Category Archives: Reading

An Island of Our Own

This is the best book Sally Nicholls has written – so far – and she has written some really good ones.

Sally Nicholls, An Island of Our Own

An Island of Our Own is that perfect thing; a tremendously good children’s book. Written as though by 13-year-old Holly, who is an orphan, living with her 19-year-old brother Jonathan who is official carer of her and their brother Davy who is seven, Holly wants new school shoes and Davy wants a bike. And for his pet rabbit to get well.

This costs money they don’t have, especially as they live in London, and when their rich great aunt Irene dies, they embark on an only slightly crazy quest for their inheritance. As it says on the cover, this really is a book about home-made spaceships, lock-pickers, an exploding dishwasher, and Orkney (my second Orkney book in a short time). But most of all it’s about love, and resilience.

Jonathan makes a far better ‘parent’ than many ‘real’ fictional parents, and it’s heartbreaking to think of this boy who was all set to go to university and had to give it up, and who cries in secret when he can’t find the money they need to pay for Sebastian’s (that’s the rabbit) care or the effects of the dishwasher incident.

Holly is a wonderful girl, ever the optimist and very clever at working out how to solve things. She reads Sherlock Holmes, and Agatha Christie, whose novels might be for adults, but ‘even Agatha Christie never kills twenty-two kids in one book, like they do in The Hunger Games.’

There is something so very light about Sally’s writing. Her topics are serious, but she turns everything into sheer delight, and you smile and you cry. And you want to read the book again.

When you’re on fire

There is a difference between what people say they will grab as they run out of their house, if it’s on fire, and what they will really do.

I can understand the feeling that family photos are important, but they are an impractical thing to grab (unless you have prepared a small folder of the most valuable pictures you have, which just happens to sit by the likely fire exit), and these days you could have everything saved in cyberspace.

The other week Anthony McGowan asked me which book I’d take if my house was on fire. I am guessing he wanted to know which of my many volumes I value the most. I turned the question round a bit, by saying that I’d been in this situation, and my experience tells me I couldn’t care less about any books.

When it became clear that night thirteen years ago that it might be prudent to leave, I simply took my two Offspring and sought ‘asylum’ in the house next door. The Resident IT Consultant was doing stuff to the stoptap in the basement, but was eventually prevailed upon to grab his senses and come with us.

In the end this was not too bad a fire, as it was discovered in time. But I learned that belongings of any kind don’t matter. Only people. Pets if you have them.

But I tried to answer Anthony’s question, after I’d disconcerted him with my experience of this. And it’s not necessarily the story as such, since most books can be read after a fire by buying or borrowing a copy of it again. So I thought about signed books. Were any of them more valuable to me? No. Signatures are fun, but unless you can make a fortune selling them, there is more value in remembering how and when the signing happened, than the actual scribble in the book.

Doodles, however, are different. I mean, works of art. Some people spend a lot of time and effort on embellishing that page in their book for you. And when I’d got that far the answer was relatively easy. I have six lovely, velvety novels by Debi Gliori, with the most glorious ‘doodles’ on the title pages.

I’ll take those.

Velvet by Debi Gliori

Make a U-turn in Grangemouth for Kenya

‘I reckon it’s junction 5,’ I said to the Resident IT Consultant. We were on our way to deliver some books to the librarian of my dreams, Anne Ngabia at Grangemouth High School. You might remember me mentioning Anne before, when she talked about her other libraries, in Kenya, at the Falkirk RED awards.

Bibliosaur

After some years abroad, she’s returned ‘home’ to collect more books for Kenya, and this is where I felt she’d be really useful to me. Anne will welcome almost any book as long as they don’t bear the words manual or catalogue. So for a while I’ve had these boxes with her name on, sitting waiting to be taken to Grangemouth, and from there to Kenya with kind assistance from the Army.

So there we were, nearing junction 6, and the Resident IT Consultant really wanted to leave the motorway there, because it looked right. I was feeling generous, so I let him. I was right, and he came to the same conclusion quite soon. But we found Grangemouth High School in the end, and let’s face it, the detour was good, because otherwise we’d have been too early. And we – he – only had to make two U-turns.

Anne was busy with a storytelling session, which is why we couldn’t be too early. (I’ve never come across a school librarian doing that before. Storytelling, I mean. Offspring’s school didn’t have anything like that.) As we approached, we saw the street was lined with parked cars. I wondered what might be on, to have caused them all to be there like that, in the middle of the day. ‘They’re probably here for the storytelling,’ said the Resident IT Consultant.

While he blocked in some parked cars in the school car park, I made a successful attempt to enter, and found they were indeed expecting some woman with books. Their librarian was summoned, and I enjoyed the brand new freshness of Grangemouth H S as I waited in reception.

Together we negotiated corridors and lifts with those book boxes, and we had the opportunity of admiring her lilac painted library, where Anne was next going to have a Mad Hatter’s tea party (two things in one day?).

If anyone else is bothered by possessing too many books, then the Army is waiting to convey them to eager readers in Kenya.

