Kids books for Christmas – non-fiction

I posted a blog last week encouraging you all to give a book a home this Christmas. A well-chosen book is NEVER a bad gift idea. Even if the gift receiver does not in the end like the book they will appreciate you buying it for them, especially if you write something inside about why you chose it. It will also give the two of you something to talk about. It’s the gift that keeps on giving!

Kids can be more tricky, as we know! Unless you know what authors they like, or what sort of reading material they are into, it can be a risk. And for a reluctant reader, receipt of a book may come as a disappointment. When it comes to encouraging children to read, my advice is always to let them choose, but that can be difficult at Christmas, if you are buying for nieces and nephews, for example. Non-fiction is always a good choice in this scenario as you will be able to find a book on almost any subject, targeted at the age range you are looking for. I’ve done a bit of research for you and here are some that have caught my eye.

For younger ones:

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Paper Monsters by Oscar Sabini (£14.95). This is a gorgeous gift book. The idea is the child makes a collage on a blank sheet and then uses the monster templates to cut round. There is a similar book Paper Zoo which is just animals.

71FNtt45dULBarefoot Books World Atlas by Nick Crane & David Dean (£9.99). I love the values and ethos behind Barefoot Books. Multi-cultural and humanitarian themes are present in everything they publish and their books can be valuable tools in combatting exclusion in our world and teaching children about kindness. This world atlas focuses on the interaction between environment and the communities and cultures of the world.

For 10-13 year olds:

2017-12-04 13.20.00Illumanatomy  by Kate Davies and Carnovsky (£15.00). A superb large format book about the human body that goes into real detail. The illustrations are outstanding; when viewed with the special lenses provided you can see different parts of the body (skeleton, muscles, organs) and how they interact. Perfect for budding biologists!

2017-12-01 12.59.15EtchArt: Hidden Forest by AJ Wood, Mike Jolley & Dinara Mirtalipova (£9.99). This is rather like those books in the colouring trend except the images you create are shiny and sparkly. The child uses the etching tool provided to produce glorious forest-themed pictures (there is also a sea-themed one available). Lovely, and nice and solid.

Older teens:

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Notes from the Upside Down: Inside the World of Stranger Things by Guy Adams (£12.99). My teenagers love this show and Season 2 has been hotly awaited in our household! Yes, I know it’s a companion to a TV series, but it’s potentially entry-level Stephen King, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

2017-12-04 13.17.39 Wreck this Journal by Keri Smith (£12.99). Yes, I know it’s not exactly a reading book (though there are plenty of words) there are writing and drawing opportunities. I actually love this series as I think they tap into teenagers’ anarchic tendencies, whilst also encouraging a degree of creativity. Here’s the 2017 offering and the cover is much nicer than previous editions. Good fun.

If you have any non-fiction suggestions I’d love to hear them.

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Top #10 tips for getting and keeping your kids reading

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I’ve been having lots of conversations recently about how to get kids reading. Social media and electronic devices appear to be the main culprits keeping our children away from books, according to the parents I have spoken to. Not only are they described as “addictive” but parents feel they are behind what is seen as our children’s ever-shortening attention span. On this, Universal Children’s Day, it seems appropriate to publish my Top 10 tips for getting and keeping your kids reading.

Top Ten tips:

  1. Do not put yourself or your kids under any pressure to read (done that, failed). Do not bribe them (done that, also failed), coerce them or make it a condition for getting some sort of reward. All that does is turn something that should be pleasurable into a chore.
  2. Model desired behaviours – read in front of them, put down your own devices. You are their greatest teacher. Let them see your joy.
  3. Value all types of reading (especially if you are starting from a low base), including non-fiction, newspapers, magazines and comics. Even leaflets! Never judge their reading choices.
  4. Fight the urge to tidy and leave reading material lying around. My teenage son, having told me a couple of years ago that he “hated” (yes, hated!) books, started reading again when we left the weekend papers on the dining table all week. It started with five or ten minutes at mealtimes. He now orders all sorts of books for himself from Amazon, mostly quite heavy non-fiction, history, politics, philosophy.
  5. Have lots of books around the house, in every room.
  6. Buy books for your kids, but take them to the bookshop and let them make their own choices (see 3 above). Yes, it’s probably more expensive than buying online, but the pleasure is immeasurably greater. Bookshops can be very exciting places these days, and you can often lose hours in there on comfy chairs and having a hot chocolate. It’s a very pleasurable way to spend an afternoon. The average children’s book costs £6-£8. That’s less than a cinema ticket, or an hour in a play centre. If cost is an issue for you, there are charity bookshops and libraries (see 7 below).
  7. Rediscover your local library. Libraries are under threat and if we don’t use them we will lose them. They have fantastic stock and you can usually reserve and order books in from other branches.

