Half-term literary activities for kids

As another half-term holiday approaches, parents up and down the land will be seeking-out activities to do with their children. Hopefully, the weather will be good, which, when mine were younger, meant picnics in the park, walks in woodlands or county cycle rides. As they get a bit older, these are not always as exciting as they once were and it is often the case that parents have to provide at least one ‘centrepiece’ activity, something that is a bit more special. You could do worse than provide a literary slant to such an outing, so here are a few suggestions:

Hill Top, Cumbria

hill TopFormer home of Beatrix Potter, now in the care of the National Trust. A must for lovers of Peter Rabbit, which may now have added resonance after the release of the film earlier this year.

Haydays Festival, Hay-on-Wye

The annual Herefordshire literary festival runs from 24 May to 3 June and there is as always a packed programme for children and adults alike, with forest schools and crafts, as well as the to-be-expected author talks. Tickets can be booked here.

Edinburgh International Children’s Festival

At the other end of the UK, there will be lots of fun and performance in Edinburgh between 26 May-3 June. See the full programme here.

Seven Stories, The National Centre for Children’s Books, Newcastle upon Tyne

seven-storiesI was living in Newcastle when this place opened and I’m thrilled to see its thriving. They have a fantastic programme of events. Take a look here.

 

 

 

roald-dahl-museum

 

Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre, Great Missenden, Bucks.

I haven’t met a child who doesn’t love Roald Dahl and so a visit here would be a huge treat. It’s the former home of the author, where he lived for 36 years and they have a running programme of events. Full details here.

 

Harry Potter experience, Warner Bros Studios, near Watford

At the pricier end of the spectrum and tickets need to be booked in advance, so it’s likely to be busy at half term, but a treat for die-hard fans of the young wizard. Details here.

Alternatively, you could visit Alnwick Castle, where much of the action was filmed, or Kings Cross station, and stand at platform nine and three quarters!

 

shakespeare's birthplaceStratford upon Avon

For year 9s and upwards, attention will be turning to GCSEs. A Shakespeare text is compulsory on the English literature syllabus, so a visit to Stratford, the Bard’s birthplace and home, will give some context. You could even take in a play. Details of all the relevant places are here.

I hope that whets your appetites.

I would love to hear your suggestions, particularly any events that may be a bit cheaper!

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Audiobooks can be a great way to access books if you’re time-poor

I know so many people who love reading, but find it hard to find the time to do so – when you have a family, work and find yourself under pressure to provide taxi services, help with homework, cook interesting and nutritious meals, check emails….the list goes on. Reading often drops off the list. And how many of you do your reading at bedtime and find you fall asleep before you’ve even finished a chapter?

It’s a common problem. I am a great believer in two things, however. First, if you want your kids to read they have to see you doing it too – so you’re actually being a good parent by finding time to read. Second, reading can be a wonderful way of escaping all the chores and pressures of life, so you will benefit from even 10-15 minutes here and there.

glass-2557577_1920I’m a big fan of audiobooks as a way of passing otherwise dead time in a more constructive way  – for me it’s car journeys, or whilst exercising. It might also be while you’re waiting for swimming lessons to finish or at the supermarket. You have to choose your titles carefully though, because it’s not just about what you listen to, but the narrator is really key to the enjoyment. For example, audiobooks I have enjoyed have been Holding, narrated brilliantly by the author Graham Norton, Frankenstein, narrated by Derek Jacobi and 1984, narrated by Andrew Wincott (Adam from The Archers). Their reading styles enhanced my enjoyment. A title I enjoyed less because of the narration was The Girl on the Train, where I felt the male voices were not done well.

the story of a new nameI have recently finished listening to The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante, Book Two in her Neapolitan Novels series. I have listened to and reviewed here, Book One, My Brilliant Friend, and the narration by American actor Hilary Huber is sublime. The Story of a New Name continues where Book One left off, with Lila marrying the grocery-store owner Stefano Caracci. Lila acquires a new social standing and some material wealth, but it is a loveless affair, and the marriage soon deteriorates into violence and enmity.

Lila’s childhood friend Elena, chooses a different path; she continues her education and though at first she barely scrapes through with adequate grades, she eventually graduates and is accepted at the university in Pisa. While Lila’s life is coming apart (despite her many talents, her beauty and her magnetic appeal), Elena’s eventually triumphant academic trajectory comes as a surprise to many as her abilities and potential were not thought to be as great (especially by herself).

This book has the same wonderful setting, 1960s Naples, the same cast of fascinating characters, mostly sinister and flawed, and develops the themes of friendship, and its many complex facets, jealousy, family feuds, conflict, love, hatred and the position of women in society.