(I’ll try and have more on this later. Keep collecting books – or just send money – while you wait.)

Romantically educated

If you don’t know it, it doesn’t exist. Or so it seems. I was intrigued to read a travel article in the Guardian about the islands along the North Carolina coastline, where its author Douglas Rogers had not been aware that this state has lovely beaches. That it’s not just Cape Cod or Florida that matter on the east coast.

I’ve never been, so in a way I’m clearly more ignorant than he was. But, I had one thing going for me; I used to read – far too many – romantic novels. And I mean the Mills & Boon/Harlequin type. The American ones I found to be not only fresher than the UK old style romances, but really most educational too. No, not in that way.

Geography, lifestyle, idioms, food. That sort of thing. Even if a romantic novel is likely to idealise life and love, I assume that what people eat, and the region in which they live, will still be relatively authentic.

So, I knew, and liked, islands like Hatteras and Ocracoke a long time ago. I felt I’d like to visit, if it weren’t for the fact that to begin with it’s the other side of the Atlantic, and then NC is some way away, and the islands even more so. The description the Outer Banks, makes me feel agoraphobic just thinking about the journey there.

I’m most likely not going, but I do reckon they sound just my kind of place. I can’t remember a thing about any of the actual romances set there, but the islands themselves remain strongly in my memory. Which just goes to prove that reading broadens the mind, [almost] whatever the book it is.

Is it like running?

Overwhelmed as I am by all the new and excellent books I see, I can’t help wondering how they happen. Are written. Get published.

Is it like running faster? I’ve never understood how come people run faster with each generation. Once there was a fuss when someone could run a mile in under four minutes. I suppose there must be a limit to how fast a human being can run a mile? But then Stone Age runners might have thought so too, and their limit was probably far from four minutes. If they knew about minutes.

So do authors today write better books because they know they have to to stand a chance of getting published, or do they write good books because evolution makes it happen? (I’m on very shaky ground here, as you can tell.)

Although, unlike the runners who can’t arrive before they’ve started, I suppose writers could – in theory – write better and better books. Cleverer use of words and better sentences about really exciting new people in new style plots. (Unless schools prevent any sensible written language from evolving.)

Anyway, they say there are only so many plots. And I despair a bit about the state of editing. If I can see it, it must be bad. So I suppose it’s back to the running. And as I was reminded when I looked it up, there is a difference between the normally competent runner, and the really successful athlete.

Or could it be the Björn Borg factor? Sweden was over-run by especially good young tennis players in the years after Björn’s Wimbledon triumphs. Players wanted to be the new Borg, and there were plenty of people able to help train them.

Or were the tennis results simply contagious? Like J K Rowling started us on wizards and Stephenie Meyer gave us romantic vampires. I think tennis-wise that things calmed down after a while. Will books?

Stars Shall Be Bright

Catherine MacPhail, Stars Shall Be Bright

In memory of the lost children of Maryhill, who died in the Quintinshill Rail Disaster exactly one hundred years ago today. We don’t know their names or what they were doing on a train full of soldiers going off to war.

Catherine MacPhail has a theory, which she shares with us in this Barrington Stoke story, Stars Shall Be Bright. She reckons they were siblings James, Belle and William, who set off to find their dad who was a soldier.

Their mum has just died and to avoid being taken into a home, James decides to take his brother and sister on a trek to find their dad, lying in order to get away from a ‘well meaning’ neighbour.

They hide on a stationary train, which soon fills up with over 500 soldiers, travelling from Larbert to Liverpool, on their way to Gallipoli. Near Gretna Green the train was involved in a three train crash, with 225 soldiers dead, 246 injured, and 65 walking wounded.

And then there were the bodies of three children.

Lovely (yes really) story, but awfully sad.

The Fugitive

The fifth Theodore Boone is here! I have to own up to still enjoying these junior John Grisham books very much. And that cliffhanger I could see at the end of the first book, which then didn’t materialise? Well, it’s here now. And matters continue to wobble near the edge of the cliff as we leave Theodore and have to wait for the sixth and last book.

Strattenburg’s most wanted man is back. Theodore goes on a school trip to Washington, and accidentally comes across this suspected murderer on the run. Because Theo is Theo, he knows what to do to prove it’s Pete Duffy, and the point of the book is not the catching of Mr Duffy, so much as the trial he needs to face.

John Grisham, The Fugitive

Because it’s the law that Theo the miniature lawyer is passionate about, and it’s important that young readers learn how the law is – supposedly – there to take care of you and keep you safe. The town of Strattenburg is not perfect, but it does its best.

Pete Duffy is not the loveliest of men, and nor is his defense lawyer, or his ‘helpers.’ Some people will go to any lengths to escape jail, and one of the witnesses for the prosecution in particular has to stay brave and remember his duty. But will he? Can he? The case is so difficult that Theo begins to doubt his calling.

The usual interaction with Theo’s parents, Theo’s favourite judge, and some pretty nifty action from uncle Ike.