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8. Talk to your kids about what they are reading. Show an interest in and respect their opinions. If they love a book and recommend that you read it too, then please do it. It will open up all sorts of conversations and they will be chuffed

9. If concentration is a real issue for your child try audiobooks. When my kids were little we had all the Roald Dahl CDs, which we played when travelling. They adored these books and it has provided a powerful memory for them. A good narrator can also help to bring it alive for them. (Simon Callow reading The Twits is our absolute favourite.) There are also audiobook subscription services which they can listen to on mobile devices.

10. Finally, if you’re feeling bold, create some family time for reading. Half an hour on a Sunday afternoon, perhaps. It may be challenging at first, but, like most challenging things, it gets easier if you can build the habit over a period of time.

Good luck!

Help your child imgA book I am particularly fond of is Alison David’s Help Your Child Love Reading which I reviewed on this blog last year. Much of what I have learned on this subject and which I commend to others is distilled from that book.

As Christmas is now fast approaching, look out for my recommendations on reading material for your kids over the next couple of weeks.

 

 

 

What are your top tips for getting kids reading?

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Book review: “Not My Father’s Son” by Alan Cumming

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It’s been a very busy few weeks, so my reading rate has been somewhat below par. Besides half term (which, actually, was relatively low-key and relaxing) I’ve been having some further work done in the house; it was a like an ’80s museum when we bought it three years ago and we are gradually working our way through it, room by room. We have been having the final two bedrooms refurbished which has entailed complete chaos, clothes and stuff everywhere, and two weeks on a sofabed. I love it that our builder is happy to work with us in our ‘organic’ (procrastinating!) way, but we are our own worst enemy when it comes to getting the job finished! When we decorate we do so for the long-haul so it has to be right. Consequently, it was the end of October before I got around to reading an autobiography for last month’s reading challenge.

Not My Fathers SonI was really torn between Claire Tomalin, Anjelica Huston and Alan Cumming. I left it in the hands of the local library and it was Alan Cumming that became available first! I’m still waiting for Claire Tomalin, and that is probably the one I was keenest to read. I was attracted to Alan Cumming’s book, however, because its premise is not dissimilar to the book I am writing, namely family research and the uncovering of a long-held secret. There the similarity ends, however, as Alan’s book is much more about his relationship with his father.

I know very little about Alan Cumming, having seen nothing of his work that I can remember (although apparently he is in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, a film I have seen a couple of times, though I don’t recall him in it). He now works mainly in the US and has done quite a bit of TV over there. He was born and grew up in rural Scotland, where his father managed a saw mill. Alan’s father was violent and abusive and the nature and frequency of the aggression Alan experienced is upsetting. What is clear from the outset, however, is that the young Alan can find no explanation for it.

In 2010, Alan was invited to appear on the BBC television programme Who Do You Think You Are?  where the family history of a celebrity is explored and hopefully something interesting and unusual emerges. In Alan’s case, the mystery to be solved was that of his maternal grandfather, who died in mysterious circumstances as a result of a firearms ‘accident’ whilst serving in the Malaysian police force. It was during the filming of the show that Alan was told by his then terminally ill father, with whom he had had no contact for many years, that he his not in fact his son, but the product of an affair his mother had with another man. This sets Alan off on a journey of self-discovery, forcing him to face up to many of his demons.

