieu’s thoughts on cultural capital go along the lines that education will open doors that money can’t. About how we often inherit this capital from our parents. This is both so obvious and so simple, and living in a country where people pay for ‘better’ education (without necessarily getting it) for their children, it’s encouraging to think it’s not necessary.

I mean, I knew that anyway, but sometimes you worry. (The fact that more privately educated children come to the Resident IT Consultant for extra maths lessons to help them pass their exams, could be because their parents are already used to paying [though they ought to be furious at having to pay twice], but it also proves that private schools aren’t the best.)

And then to top the philosopher, schools minister Nick Gibb last week said that ‘reading for pleasure is more important than a family’s socio-economic status in determining a child’s success at school.’ It’s very nice to hear that, but at the same time I wish his government would make this reading much more possible than it is at the moment.

We could be allowed to keep our libraries, and teachers could be given permission to spend more time on pushing reading for pleasure. But I suppose it’s going to be up to the parents to foster this love of reading, in which case they need to have this ‘capital’ to pass on, in the first place, and they need to have enough time and energy to support and engage with their children.

But at least it’s nice for someone to spout a sensible opinion, instead of the usual rubbish.

As for me, I don’t think that money would have taken me to the places and the people that books have, or that the English lessons at school helped achieve. Offspring would probably have done all right at any of the local schools. We picked ours for the rugby, and discovered by accident that it was also rare for offering two foreign languages. But no money passed hands, and the letters for private tutoring that the school was obliged to send home, went straight in the bin.

Jonathan Unleashed

Meg Rosoff’s Jonathan reminds me a lot of God. That’s God as in There Is No Dog. Or Justin from Just in Case. Young and adorable and a little useless.

Meg Rosoff, Jonathan Unleashed

Here, in Meg’s new novel Jonathan Unleashed, There Are Two Dogs, and thank goodness for that! Don’t know where Jonathan, or the reader, would be without them. Persevering with that dreadful funeral in celadon, most likely. Sorry, I meant wedding. A real-real wedding – of colour – to Jonathan’s long term girlfriend Julie, who is so wrong for him that it’s hard to know where to start.

And here’s the thing. You know when your favourite author changes genre? To the kind that you like the least. To me adult novels are full of angsty and weird ‘adults’ who worry about their relationship[s] throughout a whole book, with a bit of careers and sex thrown in. (When there could be ficticious wars and under-age sex between cousins. The odd wizard, maybe.)

So, Jonathan Unleashed is about an angsty young man, who is rather weird (his girlfriend points out, ‘you used to be less weird’), and who worries about this proposed funeral – pardon, wedding – to Julie, and about his job, and the dogs, with a bit of sex thrown in.

And you know what? It’s simply wonderful! I could read it again, and again. It’s only marginally more adult than the fairly adult YA novels Meg has written so far. It’s still as crazy, very New York, very Meg Rosoff, lots of dogs. How could you not love it?

Poor Jonathan works in marketing, writing the most soul-destroying lines to sell useless stuff. He lives in a flat that seems to be too good to be true (there is a reason for that) and then his brother moves abroad, leaving his two dogs Dante and Sissy with Jonathan.

He worries about them. That they might not be happy. Perhaps they are depressed? A bit of canine weltschmerz? He takes them to the vet, Dr Clare, to discuss the likelihood of this and whether they might one day rip a small child’s face off.

Now, that is as far from their minds as these dogs go. They have an agenda. They can tell Jonathan needs help, and they are prepared to provide it. They are not hypochondriacs. They know what they are doing. When professional wedding planner Julie suggests this funeral – sorry, wedding – for her and Jonathan, those dogs need to take action.

There is a French coffeeshop woman who is very lovely, there is Dr Clare, and there is Greeley, the uncertainly sexed new PA at work. Who’s it going to be, and can anything be done before Jonathan goes crazier still? I mean, you can’t have a hero going round speaking funny (even if it is stress-induced).

Limpopo gleam.

When you feel stupidly neurotic, it’s refreshing and reassuring to meet someone who’s got it worse.

Blimp. Pork toff.

A Dark Trade

Mary Hooper, A Dark Trade

Mary Hooper has done what she does so well, which is to take the tales of poor servant girls in the past, and put them in a book that anyone can read. So often this kind of story only comes as an old, fat classic of 500 pages or more, and with small print to boot. Thank you to Barrington Stoke who understand that everyone would want to read this.

In A Dark Trade we meet orphan Gina, who at 16 is ready to leave the cruel orphanage and go to work. In her case a seemingly lovely big house in London in the mid-1800s. But of course it doesn’t work out like that. Big houses, however beautiful, come with their own problems, and in this case it’s a young master with the wrong idea of what a girl servant is for.

Gina makes a run for it, and disguises herself as a boy. But it’s the usual fire and frying pan scenario, and she is no better off as a male shop assistant.

Mary occasionally lets a book end less well than you’d hoped for, so I wasn’t sure what she might have up her sleeve this time. Read the book and find out!

Wildwitch Wildfire

My first Lene Kaaberbøl book, but possibly not my last. Wildwitch Wildfire is book no. 1  in what looks like a series about Clara, who is small and shy and completely normal, until the day she is attacked by a – very large – black cat.

Lene Kaaberbøl, Wildwitch Wildfire

She becomes quite ill, and she discovers things about herself and her family. And then she ends up living with an aunt, who is a bit of a witch, and whose task it is to make Clara a fully fledged witch herself.

It seems to be less of the evil witch stuff (apart from the kind of evil you need in a book) and more a case of living in harmony with wildlife. To do good things; to fight what is bad.

Our heroine proves much more resourceful than she expects to be, and she is very brave when she has to be.

And that cat? Well…

(Translated from Danish by Charlotte Barslund, and illustrated by Rohan Eason.)

Knights of the Borrowed Dark

What do they put in the Irish water to cause so many fantastic, funny, fantasy thrillers to be written? The latest person to put his brand new debut novel in my way is Dave Rudden, and much as I hate it when books are described as being the next Derek Landy or Eoin Colfer (Neil Gaiman, Rick Riordan…), in this case it’s pretty accurate. Of course, it remains to be seen if Dave can keep his Knight of the Borrowed Dark going, but I have faith. (He’s awfully young, too. Sickening.)

Denizen Hardwick is a hero to compete with the best of them. A 13-year-old orphan with no knowledge whatsoever of his origins, he is described as small and nothing special. Nice enough, and with a collection of different frowns. Until one day someone turns up at the children’s home [a place that can be decribed as ‘nice. Sort of a bleak, hopeless charm about it.’] in the west of Ireland to collect him. Someone rather unusual.

Dave Rudden, Knights of the Borrowed Dark

It’s a bit Harry Potter, but the point about this is that it’s what we readers like. It works. Apparently there is an organisation of Knights, who fight dark monsters, the Tenebrous. They are unknown and anonymous, suffering badly while doing their duty to save us ordinary humans. And with Denizen it’s as if he was born to it.

He still makes mistakes. Serious ones at that. But he wants to work for the greater good, and if that means fighting creepy monsters, then he will do it. Leaving his best friend behind in the orphanage, Denizen meets an aunt he didn’t know he had. He meets others, who all belong to the Knights. This work is neither easy nor safe, but someone has to do it.

Intelligently written, with plenty of fun, and some nice humour. What more could I want? The next book in the trilogy, obviously. This first one will be published in April, so make a note in your diaries.

(Denizen likes books. And how can you not adore a boy who has read The Politics of Renaissance Italy?)