Saturday, 18 October 2014

The Something by Rebecca Cobb

The Something

This is another lovely picture book about the joy of using your imagination.

There is a hole in the garden, underneath the tree. What’s down the hole is the subject of much speculation, with guesses ranging from frogs to a dragon.

The illustrations are wonderful; I love Rebecca Cobb’s style. It feels so relaxed and friendly and the colours are soft. All in all they just make my eyes happy (even though my photos don't do them justice at all).

I liked the family in the story, all of whom have their own ideas of what is hidden down that hole - including grandparents and the dog. The main character also has a diverse group of friends, who feature in a lovely page showing the children and their theories about what lurks under their feet.

I definitely seem to prefer picture books with more pictures and fewer words, and the balance here is just right for me. Like The Wonder, the story is told simply but is full of ideas. Also like The Wonder it will find a permanent home on my bookshelves.

The Something is published by Macmillan and is available in hardback. I bought mine from Foyles.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Reading This Week

My wildly over-optimistic reading plan for this week involves five books.

My bedtime book is Anna Freeman's brilliant romp through the brothels and prize-fights of Georgian England, A Fair Fight. This book is on The Green Carnation Prize longlist (more of which to come), and conveniently, was also on my shelves waiting to be read. I'm a hundred pages in and I am truly hooked. It's told from the various perspectives of three main characters; so far I've encountered two voices, and I'm eager for the third.

I'm also reading Karen Maitland's new novel The Vanishing Witch. It's set around the time of the Peasant's Revolt (1381). The late fourteenth century is a fascinating in English (and European) history, and I'm devouring the pages. There's a lot of murky weather in it, which suited this morning's train ride perfectly.

I need to read Murder Underground by Mavis Doriel Hay for Book Club on Friday night. It's Golden Age crime, and looks good. Not that I've started it yet. But I will. Soon.

I'd also like to at least start The Courage of Cowards by Karyn Burnham. This will be my one non-fiction First World War read this year.

And to round things off, I am going to read by The Something Rebecca Cobb. I bought this at the weekend because I love Rebecca's illustrations and, like The Wonder, it has bundles of imagination.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

The Sinking of RMS Tayleur by Gill Hoffs

The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the Victorian Titanic

This is a long overdue review of a very interesting book. I knew nothing about the subject at all - and I confess to never having heard of the tragedy of the Tayleur before coming to this book. Reading the preface, though, I didn’t feel too bad; nor had Gill Hoffs until a visit to Warrington Museum a few years ago.

It’s surprising how little known the ship is really, given the parallels with the Titanic. Both were White Star Line ships, touted as the best of the best, and both sunk on their maiden voyages. The Tayleur may lack the glamour of the Titanic, but it is a compelling and awful story in its own right.

Hoffs (I do feel a bit weird about using surnames in my non-academic writing, but I’m going with it) has balanced the big story of the ship’s disastrous voyage with the stories of individuals on board and the details of life on-board. Some fascinating lives emerge. I was particularly taken with bad boy Samuel Carby, sentenced to ten years transportation in 1841 for stealing a hunk of sheep’s flesh – well it was a second offence. He’d served his time then returned to England to marry his sweetheart Sarah, get to know his now 13 year old son, and take them back to Australia and a better life.

There were many on-board the Tayleur for whom the challenges of life on the other side of the world were still preferable to the poverty and starvation they faced at home. The social details Hoffs weaves into her book are sobering and enlightening. I found aspects of life on the ship such as the rules the passengers were expected to obey and the rations they received especially interesting. Other things – women’s clothing, for example – took on an unexpectedly deadly cast as I read on.

I also enjoyed the use of good sizeable chunks of primary sources, both heading up the chapters and within them. They effectively set the scene, add detail, and give that firsthand insight that is invaluable. The eyewitness accounts of the chaos as the ship sank are heartbreaking: ‘And now began a scene of the most frightful horror’.

The story of RMS Tayleur is fascinating. The ship was so full of promise. It had a new design, stronger, faster, more luxurious, and a captain whose name was enough to draw crowds. But from the day of the launch there were bad omens and signs that not all was well. Of course, it is easy to be wise with hindsight, but it does seem that some issues ought to have been addressed before she ever took on her passengers. The fact that half of them survived actually feels quite remarkable in the circumstances.

The Sinking of RMS Tayleur gives a good insight into the tragedy itself as well as the wider social background of the period. Despite its terrible subject matter, I enjoyed the book a great deal. It is very easy to get drawn into, and I whizzed through it in a couple of sittings. It is some months since I read the book, but I can still remember vividly certain parts, and I’m sure some images will stay with me indefinitely.

My thanks go to the author and Pen and Sword for sending me a copy of the book. It is available in Hardback and as an eBook.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

The Wonder by Faye Hanson

One of the things I miss most about being a children’s bookseller are the Picture Books. I miss the therapeutic alphabetising and tidying, I miss choosing and reading the Storytime stories, and I miss the colour and the joy they bring to a day at work.
 The Wonder
I also miss seeing the new books as they arrive and thrusting new favourites at people, imploring them to read it right away. Happily, I know where to turn to get my Picture Book fix - @Leilah_Makes, a super lovely bookseller with an eye for a gorgeous book. Leilah recommended The Wonder and I knew I had to see it. Once I’d seen it, I had to buy it!