It is an engaging and at times very moving story. I’m not sure if there was a ghost-writer involved, but it is well put-together and flows nicely. It’s a decent read, and you’ll like it if you’re a fan of Alan’s work, or if you can relate to any of the themes. What I most admired was how he managed, after such an inauspicious start, to break out of the constraints of his background and upbringing, to become a successful, globe-trotting actor, living in New York, at peace with himself. To that extent it is inspiring.

 

2017-11-14 16.26.50For November, the challenge is to read a book set in or by a writer from the southern hemisphere – which is, broadly, South America, southern Africa and Australasia. As the nights draw in and it gets increasingly wintry I wanted to be reminded that in other parts of the world it is Summer! So, my choice this month is Isabel Allende’s Portrait in Sepia, a book I picked up in my local Oxfam bookshop and which has been sitting on my ‘to read’ pile for far too long. Allende is such a fine writer and I’ve read a number of her books over the years. It’s great to have an excuse to dive into this one and experience the sensuousness of her writing and the world she evokes, as the last leaves fall from the trees here and nature seems to go into hibernation.

What are you reading this month?

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Children’s fiction review: “Pax” by Sara Pennypacker

Those of you who read this blog regularly will know that I am passionate about children’s literature and the challenges of keeping our kids reading when there are so many other distractions and calls on their time. I am always on the lookout for new and interesting titles to recommend and this one caught my eye recently. It was first published in 2016 but has been given some prominence in my local (chain) bookstore in recent weeks.

Pax imgThe cover is lovely and there are a handful of illustrations in the book which are truly beautiful and very evocative. The apparent subject matter (animals) and the fact that it has some illustrations might put off some of the target readership (10-11 year olds, I would say), particularly the more advanced readers among them, who might think it is better suited to younger ones. The themes, however, are much more mature than you might think and may in fact be upsetting to more sensitive 9-10 year olds, say. It is perfect, therefore, for older primary school kids who are perhaps more reluctant readers who may find some of those thick volumes a bit daunting. At 276 pages, with a few pictures and nicely spaced typeface, this is a book where pages will be turned quite quickly; in my experience, this is a surprisingly important factor in many children’s enjoyment of a book!

The plot of this story concerns 12 year old Peter and his ‘pet’ fox, Pax. Peter found Pax when he was just a few weeks old, the only one in the litter still alive and the parents having also been killed. Peter was allowed to keep the fox and he raised him as a pet. Peter’s mother died some years earlier so when we meet him he is living alone with his father, a rather severe man whose character is not fully drawn, but you definitely get the sense that he has troubles of his own. The story is clearly set in the US, but the time is unclear. It is not exactly ‘present day’, however, as there are references to a war going on in the surrounding area. The event which sparks the story is that Peter’s father is called away to take part in the war; he is an electrician or similar. He is posted not too far away, but it means that Peter has to go and live with his grandfather, with whom he does not appear to be close. Because of this, Peter is told that he can no longer keep Pax and that he must be returned to the wild.

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Pax is abandoned by the side of the road

As soon Pax is released, rather hurriedly and rather coldly, Peter bitterly regrets this action. Fearing that Pax could never survive in the wild, being virtually tame, Peter runs away from his grandfather’s house and embarks upon a search for Pax in the forests where he thinks they left him (a couple of hundred miles away), which is also the area where explosives are being either laid or tested in pursuit of the war.

The chapters alternate between Pax’s story, as he has to try and survive in the wild for the first time in his life, and Peter’s journey. Pax meets other foxes, particularly a feisty young vixen called Bristle who is at first hostile to him because he smells of humans; she lost her parents and siblings to a trap and looks after her younger and weaker brother, Runt. This mirrors Peter’s encounter with Vola, who finds Peter at her isolated farmhouse where he shelters after breaking a bone in his foot. Vola is a recluse who runs a small farm which she inherited from her family. She has a wooden leg, having lost one of her own whilst participating in the war as a medic. At first Vola resents Peter’s intrusion into her quiet life, but as their relationship grows (she finds her conscience will not let her abandon the young boy) so she is forced to face up to her own demons, terrible memories from her past, particularly her time in the war. Similarly, Bristle learns increasingly to trust Pax as he helps and protects her, both from the soldiers encroaching on their forest territory and predators, such as coyotes.

