Category Archives: Review

Travels From my Twilight Zone

You’ll remember Jeff Zycinski and his autobiographical The Red Light Zone, about his years as Head of Radio at BBC Scotland. It was very good, and as I said at the time – barely two years ago – you could remove the radio and you’d have excellent coverage of 25 years of life in Scotland.

Not only has Jeff now been seriously ill, while narrowly avoiding the dreaded virus of 2020, but he has written another autobiography, mostly about the years before the radio years. And it is an even better tale. ‘Morphine, memories and make-believe’ describes it perfectly.

We start with Jeff not being the slightest concerned that ‘it might be mouth cancer.’ Well, it was. So first we see him in his hospital bed, at the start of the year. And while he works on getting better, we read about his early life in Easterhouse, the seventh son of a Polish father and a Scottish mother.

It has completely changed my outsider’s view of Easterhouse, and it has reinforced my feeling that we are all mostly the same. A few years younger than me, and a Catholic boy in Glasgow, it still seems as if Jeff had a childhood I can relate to. It is fascinating in its ordinariness.

He tells it so well, and I’m beginning to believe he could tell me absolutely anything, and I’d believe it, and have fun. So, yes please, go on!

The second part of the book is fiction. Probably. The first story about the man not far from Loch Ness reminded me of Jeff. So, about that money..? All super stories, really enjoyable, and just that bit different from many other stories.

Then we return to Jeff’s health – please stay well! – before he takes us on a trip round Scotland, outlining the best of the places mentioned in the biographical first half. And I hope he has been allowed to hug his children again. Even if they are adults now.

Murder in Midwinter

I do like a good anthology of themed short stories. Especially Christmas themed. There is no murder so lovely as a Christmas one… Hang on, that doesn’t sound right. But you know what I mean.

I hung on to this Murder in Midwinter collection, edited by Cecily Gayford, until I felt Christmassy enough. The stories weren’t all absolutely set at Christmas, but at least in the colder, snowier part of the year. Some are quite old, others a little more recent.

We have some nice blackmail in the family, cunningly devious husbands, as well as the problem with dustbins and strikes. There is the rather sweet – and exciting – story about a boy in care, and then there was the Margery Allingham that made me forget everything and which, while I could sort of guess the direction the mystery was going, I didn’t quite see the last bit coming. That woman was a master of funny, caring, intelligent crime stories, be they long or short.

And give me a snowy, retro kind of cover picture, and I’m yours.

The Wolf’s Secret

The Wolf’s Secret by Myriam Dahman and Nicolas Digard, beautifully illustrated in autumnal colours by Júlia Sarda, is a romantically traditional tale.

It’s about love, and loss, and about being different. There is a wolf who isn’t exactly like wolves are meant to be, and we find out how he changes when he sees a beautiful young woman in the woods.

He can think about nothing but her singing. Then the day comes when she no longer sings, and he knows he has to do something. But what if she might be scared of him?

Well, you know the drill, something magical helps our wolf to get close, and eventually they both see each other for what they are.

Happiness Is Wasted On Me

Kirkland Ciccone has done that thing which is so often a good move for an author. He has gone home. To Cumbernauld, in fact. Not that he ever left, but in writing his new – adult* – novel, Happiness Is Wasted On Me, he has re-visited his own life. I don’t care how much he says he’s not Walter. This book is home. None of the crazy aliens or the poisoned porridge or exploding schools from previous books.

This story is so simple and so normal, told with less of the fanfare from before, and just getting on with telling the life of Walter Wedgeworth from the day he as an 11-year-old finds a dead baby in a cardboard box, and for the next ten years or so.

Writing fiction by writing what is mostly straight from life makes for very satisfying reading. Walter’s life is horrendously bleak, but it relaxed me, and I don’t even like that kind of thing.

Growing up with his four siblings and a hardworking mother and a scumbag of a father in Cumbernauld, it doesn’t really help to be rather odd as well. His older brother is a delinquent, and his oldest sister finds herself a scumbag boyfriend, the next sister understands Walter best, and then there is his little brother, so much wiser than Walter.

Apart from the dead baby, and the odd murder and lots of drugs and other crime, not much happens. It’s simply life. Walter watches those around him, but is happiest when reading books and drinking tea. If only I’d understood properly this deep fondness for tea.

I can’t recommend Kirkland’s book enough. And I’m not even being polite.

I’ll put the kettle on. (The lockdown must surely end at some point.)

*While possibly not of interest to children, it is in no way so adult that any normal teenager wouldn’t enjoy it. At least the odd ones.

The Robin and the Reindeer

The time has come to mention books for Christmas. I’ve been sitting on this one for some time, and it is Very Sweet. The Robin and the Reindeer by Rosa Bailey and illustrated by Carmen Saldaña is the very thing you need if you want to feel good about the approaching festive season.

A young reindeer is moving through her first snow with the herd with all the other reindeer, heading south before the weather gets too cold. It’s a bit Bambi, in a way, except mother stays alive and the large male lead reindeer is not her father, but the feeling is quite similar.

She gets lost. But she stays safe because she actually remembers what her mother told her. And then she meets a friendly robin. He is very red, and he agrees to show her the way, and does so by sitting on her nose, shining in a tremendously red sort of way.

Is it real? Or does our little reindeer magically turn into a temporary Rudolf?

Anyway, our reindeer finds her herd again and all is fine. Lovely and wintery and will lead the way to Christmas.