The Wonder is beautiful. It’s about daydreaming and imagination; seeing the wonder in everything around you and having that ability recognised as the truly special thing it is. The words are simple and few, capturing the world of this boy with his head full of wonder. The illustrations are just perfect. Everyday life is gently sepia-toned; the world of the imagination bursts with colour. There is so much to look at on each page, especially (but not only) the imagination pages. I’m sure I’ve only just begun to see all there is to see.

I think it’s a lovely story, and the positive message to daydreamers is most welcome. I’d encourage everyone to daydream because who knows what you might dream up.

I cannot recommend The Wonder enough, and not just for children. It properly touched my heart. And be sure to read right to the very end; it gave me tingles!

I bought my copy of The Wonder from Foyles on Charing Cross Rd (where I work now). It’s published by Templar Publishing in hardback and paperback.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler


I almost don’t know where to start talking about Kindred. It’s emotionally challenging yet deceptively easy to read. It combines straightforward prose with horrific themes. I was totally engaged reading it, but was left feeling wanting. My heart wants to passionately recommend it, but my brain is slightly more reserved.

On her 26th birthday, in 1976, Dana, a young black woman, is pulled abruptly from her life in California into early nineteenth-century Maryland. She’s thrown back into this society where slavery is the norm. That the consequences of this time travelling for Dana are dire is made clear in the prologue; she is going to come to serious harm. As the story resets, Dana tells it from the beginning chronicling her experiences.

The first timeslip occurs as Dana and her husband Kevin are unpacking in their new home. Their relationship in their own time is not wholly accepted. Kevin is white, and they’ve faced some opposition from both families. But, the contemporary realities that matter most are that Dana is a smart, educated woman, free to marry whom she chooses. The contrast with her status when she travels back in time could not be starker. Which is the point of the story, and makes it all the more disturbing when both Dana and Kevin too catch the rhythms and slip into their expected roles in order to survive.

I loved the practical approach the couple take towards time-travel; packing essential items to grab hold of, worrying that the shift might happen when taking a shower, reading up on the history and geography of the area. It also made me think hard about resistance and compliance, and the difference between personal survival and fighting for a wider cause. Dana’s resilience is amazing, as is her patience and endurance. But, by the end of the book I was still left with so many questions about the technical aspects of the time travelling as well as what impact Dana actually had and whether it was worth her suffering.

None of my questions detract from the brilliance of the writing; I was hooked from beginning to end. It is also a devastating portrait of slavery and the inhuman acts people are able to inflict upon those they have designated other. It’s one of those books I’d like to sit and discuss, and I’ve added Butler to my list of authors I want to read more.

My copy of Kindred came via Bookbridgr, my thanks. It is available now from Headline as an eBook and in Paperback.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Book Shopping

Today I felt like visiting a bookshop I hadn't been to before, so I took a trip to Foyles at the Westfield shopping centre in Stratford. I've been past the centre before, on the way to the Olympic Park, but never ventured inside - wandering around shops that are not bookshops is not my idea of a leisure activity. It was worth the trip though, the Foyles is a lovely shop. It's a decent size (although a fraction of the size of the Charing Cross Road shop), with a good range of both kids' and adult fiction on the ground floor. I exhibited no willpower whatsoever and came home with two picture books, one YA novel, a reworked fairy tale and a Booker longlist title.

Friday, 1 August 2014

The Penny Dreadful Books by Christopher Edge

  Twelve Minutes to MidnightShadows of the Silver ScreenThe Black Crow Conspiracy

There are three books in Christopher Edge’s Penny Dreadful series, featuring Penelope Treadwell, the thirteen-year-old proprietor of The Penny Dreadful magazine and author of the chilling Montgomery Flinch stories that have made the magazine so popular. Her uncle, William Wigram, her best friend Alfie, and the somewhat unreliable actor Monty Maples assist Penny in running The Penny Dreadful, but she is definitely the key to its success. The books combine supernatural, mystery and crime, in a late Victorian setting.

The first book in the series is Twelve Minutes to Midnight. The patients at Bedlam are compulsively writing strange stories, prompting the doctor in charge to appeal to The Penny Dreadful for help. There are some wonderfully horrible characters, and the story is well told and exciting. We find out just how sharp and clever Penny is, as well as brave.

In the second book, Shadows of the Silver Screen, Penny tries to help Maples in his acting career (and keep him happy) by agreeing for them to be involved in filming a new talking movie. But, there is more than a movie being filmed and once again Penny is drawn into terrible danger.

The most recent book, and my favourite, is The Black Crow Conspiracy. The plot is crazy and creepy, the villains are dastardly, and the danger is greater than ever. A Montgomery Flinch story is eerily similar to an actual crime, stealing the Crown Jewels. The real theft is part of a much bigger plot to steal the throne itself. Kaiser Wilhelm makes a memorable baddie. I also liked this story as Penny is growing up into a young woman – not an easy transition to make in a series, but handled well here.

I enjoyed all three books in the series, and I love the cover art, it’s striking and bold. The stories are action-packed and a bit scary, and I love the turn-of-the century setting. All round recommended.