SPOILER ALERT!

Pax and Peter do eventually find each other  and Peter must decide whether to take Pax back in again as his pet, or whether to let him go and live amongst his new companions. His choice does not provide the happy ending that many younger children would want and expect, hence my feeling that it’s for older ones. But it will raise important questions for readers about how animals and human coexist and the impact of human habitation on wildlife and the balance of nature.

I really enjoyed this book and animal-loving kids will love the Pax chapters which are written quite differently to convey the special way that foxes communicate and interact – the book has been well-researched and just about avoids anthropomorphising whilst also making Pax a sympathetic character that readers can identify with. There are some challenging themes (not least Peter’s recollections about his mother’s death and the difficult relationship he has with his father), a few gory bits, and some scary suspense-filled bits. Recommended for 10-11 year olds.

What books are your children reading at the moment?

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Man Booker Book Review #5: “History of Wolves” by Emily Fridlund

This was the fifth book in my Man Booker shortlist reading marathon and I had not finished it by the time the winner was announced last week (George Saunders won with Lincoln in the Bardo you may recall). I was almost halfway through though, and felt quite strongly that it would not be the winner. It’s a debut novel (one of three on the shortlist, among them Saunders who has mostly published short and non-fiction previously), the author being best known for her short stories. To be honest, it did not move me, even though the subject matter is challenging and parts of the book shocking, even harrowing.

A History of Wolves imgIt’s a tough one to review without giving too much away, and the comments on the jacket don’t say very much about the story either, only that it is “exquisite”, “compelling” and “forcefully moving”. The central character is Linda (also Madeline or Mattie to her parents), who is an only child living with her parents in small town Minnesota. To say they live in a rural environment is an under-statement; they live in a cabin in the woods, which they seem to have built themselves, with their dogs. It seems they were formerly part of a small commune, but the other residents have gradually moved away as the cooperative spirit broke down. Linda’s parents are rather remote and she is allowed to roam the area freely, to canoe on the lake as and when she pleases, and to walk many miles in all weathers.

The primary plot of the novel is the relationship that Linda develops with a family that moves in across the lake. Somewhat disillusioned and disappointed with her own existence, Linda befriends the young woman, Patra, and her young son, Paul, aged four, and becomes his babysitter, or his ‘governess’ as Patra decides to call her. Patra’s husband, Leo is initially not present. He is an academic, working on some significant science project and has settled his family in this rural setting to enable them to have a better quality of life. Linda becomes very close to Patra and Paul, insinuating herself ever more closely into their lives, a fact which her parents do not seem to mind.

A parallel plotline is that of Linda’s school life. Linda is the victim of low-level bullying at school; the other kids see her as different to them and tease her because they know that her parents were part of a commune. The title of the story refers to a project Linda did for a regional History Odyssey. She somewhat misinterpreted the remit of the task, and therefore had no chance of winning, but her project on the history of wolves was given a special recognition. The teacher who invited her to participate in the competition, Mr Grierson, a recent blow-in from California, is subsequently implicated in a sex scandal with one of Linda’s classmates.

The first half of the book is slow. The writing is beautiful and skilful, but I had trouble seeing where it was all going and how the very disparate plotlines would at any point intersect. About halfway through Leo returns and the pace alters somewhat. His return changes the dynamic of the Linda, Patra, Paul set-up and it becomes clear that his presence is about to impact on events. Which it does! I can say no more without giving away too much of the plot, but I will just say that he is much older than his wife and that he is a committed Christian Scientist who has converted Patra, his former student.

There were a couple of things I really liked about the book. Firstly, the sense of place, the remote atmosphere of rural Minnesota and the character of the local population, their interests and priorities, are beautifully drawn. Secondly, I think the concept is a good one; the exploration of not just Christian Science as religion, cult or social grouping, but of all forms of group identity that people create for themselves in order to feel a communal belonging, is fascinating. On the whole, however, the book did not deliver for me and the group identity theme is not as fully explored as I would have liked. Later on in the novel we meet Linda when she is an adult, living in the city and reflecting back on the events of her teenage years. The novel jumps back and forth between the present and the separate plotlines of the past and I found this rather annoying. I found the ending something of anti-climax and for me the novel did not really fulfil its potential. It felt like an early draft that needed some reorganising.

