Category Archives: Reading

Shola and the Lions

Oh to be a lion! I mean, if you are a dog, it might seem attractive to be a lion instead.

Bernardo Atxaga and Mikel Valverde, Shola and the Lions

In Bernardo Atxaga’s Shola and the Lions, with charming illustrations by Mikel Valverde, Shola – who is a dog – hears about lions, and immediately realises that that’s what he is. He has never really been a dog. It’s been a misunderstanding.

Grogó, Shola’s owner, had a visitor who left behind a book on lions, and Shola keeps checking the facts in this book. He’s right! He is a lion!

This basque story, which is part of Pushkin’s translated children’s books, is sweet and funny. Grogó doesn’t quite understand why his dog has gone a bit funny. But then Shola goes out, being a bit of a lion, and, well, it doesn’t seem a total success, exactly. Dogness can be good, too.

Better than a goldfish

New babies can, but some can better than others. When Daughter was born she arrived bearing a gift. Her brother was delighted with his new road mat, which was just what he wanted. Whereas, in this New Royal Baby book by Martha Mumford, with more of those cute illustrations by Ada Grey, it seems the New Royal Baby gives Royal Baby George a goldfish.

Martha Mumford and Ada Grey, Hooray! It's a New Royal Baby!

OK, so he did want a goldfish, but it doesn’t take long for him to discover how boring they can be, swimming around the same way over and over again.

In Hooray! It’s a New Royal Baby! we witness Royal Baby George’s doubts over this brotherhood business. It’s quite possible that the New Royal Baby will dribble all over his favourite toy dinosaur. Better with no New Royal Baby at all.

But once the boring goldfish has been ignored again, Royal Baby George discovers that the New Royal Baby is actually a lot of fun.

Martha Mumford and Ada Grey, Hooray! It's a New Royal Baby!

Even for non-royal children this book might help with the transition of having someone new join the family.

A big welcome to the New Princess! (Although I do think a road mat would have been better.)

Azzi a second time

I can’t believe it’s been almost three years since I reviewed Azzi In Between. I don’t often review books a second time, and I won’t here either, as you can follow the link and see what I said then.

Sarah Garland’s book is out in paperback now, and what with the election looming and everything else that sometimes feels overwhelmingly bad, I need to mention Azzi again.

There are all these powers (-to-be, in some cases) who expect nothing good to come of immigration and refugees. Many who don’t want any strangers coming here at all. Because we are all so nice here and no one else can possibly be worthy of our paradise. Nice, apart from me, because I’m not from here.

The book about Azzi is one that has stayed with me. In my mind, as well as physically sitting on my shelf. We need to see that people need to leave the place they consider to be home. They don’t come here for what they can get, unless that is to survive.

Next week, please vote sensibly. And always, please welcome those who are scared and in danger and have nowhere else to go. If you find your imagination isn’t up to this, I suggest you read After Tomorrow by Gillian Cross. That way you too can be a refugee.

Blood & Ink

I must state here that I do know Timbuktu is real. I also know where it is – roughly, anyway – on a map of Africa. It’s placing it in the right country I wouldn’t have been able to do. I’m sorry. Will try to remember it’s in Mali from now on.

Stephen Davies, Blood & Ink

Someone who really knows his Africa is Stephen Davies. A story like Blood & Ink wouldn’t work if the author didn’t. If you disobey Stephen and read the foreword, you’ll learn that this novel is set in 2012 when there was a military coup in Mali. If you look at the news now, you’ll learn that there is recent unrest as well. I think it’s very brave of Stephen to have set his story at such a recent time with real events, including one real character.

But it works, and Blood & Ink is just as good, probably better, than even I had imagined. It could be those ninjas…

It’s about Ali who is a teenager fighting with the Defenders of Faith, invading Timbuktu. That’s where Kadija lives peacefully with her family, helping guard the town’s ancient manuscripts. She likes to sing, while Ali is there to outlaw such frivolous behaviour.

So, how can these two fall in love, and how can the author make anything like that actually work, and still look realistic? Well, I obviously won’t tell you, but rest assured this is a fascinating journey in religion and humanity, and love. Lots of humour and quite a bit of education for those of us who don’t know our Malis properly.

There is the incongruous use of mobile phones. Forbidden after the invasion, but still. You sit there reading about what seems like quite basic lives in Africa, but then you have these teenagers and their heavy use of and dependence on mobile phones. This is what makes it so real; what I suspect someone who ‘just made it up’ wouldn’t get right.

Blood & Ink offers hope, while still making it clear how difficult it is going to be to outlaw all this outlawing of normal human life. There is so much that is good in this world, in Timbuktu and elsewhere, but we need to become aware of the appalling truth of flogging, and the irrational behaviour of power-crazed people. Anywhere.