The book is long (over eighteen hours worth of listening, or nearly 500 pages in paperback), but it is epic in scale and epic in achievement. On my audiobook app you can select a faster reading speed; I tried listening at 1.25 speed, but I went back to standard speed, because Hilary Huber’s American drawl is a treat for the ears and brilliantly suited to the story.

I would highly recommend this audiobook – the cast of characters is complicated and sometimes I forgot who was who, especially when shortened or ‘pet’ names are used in the dialogue. I found it helpful to look up a cast of characters online so I could keep track. There are two more books in the series – Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and The Story of the Lost Child. I will certainly stick with the series and get both of these – even though it might take another year to get through listening to them!

Does the narration style affect your enjoyment of an audiobook?

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Kids book review: “A Whisper of Horses” by Zillah Bethel

If you have children aged 10-12 years, I can heartily recommend this book. It’s marvellous; dark in parts (but don’t kids love that?!), but ultimately full of hope and showing that you can achieve the near-impossible if you dare to believe.

a whisper of horses imgThe novel is set in Lahn Dan, you’ll recognise the pun, but the place described in the book will be unfamiliar; it is practically a separate city-state within England, encircled by the ‘Emm Twenty-Five Wall’ that none of the inhabitants dare cross (told that there is only a deserted wilderness on the other side anyway). This is a time after ‘the Gases’ (a reference to climate change), the ‘Tems’  has deteriorated to a muddy flat and only the rich are able to live in the ‘crystal towers’  that afford them some natural light and allow them to live above the pollution layer. In a nod to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World there is a strict hierarchy in the society: at the bottom are the Pbs, who do most of the work, then slightly higher up are the Cus, the professional classes, but true power lies only with the Aus. Give the child a prize who spots that these are chemical symbols and what this says about the social order! Lahn Dan is run by ‘the Minister’ a distant and slightly mythical figure, not unlike Big Brother, whose orders are carried out by Mordecai and his Secret Police. It all has echoes of 1984.

The main character is Serendipity Goudge a 12 year-old girl who lives alone with her mother. They are Pbs and do agricultural work. They live in a ‘pod’ and have very few possessions, though Serendipity cherishes a small wooden horse her mother once gave her; she is fascinated by the creatures but they are said to be extinct and nobody has ever seen one in the flesh. Serendipity’s mother dies, leaving her nothing of any value except a locket. Hidden inside the locket is a small map indicating a route out of Lahn Dan, through the Emm Twenty-Five Wall to ‘Whales’ via the ‘HH Bridge’  to a place where there might be horses. Strictly speaking, Serendipity, as an orphan, should be taken into care, but Professor Nimbus, her ‘storyteller’ (the children get a very limited education), takes her under his wing as his apprentice. It quickly becomes apparent that this situation is not sustainable and that Serendipity’s life is in danger. She decides that she will try to escape Lahn Dan, initially with the help of the Professor, who confesses that he, along with a small group of others, is a secret agitator for change.

By chance, they meet up with Tab, and his funny little dog Mouse. Tab is part of a band of Smugglers with a camp on the other side of the Wall. Tab is like something out of Oliver Twist, a street-wise orphan who helps Serendipity escape the city. They reach his community’s encampment, but it becomes clear that Tab may also be in danger and so he decides to accompany Serendipity on her search for horses in Whales.

The rest of the book is about their quest to fulfil a dream, but, though they don’t realise it at the time, they are also looking for a better life, outside the corrupt, polluted, decrepit city of Lahn Dan. En route they come across things they have never seen before – green fields, rain, a train, fresh food. It is a story about love and friendship – initially, Serendipity and Tab do not trust each other, but they soon come to realise that their fates are entwined and that they are better as a team. The people they meet along the way  help and encourage them on their journey. The novel also has great suspense; once the authorities realise that there has been an escape, they pursue Serendipity, and nearly catch her several times.

Spoiler alert!

Serendipity reaches her goal in the most magical and unexpected way, not immediately, but many years after she has settled happily in Whales, in a brief and beautiful moment that made me cry! 

This is a fabulous book which I thoroughly enjoyed reading – kids and adults alike will enjoy spotting all the references, the links to current concerns in its themes (the importance of community, climate change, the social and economic separation of London from other regions of the country). The pace is perfect for the 9-12 age group, the characters are well-rounded, credible and fun, and I loved all the nods to other books – this would be a great introduction to titles they might come across later in life.

Highly recommended.

[My copy of this book was very kindly sent to me by the author after I posted a review of her other novel The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare which I also enjoyed and recommend.]

What sort of books do your kids like reading?