I know there are others who have raved about this book, so don’t just take my word for it, but I’m afraid it fell short of Man Booker shortlist standard for me. And against my Days Without End yardstick (possibly the best book not to be shortlisted, ever!) I’m afraid it is inferior.

If you have read this book, what did you think? Is it just me???

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October reading challenge

I am turning rather belatedly to October’s reading challenge book; I’ve had a few heavy reading weeks trying to work my way through the Man Booker shortlist. The winner was announced last week, and although I fell a little short of my target, managing only five out of the six, I feel I need a little break before tackling the monster that is Paul Auster’s 4321!  There is still a week to go before the end of October so completing this month’s challenge is still achievable. I’ll be posting my review of September’s reading challenge book, Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, later in the week.

Continuing the theme of life-changing (it’s still Autumn and I’m still motivated!), my task this month is to read a biography or autobiography of someone I admire. Walk into any bookshop and there are dozens of course. They are particularly prevalent at this time of year as publishers turn their attention to Christmas sales. I tend to eschew those celebrity biographies which are so clearly ghost-written and which strike me as a cynical attempt to capitalise on someone’s popularity. But there are many other worthy books and authors out there.

Not My Fathers SonThere are a couple of titles that have been on my reading list for a while. The first is Scottish actor and comedian Alan Cumming’s Not My Father’s Son, which was published in 2014. It is linked to his appearance in BBC TV show Who Do You Think You Are? in 2010 in which the result of his research caused him to reflect on his family, his upbringing and, in particular, his relationship with an abusive father. It has received glowing reviews and has also won prizes. The theme of secrets and family research is close to the book I am writing myself so it could be helpful. Or it may just make me feel like givng up now!!!

Watch Me

Option two is the second volume of Anjelica Huston’s authobiography Watch Me, published in 2015. I read the first volume A Story Lately Told, a couple of years ago and loved it. The first book gives an account of her childhood growing up in Ireland, and her relationship with her enigmatic father, the towering figure of John Huston. It moves on to London, her early adulthood and her first experiences in modelling and acting. Watch Me picks up when Huston is 22 years old and recounts her Hollywood years.

A life of my ownFinally, I saw in the bookshop recently that Claire Tomalin has written A Life of My Own, where, for a change, she is writing about herself. I admire Claire Tomalin hugely; she has written some of the finest biographies produced in recent years, covering subjects such as Jane Austen, Samuel Pepys and Mary Wollstonecraft. She has led the most astonishing life: an unhappy childhood, four children, the death of her husband, the loss of a child, and the eternal struggle between motherhood and work. I think I would find this book truly inspiring.

 

How similar are these three covers!?

So, which is it to be? Grateful for views

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Man Booker Book Review 4: “Elmet” by Fiona Mozley

Well, I’ve improved on my performance of last year; I only managed to read 3.5 out of six of the books on the shortlist in 2016, but in 2017 I now have four under my belt with a week still to go! Book number four was Elmet by Fiona Mozley and, my goodness, it’s dark! I’m not sure when I last read anything like it, to be honest, although it reminds me very much of the Red Riding drama series which was aired on television in 2009 (I checked this fact and if you’d asked me to guess I probably would have said 2013/14 – tempus fugit!). That resonance could be down to the fact that it is set in the same part of the country (the Ridings of Yorkshire), but the book does have that same ‘Yorkshire noir’ feel to it, the hallmarks of which seem to be violence, corruption, poverty juxtaposed with crude wealth, and the bleak rural setting. Dialogue is mostly sparse, much is conveyed by a common understanding of the rules of social engagement, and by actions.