The Territory

(Review spoiler alert; The Territory is a terrific book. It simply is.)

When Sarah Govett’s publicist approached me about reading The Territory, I replied that it really didn’t sound like what I’d want to read right now, but that actually seeing a copy of the novel might change my mind. (I know, I’m a bundle of optimism and polite phrases.)

It was the blurb, really:  ‘The Territory is a gripping dystopian thriller set in a future Britain where unflooded land is scarce. Everyone must pass an exam at 15 to stay in The Territory or be exiled to the disease-ridden Wetlands. But how can Noa compete when the system is skewed to favour rich kids who can upload information through a Node in the back of their neck? And how can she focus when her heart is being pulled in two directions at once?’

You know, just another flooded dystopian romance.

Sarah Govett, The Territory

But as they say, the proof is in the reading. I was really sleepy when I started on The Territory, well past my bedtime. No, I didn’t sit up all night. I just couldn’t. But I would have. It’s an admirably short book at 200 pages, and I reckoned there would be no need to read the second and third parts of the trilogy.

Yeah, right. (When will they be available??) The Territory is published on 14th May, so I am early here, but simply couldn’t not review it straight away.

Enough about me and my stupidity. This is a mind-numbingly chilling read, set in 2059, when meat is non-existent and food scarce, and children are sent away to die if they fail their exams. Noa and her best friends Jack and Daisy are Norms, which means they don’t have the expensive Node in their necks to assist with passing exams, like rich kids have. Noa is clever, but the other two are less sure of how they might do. (If you try not to sit your exams you are dead. Likewise if you try to run away afterwards.) And as a reader it’s hard to keep your thoughts off the fact that we already appear to be marching towards this kind of society.

Pets are no longer allowed, and the tale of Noa’s former pet dog is worse to read than you’d think. Likewise Noa’s realisation that she would have killed Anne Frank.

Noa is far from perfect, which is why she comes across as so real. Written in the first person we learn all about how ‘lame’ everything is, as you’d expect from a 15-year-old. And when you mix that normality, however dystopian, with the casual clubbing down of people in the street, you know you have something really exceptional.

It’s obvious that the exam results will mean either that some or all of them will fail the exams and spend the next two books trying to stay alive in the Wetlands, or that they pass and stay in civilisation, fighting against the Ministry. I won’t tell you which it is.

This is so good.

Prayer for the Dead

If he’s not running around Edinburgh shivering in the snow, while wearing inadequate shoes, then James Oswald’s hero Tony McLean staggers round a sweltering Scottish capital. I remember that – last – summer well, and I sympathise. (He’s still a bit of an idiot, but he’s a kind and polite and likeable idiot. And we love him.)

The supernatural elements in Prayer for the Dead were a little confusing, as this time things are far more real than they have been in the past. Some of James’s villains are still quite insane, though, and you know there will be no reasoning with them.

James Oswald, Prayer for the Dead

It’s the usual start; where the reader witnesses the murder happening, alongside the victim. You’ve not had time to get to know the victim, but you still feel for them, as they discover what is about to happen. And as far as one of the subplots is concerned, I am convinced James has been to Son’s former flat in Newington. He describes it perfectly. I reckon those builders must have been in on that one, too.

Things are awkward for McLean. Former enemies are brought closer than is comfortable, and he can’t even rely on his boss to be as impossible as he usually is. Must be time for a new new boss.

Anyway, lots of murders of the worst kind, and surely they are connected? That’s what McLean believes. MacBride and Ritchie are both suffering from what happened a few months earlier, and even Madame Rose has problems.

Prayer for the Dead is quite simply another page-turner; with just the right blend of gore, grit and good manners.

Yay! YA+

Cumbernauld Theatre

Yesterday saw the long awaited birth of Kirkland Ciccone’s first ever Scottish YA book festival Yay! YA+, and I really appreciate his thoughtfulness in arranging it for the day on which I celebrated my first year in Scotland. Kirkie had lined up ten teen authors, 200 teens and one tardis-like venue in the shape of the Cumbernauld Theatre. In Cumbernauld. He also arranged for the lovely people of Scotia Books to come and sell books, and between you and me, they not only had the good taste to like my sense of humour, but their mobile shop was the best I’ve seen.

Scotia Books

Once we were all in, Kirkland explained how some authors would ‘be taken out’ and split up into tiny pieces. Yeah. I don’t think he meant that literally. He wanted to say that six of the authors would be ensconced in their own little rooms (=bars and subterranean dressing rooms), where smaller groups of the audience would come to hear them read from their books, or talk about their writing, or anything else they might want to do. Ten times. Eek!