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Science writing: “Catching Breath: the making and unmaking of tuberculosis” by Kathryn Lougheed

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have been working on my first book for just under a year now. It’s a long process! I finished my first draft just before Easter, but even though it was gratifying to reach that milestone, to be able to type “The End” I was aware that, in many ways it was just that – a milestone, not the end. It was the end of the beginning.

In the last few weeks of writing I had begun to build up a list of gaps, things I still needed to research, passages or chapters that I knew would not read the way I wanted and tweaks that may be necessary with the structure. I conducted my first full read through a couple of weeks ago and found it reassuring that I was indeed right – there were gaps, bits that did not flow and the non-linear structure I was so excited about, well, perhaps that did not work as well as I thought. I wasn’t down about it though. I have a long list of tasks again, but feel generally positive.

Emily Bronte, John Keats and George Orwell are among the many artists who died young from TB, giving the disease a ‘romantic’ image

An area where I felt I needed more information was in understanding tuberculosis (TB). This disease was rife in Britain in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The numbers are astonishing: in England and Wales about four million people are thought to have died from TB between 1851 and 1910. TB-related deaths began to fall from this point onwards but were still shocking: in 1913, there were 36,500 deaths from TB in England and Wales (reaching a peak of 46,200 in 1918, at the time of the European Spanish ‘flu pandemic). By 2013, there were just 280, down from a rate of almost 100 per 100,000 population in 1913, to 0.5 per 100,000 a century later. (Source: Office for National Statistics)

The decline in the mortality rate for the disease can be put down to a number of factors: mainly improved living conditions and sanitation, but also better understanding of the disease (it was once thought to be hereditary, not contagious), the discovery of an effective antibiotic treatment in the late 1940s and, latterly, a nationwide vaccination programme (remember the BCG?). The virtual eradication of the disease in this country is a cause for celebration, but, worldwide, it remains a devastating killer: 1.4 million people a year die from TB.

Catching Breath imgOne of the books I consulted as part of my research into understanding more about the disease, its symptoms and its effects, was published very recently, in 2017. It’s called Catching Breath: the making and unmaking of tuberculosis by Kathryn Lougheed. The author is a former scientific researcher and is now a journalist and science writer. The book is excellent. It is fantastically well-written, even funny in parts (the author has an interesting sense of humour – her Twitter handle is @ilovebacteria!). She is out to make some serious points, however, about this, one of the oldest diseases known to humanity, which has so successfully mutated, crossed species and diversified and which just keeps on winning. Her main argument is that TB remains a disease of poverty and inequality. Globally, it affects the weakest – the young, the old, the poor or those who are already sick.  She argues that, although it is a complex disease, if there was sufficient political will, many more lives could be saved. If there was as much resource and international effort put into tackling TB as there has been, say, to addressing AIDS, there would have been far greater success to date. In 2015 the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced its ‘End TB strategy‘, which set a goal to reduce worldwide deaths from the disease by 95% by 2035, although it would seem that nothing short of a heroic research effort will be required to meet this.

If you are at all interested in the politics of health and disease, inequality between the developed and the developing world, and about humanity’s ongoing battles with diseases old and new, this is a fascinating and engaging read. I had intended merely to dip into the bits that interested me for my own research, but I have ended up reading the whole book. In Kathryn Lougheed, science’s loss is the publishing world’s gain. I hope this book gets nominated for some non-fiction or science-writing prizes.

Have you read any good science or non-fiction books recently?

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Why book ratings are pointless!

If  you have read any of the book reviews I publish on this blog, you will note that I do not give star ratings, marks out of ten or anything like that. I will recommend or not (usually the former – even if I have not enjoyed something, I will try to think about who might like it) and, particularly in the case of the children’s books I review, I will say what age group I think it’s appropriate for and any issues parents might like to be aware of. For example, books marketed for, say, 11-13 year olds might contain references to violence or death, which will be okay for some kids, but not if they’ve just lost a pet, grandparent or are on the sensitive side. Star ratings, on the other hand, are a blunt instrument.

I am a keen member of the Goodreads website and I write short reviews of most things I read (haven’t caught up on the back catalogue I listed when I joined, though!). I hate giving the star rating and find even my own ratings are inconsistent from one book to the next, so how on earth can a reader compare a 4-star rating one person has given to a 2-star rating from someone else? If you read the review, I guess that gives you the reader’s justification for their rating, but the trouble with star ratings is that you are immediately drawn to the high level score rather than the longer-form explanation.

(The erotic thriller Fifty Shades of Grey gets the same score of 3.66 on Goodreads as Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey! But are they comparable?)