Bookwitch bites #148

The trip to Spain might have been fake – fake Spain with rain, not so much fake trip – but this week Kirkland Ciccone went to Sweden. Only in cyberspace, but it’s hard to travel these days, so it will have to do. I’ve been itching to have a photo published on Boktugg, and when Kirkie ended up on my television screen last Thursday, I decided to send in my picture of the occasion, and they’ve printed not only the photo, but my words about him, including the murderous porridge.

I must think before I press send…

This week gave us the long nominations lists for the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals for 2021, and as always, they are good lists. They give pleasure and hope to those on them, and I feel considerable guilt for having read only a few. But those few were Very Good. I’m sure they will make the longlists and maybe the shortlists too. Even if only one – in each category – can win.

Somewhere you can win a bit more easily is when it comes to pay. Equal pay. I had kept a link to something from absolutely ages ago, but ended up never getting to it to comment, so deleted it. Now in The Bokseller I see that the gender pay gap at PRH – Penguin Random House – has widened. That’s what I would call going in the wrong direction. If you really, really want to improve pay equality, you do. More money to the women, and not necessarily less to the men, but not increasing their salaries disproportionately. Pay is something you can determine in an office. No need to wait for pandemics to end or for politicians to grow sensible.

And the same goes for reviews of children’s books. Last year The Bookseller reports only 4.9% of book reviews were for children’s books, and a year later this had managed to slide down to 4.3%. 50% is too much to hope for, I suppose, but maybe a little more than barely 5%? I forget who said this in the last few days, but children’s books matter more, because they shape their readers into the kind of people they will grow up to be. I do my best, but as you well know, that is not a lot, and my viral reading has plummeted.

My local newspaper has launched this year’s charitable collection for Christmas presents for children who might not get any. I am gearing up to give them books again. Especially with the above in mind, but also with that in mind, I fear that plastic toys in primary colours will be more welcome. At least by the adults sorting the gifts. Except I know there are children who don’t actually own any books, and who would be happy to be given one.

And finally, thirty years on, we are looking at the last book by Jacqueline Wilson to be illustrated by Nick Sharratt. Not that we have been wanting this to end, but as they say, the time has come for Nick to concentrate on his own work. Here at Bookwitch Towers we will be forever grateful for the way he has captured Jacqueline’s characters and made so many children want to read her books. I have on occasion wanted to simply sit there and stroke the gorgeous covers, especially that pink one over fifteen years ago. And who can beat Tracy Beaker?

World Burn Down

Steve Cole continues telling his readers what the world is like. This time for Barrington Stoke we’re in Brazil, where Carlos lives with his mother, who works to keep the Amazon safe from all illegal developments.

And to stop her, bad people decide to kidnap Carlos, which is how he ends up alone and lost in the burning woods. The question is how he will find a way to safety, and how to stop the bad people from doing the bad things they do.

It turns into a sharp learning curve for Carlos, and he discovers a thing or two. Meanwhile I hope Steve’s young fans learn about the climate, and that what they find in this book – World Burn Down – will put them on the right road and guide their behaviour for the future. If we have a future, that is.

The Ghost of Gosswater

These ghosts really belong to New Year and after, but would be just fine for Halloween as well. After all, heroines who go poking round graveyards on lonely islands in spooky lakes…

Anyway, it’s late December 1899. Lady Agatha’s father, the earl of Gosswater has just died, and Agatha – aged 12 – is about to be turned out of Gosswater Hall, her childhood home.

Her really very ghastly cousin Clarence kicks her out, sending her away to go and live with her father – her real father – in a humble cottage nearby. There is no explanation, as all the people she has known are sent away.

Agatha, or Aggie as she becomes, keeps seeing ghosts, and some people see a ghost when they look at her, too. As winter sets in around Gosswater, Aggie knows she needs to solve the puzzle of her existence. Hence the poking around graves.

Several unpleasant characters come her way, but so do a number of nice ones. After her new father is sent away, Aggie searches for the truth, with snow and ice forming a treacherous landscape for her to traipse through.

I found this a very relaxing read. Lucy Strange has a good way with characters, and the setting is cold, but attractive. Besides, ghosts can turn out to be better people than ghastly cousins.

Space Explorers

This book – 25 Extraordinary Stories of Space Exploration and Adventure – by Libby Jackson, and with the most gorgeous illustrations by Léonard Dupond, is the perfect Christmas present for your young person who is into space or who might want to become a space fan.

While it possibly doesn’t contain anything new, it is nevertheless an attractive compilation of what has happened in space up until now, starting with those first, short trips into near space and then on to the Moon programme and finishing with the International Space Station.

I would have loved it as a child, and I imagine there are plenty of children to love it now. Libby Jackson tells ‘the story’ interestingly, and as I said, the illustrations are enough for a book in themselves.

With a bit of luck, there might be more space adventures to come, both for the astronauts who go out there, but also for the many scientists on the ground. Mars next?

Very inspiring!

An Engineer Like Me

I’m the first person to be in favour of more science for girls.

So this new picture book about a young girl asking her gran a lot of questions about science, is just right. Zara does seem to notice absolutely everything, but then, her gran has answers for all of it as well. She’s a useful gran to have.

They go for an outing, and they come past all sorts of things that need questions asked and answered. Personally I’m not sure I trust the ideas behind loop-the-loops, but I have no intention of looping anything anymore.

And I have always been fascinated by Hedy Lamarr, who despite being a beautiful actress could do serious and useful science. It just goes to show how prejudiced I am. I shouldn’t be more impressed by her than, say, by gran.

Gran has all the answers, because she is, of course, an engineer.