Kirkland Ciccone

Cathy MacPhail

Meanwhile, Cathy MacPhail, Theresa Breslin and Barry Hutchison stayed in the main theatre and each had 25 minutes in which to charm the half of the audience left behind, which they did with real style. Twice. Multi award-winner Cathy started by sharing the trailer to her film Another Me, based on a nightmare she once had. She can see a story in anything (perhaps because she’s from Greenock, where you know everyone), and Cathy is surprised she writes such scary books, when she really is such a nice person.

Theresa Breslin

Theresa brought her gasmask, which looked quite uncomfortable to wear, and some shrapnel from WWI. She reminisced about travelling to America a month after September 11th, and hearing he same words then, that soldiers used a 90 years earlier to describe why they went to war. Some things never change. She read a tense bit from Remembrance, before telling us how good it is to write YA for teens, as they will read everything, with no set ideas of what a book has to be.

Barry Hutchison

Last but not least, Barry Hutchison talked about his fears, so it was back to his perennially entertaining tales of ‘Death and Squirrels’ and his childhood concern whether the dead squirrel was ‘proper dead’ or might come back and attack the young Barry. I can listen to his tale of weeing in the kitchen sink as many times as he will tell it. Or about his friend Derek. Barry read from The 13th Horseman, which must have made half the children want to buy a copy.

Roy Gill and Lari Don

There was lunch – with cupcakes and fruit – and signings and even some time for hanging out. Keith Charters turned up, and admitted to a life-long ignorance of sharpies. That’s not why he came, but, still. I contemplated stealing Kirkie’s sharpies-filled lunchbox, but didn’t.

Keith Charters

After the eating I aligned myself with half the group from Cumbernauld Academy for my rounds of the nether regions of the theatre, and they were both lovely and polite as well as interested in books. Although, I joined them after their session with Linda Strachan – in the bar – which unfortunately meant I actually missed Linda’s seven minute show, as I was sitting out the empty slot with Alex Nye (one school was missing). And you’ll think I have something against Linda, since she is the only one who does not appear in any of my – frankly substandard – photos (photographer had better things to do…).

Alex Nye

Anyway, Alex spoke about her cool books, Chill and Shiver, featuring snow and ghosts, before we went to join Matt Cartney who not only sat in a warm bar, but who had been to the Sahara. Admittedly, he had been to Hardangervidda as well. His Danny Lansing Adventures (Matt loves adventures!) are set in sand, and snow, and wherever else Matt might find inspiration.

Matt Cartney

Lari Don read from Mind Blind, which was her first non-fantasy, for older readers. She had been troubled by not being able to solve problems with magic. Lari is very good with school children. We then found Roy Gill in one of the dressing rooms, and the poor man was only allowed five minutes with us, so raced like crazy through his werewolves and a reading from his latest book.

Kirkland Ciccone

We finished in another dressing room where Victoria Campbell had brought her Viking weapons. Just imagine, small basement room full of young teenagers and some – possibly not totally lethal – weapons. She dressed one volunteer in a spiky helmet but didn’t let go of either the Dane Axe or the sword. Victoria asked what the best thing so far had been, and my group reckoned it was the selfies! Apparently some of her Viking interest comes from a short period living in Sweden (good taste). Before we left her, there was an almighty scream from – I would guess – Roy’s dressing room.

Victoria Campbell with Viking

Ever the optimist, Kirkie had scheduled a panel session at the end (a full 20 minutes!), chaired by Keith. Unsurprisingly, the authors had different opinions on nearly everything. But the questions were good. Very good. This was one fine audience.

KIrkland Ciccone tweets

Theresa brought out a gift for Kirkie, which might have been a chocolate boot. And while the panel wound things up, he and some of the others hastily got ready to run off to Edinburgh, where they had an(other) event to go to. All good things come in twos.

Theresa Breslin gives Kirkland Ciccone the chocolate boot at Yay! YA+

The very lovely Barry Hutchison offered to remove me from the premises, on his way home to Fort William, which meant I was able to actually leave Cumbernauld – something that had worried me considerably earlier in the week. He set me down outside the newsagent’s after some nice conversation, and a secret.

My verdict of the day is that if we can only get Kirkland to speak less loudly in places, this worked really quite well. Might let him repeat it, if he can find more dark corners in which to stash Scotland’s finest.

(I found the photo below on facebook, and because it has Linda Strachan in it, I decided to borrow the picture, a little.)

Linda Strachan, Lari Don, Roy Gill, Alex Nye and Kirkland Ciccone