Category Archives: Reading

The other bookshop

Waterstones had been expecting me.

No, not really. But they might have. I was right; there were far more normal customers in this shop, browsing in a normal fashion.

Even I tried to behave normal.

As I slowly shuffled down to the children’s end, I was overtaken by a mother with a boy, perhaps three or a small four?

I was terribly disappointed when they passed me going the other way, both by how brief a time they’d spent and by the book the mother was clutching. Upside down, but I could easily tell it was by DW. ‘So, not for the boy himself,’ I thought.

Except, when I shared what I’d seen with Daughter, she had witnessed the other half of what was going on. The boy clutched £5 from Granny. He didn’t want to be in a bookshop. He didn’t want a book.

Sad, but ultimately fine.

The mother wanted him to want a book. The problem is you don’t get much for a fiver. I don’t think she knew this before forcing him into the wrong shop in which to spend Granny’s gift. Basically, they ended up with DW because of the price – is he really that cheap? – and because he’s in such plentiful supply you can’t but help see those books wherever you turn. And everyone’s heard of him.

That is not a recommendation.

But whatever else you think about this unwilling spend on a book, and the type of book the boy got, there is one more wrong thing here. He’s too young for DW.

He will end up even less keen on reading, having spent his fortune on the wrong book.

Resting on a bench outside Waterstones I pondered two things. Is it ever all right to tell someone they should leave DW’s books alone (unless, perhaps, if actively chosen by the young reader)? And what should I suggest they buy instead? Especially as a fiver won’t generally cover a picture book, or one of the better chapter books with illustrations aimed at pre-schoolers.

I had hoped they were speedy and chose that book because they were getting a birthday present for a cousin or a friend. Not wasting Granny’s money on turning someone off reading.

Love, friendship and nature

It was the flamingoes that convinced me. And I suppose it’s always lovely to read about creatures looking for love. Especially the male gentoo penguin, who woos his chosen partner by offering her a smooth and round stone. This is from Dancing Birds and Singing Apes, How Animals Say I Love You, by Smriti Prasadam-Halls, and illustrations by Florence Weiser.

In Rachel Bright’s little story about The Whale Who Wanted More, with very whaley pictures by Jim Field, we learn that amassing stuff does not make you happy. Happier. If you feel you need something, it’s probably something else. Friendship, maybe. Respect to Crystal who knew how to stop Humphrey the whale’s bad behaviour.

And finally to Benjamin Zephaniah’s Nature Trail, illustrated by Nila Aye, where we follow a bright-eyed little girl through her garden, looking at everything beautiful. When ‘we’ got to the night time garden, sleeping among the petals, I was caught. It’s as if I’d been there before.

The Book of Bok

To a Swede this is a very odd title, The Book of Bok. But why not? Bok is, apparently, a lump of rock. One of the ones dug up and taken ‘home’ by Neil Armstrong when he visited the Moon in 1969. Neil has written the words to this picture book about Bok, and Grahame Baker Smith illustrated.

It’s a mix of the history of the Earth and the Moon, as well as that of Neil Armstrong. If I’ve understood correctly, the words Neil wrote are mostly musings about what happened when Bok was out there, and which Grahame has adapted into pictures, showing what it might have looked like.

Space is always interesting and this story and its spacey pictures will suit budding astronomers.

The one thing I missed was the last line of the accompanying press release, where it usually offers the press the opportunity of interviewing the author. Wouldn’t it have been great if I could have?

Love & Other Crimes

I’ve learned I am the same age as VI Warshawski. Or I was, until VI slowed down her ageing, and she’s now probably ten or fifteen years younger. But let’s say I know where she came from. I always feel very safe with Sara Paretsky and her detective, and look on both of them as my sisters. One older, one [now] younger.

Love & Other Crimes is Sara’s short story collection from last year. It’s got older stories and newer ones, plus a brand new story. Many of them feature VI, including the one set in 1966, when she was ten, but there are also other sleuths; some of whom are older women, and some set well in the past. I like that.

Short stories can be ‘easier’ to solve, with fewer characters and less background. But the plots are complex and it’s exciting to see how who did what and why.