What justifies a star-rating anyway? Is it how much you’ve enjoyed something? Or how GOOD you think it is? They are not necessarily the same thing. For example, I recently reviewed Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary on this blog and on Goodreads, after I set it as the book for March on my Facebook Reading Challenge. I think it is fair to say that most people involved in the Challenge did not love the book, and yet it is one of the great classics of world literature. I loved it (but then I love the classics generally), but I cannot say, hand on heart, that I sat wrapt for every moment I was reading it. This 19th century novel was definitely hard work in places for a 21st century reader. Yet, there are plenty of books I’ve read recently which I could not put down. One that comes to mind is The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, but you would probably not say it was a classic; it’s the sort of book you’ll find in the hospital League of Friends bookstall! The Goodreads rating for Madame Bovary is 3.65 and for The Secret Life of Bees is 4.02, but will the latter still be in print in 150 years time?

I’m not really sure what this very unscientific comparison tells us, except that readers’ tastes change all the time. I gave Madame Bovary 5 stars because I recognise it as a great book, and acknowledge its longevity and its place in world literature, but others who hated it will have given it 1 star. But my enjoyment of it was a different kind of pleasure to reading The Secret Life of Bees.

I recognise the inconsistencies in my own ratings too – I am more likely to give a book a higher rating if it has met my expectations or if it was appropriate for the time I was reading it. This would explain the 1 star I gave to George Saunders’s Man Booker Prize winning Lincoln in The Bardo and the 4 stars I gave to Jo Cox: More in Common by Brendan Cox – the latter struck a political chord and moved me, but it’s not literary. And when I’m reviewing a children’s book, I try to rate it from the point of view of how much I think the target audience might enjoy it. But children’s tastes can be difficult to predict!

So, the answer really is to ignore the star rating and read the review – would you agree?

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Kids book review: “Tin” by Padraig Kenny

Tin is a debut children’s novel from Irish writer Padraig Kenny which is receiving a lot of publicity and has had some really good reviews. It’s set in pre-War Britain, and concerns the production of highly sophisticated robots (‘mechanicals’). Parts of the book take place in central London and the English home counties, other parts in the dreadful dystopian setting of Ironhaven, an ugly metallic landscape populated by  junk, by discarded and disfigured ‘mechanicals’ and by fearsome robots designed to terrorise. As such it is somewhat timeless and placeless. Reading it, I was struck by similarities to 1984, to Frankenstein (which strangely enough, I reviewed recently), to Oliver Twist, to dystopian fantasy as well as the Wizard of Oz! Most readers will be in the 9-12 age group, though, so may have little knowledge of these references.

Tin imgThe story begins near Aylesbury where the spivvy disgraced engineer Dr Absolom is trying to sell ‘mechanicals’. These are child robots which were initially created to perform tasks that society no longer wanted humans to do. We learn some vague details about how the experiment got out of hand when some rogue scientists tried to instil their creations with a soul. This was considered a step too far and laws were put in place to limit the capabilities of these creations, and, in particular, to forbid the building of adult-sized mechanicals. The environment we are observing, however, appears somewhat lawless, and it is clear that Absolom is operating on the margins and that there is a black market in mechanicals.

The main characters at this stage are the ‘child’ mechanicals Jack, Round Rob and Gripper, the slightly uncategorised Estelle (who works for Absolom as a specialist in making skin) and Christopher who believes himself a human orphan. Late one evening Christopher is involved in an accident which breaks his skin and reveals wires – he is not a human child, but a particularly sophisticated mechanical. He is later kidnapped by some rather shady officers from ‘The Agency’. They are merely masquerading as the authorities, however, and are in fact operating on behalf of Richard Blake, son of one of the rogue scientists, the egotistical bully Charles Blake, who was involved in illegal activity in the experiments he conducted. He is keen to get hold of Christopher who, it turns out, is the only remaining example of ‘Refined Propulsion’ – a mechanical with a soul – and to take over the world with his own giant robotic creations.

Meanwhile, Absolom’s small band of misfit mechanicals decide they must go in search of Christopher and rescue him. They seek out Richard Cormier, another one of the famous rogue scientists, for help. When they find him, however, he is hostile and uncooperative. He is an angry and disillusioned man who wants no part in society. We later learn that he lost his son in the Great War and then later his only grandson; it was in fact he who created Christopher out of grief, as a replacement for the lost child. He instilled him with memories that his grandson would have had.