Photo 11-10-2017, 12 45 36The narrator and central character is Daniel, who lives with his father (always “Daddy”) and his sister Cathy (a nod to Wuthering Heights, I wonder?) somewhat on the margins of society. Initially, they live with Granny Morley somewhere in the north east, and seem to attend school regularry, though not particularly successfully; it is clear they are ‘different’ and considered outsiders, rather akin to travellers. Cathy and Daniel’s mother has been mostly absent, seemingly a troubled soul with mental health problems and probably addiction, but who then disappears completely, assumed dead. Daddy is a more reliable carer, though he too is frequently absent as he tours the country competing in illegal boxing bouts. He is at the top of his game, however, unvanquished wherever he goes, and seems to make enough of a living from this activity, as well as making plenty of money for those with sufficient funds to gamble heavily on his success. 

When Granny Morley dies suddenly, leaving the children alone in the house with her body for several days, Daddy vows on his return never to abandon them again, and is determined that they will live together as a family. They move back to Yorkshire and set up home in a copse outside a village, land that is said to belong to Daniel and Cathy’s mother. Initially, they camp, while Daddy sets about building a house  with nothing but his bare hands and materials they gather from the woods and cast off items. Daniel and Cathy no longer go to school, but after a time Daddy decides that the children need some sort of educating so he sends them to Vivien in the village, who appears to share some intimacy with Daddy, although the nature of this is never made clear. She too is a bit of a loner and although she never seems particularly enthusiastic about her role as educator she reaches a kind of understanding and accommodation with the children. Cathy never really takes to her lessons, preferring to spend her time outside in the woods, but for Daniel this time comes to be precious and he enjoys the cosy domestic setting and this gentler side of life. Daniel, we increasingly see, is softer, more fragile, physically and emotionally, than either his father or sister, and prefers more feminine company. While Cathy shares the outlook and preferences of her father, Daniel is said to be more like their mother; perhaps this is why Daddy and Cathy love him so much and feel the need to protect him so fiercely.

Thus the scene is set, and the first third of the book is spent getting to know the characters and the setting. The plot thickens when Mr Price enters the novel. He is a wealthy local landowner who owns the land on which the family has settled. He claims that it was signed over to him by the children’s mother in payment of a debt when she ran into financial difficulties, there is clearly some history with the mother, but, again, this is never made clear. Price presents a real and present danger to the family; he clearly is set upon a battle with Daddy, it seems likely that he feels threatened by this bigger stronger man and wishes to emasculate him through his power and authority. There are also Price’s sons, privately educated at some distant boarding school where they learn to play rugby and cricket. They have all the arrogance of their father but their Yorkshire grit seems to have withered. They are particularly interested in picking on the children, especially Cathy, who seems to them to be easy meat, although always out of sight of their father.

Daddy teams up with some of the local villagers and becomes involved in a dispute with a number of the landowners, who are said to exploit poorly paid workers and their poorly treated tenants. They gain some success, but at a cost. Price clearly feels he has leverage over Daddy and says he will sign over the land to the family on the condition that he fights one last bout. Clearly, Price has nothing to lose – he will gain financially from the event, has no interest in the small parcel of land at stake, so it means nothing if he has to give it to the family, and if Daddy loses, well, that’s a problem solved. 

The last third of the book moves at a rapid pace, and events unfold dramatically. This final part of the book is a real page-turner. I read the last 100 pages in one sitting and I was almost breathless by the end! The characterisation is superb, I felt I really knew who these people were by the end. The evocation of the setting is also brilliantly done; Fiona Mozley is a fine writer and it is hard to believe this is a debut novel. The time in which the novel is set is not specified, deliberately so, I suspect, since there is a certain timelessness about it; Cathy, Daniel and their father (and to some extent, their mother) represent those people who will always live on the margins, never quite prospering, always struggling, even if they were to play by all the rules society sets. The world is simply stacked against them, their type, their way of life. But what is also timeless is the profound love between father and children, and Daddy’s instinct to protect is felt powerfully throughout.

This is a dramatic and powerful novel, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s bleak though! Recommended, but don’t expect a traditional happy ending or all loose ends to be neatly tied. But that’s not life either, is it?

Are you ploughing throught the Man Booker shortlist? How are you getting on?

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