At her launch last year Sara read the first half of Miss Bianca, about a young child and some laboratory mice, and most of that had some connection to Sara’s own family and her childhood. There is also a story set in the future, in a dystopian, but oh-so-plausible, America, showing both Lotty and VI in a completely new light.

You won’t be disappointed.

Arctic Star

Tom Palmer just gets better and better. Have I mentioned this before? Anyway, he does. His latest book for Barrington Stoke is called Arctic Star, and it will leave you shivering (the cold) and reaching for a hanky. I’m not sure what age it’s aimed at, but I would say teens and adult. It’s WWII and mature in its handling of the war.

We meet three friends from Plymouth, on their first posting with the Royal Navy in 1943, in a convoy en route for Murmansk, protecting the ships carrying tanks to the Russians. It’s cold, to an extent you can’t even imagine, but think of it as hacking away at your freezer, but while you’re actually in it. And worse.

There’s the first convoy, followed by shore leave in Murmansk, the second convoy and finally the third convoy. You know people will have to die, but that – probably – at least one of our three young men will survive. They are scared, and cold, but in the end they know that to drop out of the war is not an option.

It’s just awful. And it makes me even more grateful that there were so many, perfectly ordinary people going through this kind of thing so that the rest of us could have a world to live in. We need to remind ourselves, too, that everyone on those ships had families at home, be it in Germany or in Britain.

You learn a lot in these short pages about life in Plymouth, life in the Navy, and life in the Soviet Union. Tom has done plenty of research as usual, and so much of the story is true. I knew what would happen to the HMS Belfast, seeing as I have actually visited, so it’s not a spoiler to say that she’s not sunk.

I’m very grateful for these books.

The Chessmen Thief

I reckon this is Barbara Henderson’s best book [to date]. I didn’t want to pause my reading, but I had to. And I wasn’t even all that interested in the famous Lewis chessmen, but this was a pretty exciting tale, featuring suitably bloodthirsty ‘Norwegians’ and brave and pious early Christians, travelling the world hoping to save people.

As she admits, Barbara obviously made most of this up, apart from the chessmen and the guesswork of where they were carved and by whom. But I’m sold.

Kylan is a 12-year-old slave from Lewis, sold to a violent, but skilled craftsman in Trondheim, which is where he becomes part of the carving of the famous chess pieces. All he wants, though, is to escape so he can return to Lewis and hopefully find his mother, who at the same time was sold as a slave into another household.

He learns to carve, he talks his way into a perilous boat trip across the North Sea, there is danger and illness and a hard life in general. There are more than one lot of properly bad baddies, and knives are not merely used on the chessmen, but on mortal men as well.

It’s very much a men’s world, but Barbara manages to get the lots of women, and girls, into her story too. It makes you think. And her version of how the chessmen ended up where they did, is as plausible as the next one.

Now I want to travel to Lewis. No I don’t. It’s not the travel I’m keen on. But some aspects of Lewis appeal.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

I badly need my towel. Coming face-to-face with two mice in such a short time can take it out of a witch. One [dead] mouse the day I finished reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and the next one – highly alive – on the eve publication day, which is today.

To celebrate the fact that it’s been 42 years since Douglas Adams iconic guide was first published, it’s been reissued, filled to the brim with illustrations by Chris Riddell. Except I have to admit to having been so taken with reading this book again, that I barely had time to look at the pictures of Zaphod and Marvin and the rest.

This is surely testament to the book’s charm; that rereading it after decades it’s almost as if it was new, except that I remember most of the witty quotes as though it was yesterday. Basically, dear reader, this book is as much fun as it ever was. Possibly more.

I’m hoping that 42 years on there will be countless new readers discovering this story about hitching lifts through space. For me, it’s almost impossible to decide whether I like Arthur Dent or Marvin the most. It used to be Marvin, but Arthur is so very, well, British. ‘Why, do you think it’s the sort of thing you’re likely to say?’

And I’m almost getting the Ford Prefect name thing now. It was a completely meaningless joke four decades ago. As it was to Ford Prefect himself.

Kissing frogs

When we were in the front garden a while back, with the Resident IT Consultant doing the gardening and me sitting comfortably, issuing instructions, the neighbour next door gave us two frogs. I suspect they were ours originally, and we do have a tiny pond they can live near.