The story takes the form of a quest – a group going in search of their lost friend – and the setbacks they face along the way. At the heart of it is their love for their friend, and this challenges the notion that the mechanicals do not have a ‘soul’ or feelings, because, clearly, it is their anger at his kidnap and their desire to rescue him that motivates their search. There is action and adventure, some mild peril (the sinister scientists reminded me of Dr Strangelove!) but nothing that should trouble the average ten year-old too much. Younger readers might need some guidance. The plot is quite complicated in parts and I did not always follow it easily, and some of the language of mechanics could be off-putting to some readers. It is ultimately a heart-warming story with a happy ending – good triumphs and evil is defeated.

It’s a wonderful achievement for a debut novel and I commend the author. I also like that it is not obviously a ‘boy’s book’ or a ‘girl’s book’, it will appeal to both genders and has strong male and female characters (as well as non-gender-specific mechanical characters). My only criticism would be that there are no adult females to counter the rather domineering male scientists!

Recommended for 9-12 year olds, a good and engaging read. There are some interesting references for the adults to enjoy too: Blake at times reminds us of a certain American President (he wants to “Make this nation great again”), and it raises issues around AI and the nature of warfare.

Do you find it more enjoyable to have references or jokes that are especially for the grown-ups when you read books with your kids?

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Film review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

I was feeling a bit glum last week (two teenagers and one in training, need I say more?!) so I decided that an afternoon at the cinema with a feel-good movie was in order. I’d heard about The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (hereafter shortened to The GLPPPS) on Front Row a few weeks ago and it sounded interesting. It is a really lovely movie, and there is much more to it than just “feel-good” with a bit of romance; it covers historical events about which I’m ashamed to say I knew very little, and it is very engaging.

Successful, beautiful young author Juliet Ashton appears to have it all; she lives in London, where she is planning to buy a new flat, which she can well afford from her fabulous authorly earnings, and is romantically involved with an American military officer, who wants to whisk her off to New York to be his wife. But a dark shadow looms over her existence and she knows there is something missing in her life. Bored with her book tours she accepts a commission from The Times to write an article when, out of the blue, she receives a letter from a farmer in Guernsey, Dawsey Adams, which intrigues her. He has by chance come across a copy of Charles Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare with her name and former London address written in it. Her past home was destroyed in the War, and both her parents were killed, so the contact marks an emotional moment for her. In his letter, Dawsey writes briefly about the GLPPPS and asks if she might forward another book for the group to read (books were very difficult for them to get hold of when the Nazis occupied the island).

Juliet is intrigued, not only by the request, but also by the strange name of the Society. We have already learned a little of the Society’s origins – its five members were apprehended by a Nazi patrol after curfew after they had shared a roast pork dinner from an illegally concealed pig. At the time of the occupation, locals were forbidden to keep hold of their livestock as all meat was confiscated for the benefit of the German soldiers. As a result the islanders were nearly starved, hence living on delights such as Potato Peel Pie (“no flour, no butter, just potato peel”). The shared meal marks a connection and coming together for the five lonely individuals looking for some togetherness at a very dark time. The Society is ‘authorised’ by the Germans and they continue to meet. It becomes their lifeline. The instigator of the Society, Elizabeth McKenna, is the best friend of Jane, daughter of Amelia Maugery, another of the Society’s founding members.

Juliet decides to go to Guernsey to write about the Society and when she arrives she is immediately won over by their passion for literature, their humanity and their story. She tells them, naively, that she would like to write about them for her article in The Times and assumes they will be only too delighted to give her their blessing. Juliet encounters unexpected hostility, however, in particular from Amelia (played by the marvellous Penelope Wilton), who believes that Juliet, with her London ways, has merely come to gawp at these unsophisticated islanders and that she understands nothing of their lives.

Juliet is horrified that her new friends should be offended by her proposal and desires to dig a little deeper, to understand better and to uncover the truth about what they endured in the occupation. Thus, her weekend stay becomes indefinitely extended, much to the annoyance of Juliet’s fiance, Mark Reynolds. Juliet develops close relationships with other Society members Isola and, of course, the handsome Dawsey. She learns from them that Amelia has never recovered from the death of her daughter Jane, and the unborn child she was carrying, from German bombing at the time of the invasion. She also learns more about Dawsey’s young daughter Kit, and about what has happened to Elizabeth.

I will say no more as it’s a cracking story and I don’t want to spoil it. Multiple plot lines are maintained throughout, and the flashbacks to the origins of the Society and the events that befell them in the War are very well done. The dimension of Juliet’s engagement to her American lover, and her long-standing friendship with her protective publisher, provide interesting side stories.  It has a super cast, the characters are well-played, and the Guernsey scenery is stunning – I predict this film will do much for Channel Islands tourism!

Highly recommended and definitely improved my week!

If you get to see this film I’d love to hear what you thought of it.

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