Those are not the frogs I am kissing. Wouldn’t dream of it. But it struck me, not long ago, as I was contemplating what to read and why, that it’s a bit like kissing frogs, to see if they will turn into princes. Sometimes you have to kiss quite a few frogs, to find a book worth spending your time on. (This might be a mixed metaphor. I am hazy about those, but I suspect frogs and books are not interchangeable.)

So, I kiss fewer frogs these days, and am not able to bother with quite a few of them, even if they really are princes, deep down. And far too many have no blue blood in them at all.

Not sure how our frogs are doing, as I’m rarely out there searching for them. At the time we had a lot of frog spawn, however. Whether they will grow up into handsome princes, I have no idea.

Once a week Daughter has online tea with some friends/colleagues. On some occasion the chat turned to books (one can never be certain those academic types actually read…) and one of them mentioned she’d loved a Swedish thriller recently. Some more digging revealed a title and the mention of two authors, which in turn made me sort of, nearly, remember something. She had read it in Dutch, as the English version isn’t out yet. It will be, though, seeing as my inkling confirmed that it’s one of Son’s translations.

This week he received his copies of another Swedish crime novel – Gustaf Skördeman’s Geiger – which is out sooner. Both of these books have been much talked about, enough so even I could hear it and be a little aware of things.

And both Daughter and Son have recently sent off copies of their theses to GP Cousin, who was foolish enough to ask to read them. Those books are definitely not frogs. At all. I know, because I have read them. One a bit more closely than the other, but I pride myself on believing that I understood more than GP will. (Which is unkind, because he is a boy and he is four years older than I am, so…)

Some books actually are about frogs. They can be quite good too.

A Street Dog Named Pup

I seem to be – figuratively – surrounded by dogs these days, mostly rescue dogs. In A Street Dog Named Pup, by Gill Lewis, you meet many dogs, all of them personalities for you to like or love. Pup especially.

We meet him when he’s being removed from his boy in the middle of the night. He loves his boy and the boy loves Pup. But both are young and at the mercy of adults. It doesn’t seem to count that they were made for each other.

Pup ends up with a group of dogs in the street, and they teach him how to survive and what to look out for. But all Pup wants is to get back to his boy. The other dogs know this is unlikely, especially as they understand Pup was left on the street for a reason.

They are wise and kind dogs and Pup is lucky to have been found by them. This story isn’t quite as sweet as the Eva Ibbotson book about another dog and another boy. But you feel there must be a good ending, in some way. Except, what can an eleven-year-old boy do? Or his puppy?

I’ve learned a lot, both about dogs (I hope it’s all true), and about their humans. The story also reflects on what society today is like, what people want and what people can do. And how dogs love them anyway.

This is another heartrending story from Gill, going deeper into the relationship between humans and animals than ever before.

Each chapter is headed by a black and white drawing and I was quite captivated by the beautiful illustrations, without realising that they were by Gill herself. The cover showing Pup against a night city backdrop, is by Levi Pinfold. So there is much loveliness.

Longlisted International Booker book

We did as we were told. Or rather, we didn’t. Our SELTA host Ian Giles suggested we could ‘get a cup of tea, sit back and relax’ as we listened to – and watched – the Zoom webinar late afternoon today, with Nichola Smalley and ‘her’ Swedish author Andrzej Tichý, talking about his novel Wretchedness. (What we did was continue with our work, but accompanied by an interesting, literary conversation.)

They have talked about this before, and I have written about it here. But it was worth returning to it again, because the book has been longlisted for the International Booker Prize 2021. This doesn’t happen to lots of Swedish novels. In fact, I believe it might be a first.

I have to admit to not knowing very much about the International Booker Prize. I looked it up, and discovered it’s worth £50000 to the winning pair, i.e. half to the author and half to the translator. That’s very good, especially for the often overlooked translator.

The event was organised by SELTA and supported by the Swedish Embassy’s cultural department, which shows that they take this kind of thing seriously.

I’m a little bit biased, but I have crossed my fingers for a successful Wretchedness.