Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Casson family books

I suspect there are two main categories of readers of this blog. People who know me personally and read this blog as a stop gap check of my pulse before the next cup of tea together (It's better than a phone call. I loathe the phone.) and people who share my love of children's books and may also blog about them. Of course if you've stumbled here in search of genuine recommendations then that's wonderful and I hope you'll find what you need- you are part of a small sub-category number three. If you've just come to recommend a stockist of cheap bed frames in Glasgow to me (which seems to be happening with bizarre frequency) then fine, but probably you know, not brilliant targeting of audience. I have a bed. I'm not in Glasgow. You are my fourth group.

Anyway. This post I think, is going to be of most interest to the first and third category of my readers (who knows about the Glaswegian bed enthusiasts?) because the second lot know it too well already. I am shamefully late to the discovery. Hilary Mckay is a wonderful, wonderful writer.

The lateness is excusable; I am both too old and my children too young and conceivably too male to have stumbled across her by chance. It's only relatively recently that I have allowed myself to play catch up with all the children's writing I missed during the long years of reading tedious adult fiction. Oh it's been lovely.

Anyway Hilary Mckay was a name cropping up in virtual conversations a lot and then I read this fabulous interview with her here and then, almost the next day in fact, I came across three of her Casson family novels second hand in the Oxfam bookshop and THEN, oh my, I was in heaven.

Sometimes it can be hard to differentiate my reactions to a book as an adult from what they would have been as a child. It's transparent to me however, that I would have had the same sense of love, and warmth and plain old happiness from opening my first 'Casson' book age 10 as I had age 42. It was that overdue cup of tea with an old friend feeling.
They're very, very funny but they're also human and true. Nothing terrible happens in them, she shares with Helen Cresswell an interest in character over plot I think. And you know I like that now and I liked that then too.
There's been a lot of debate in the media over the last year or so about the Dark Themes that have dominated children's literature (or at least prize-winning children's literature) over the last year or so and whether that's a Good Thing or Not a Good Thing. I'm not going to enter into that debate because boy are there some amazing, dazzling, terrific dark dark books out there and they are important and transformative and worth reading and all that.
And yet.
I know that when I was a child (and, small whisper, even now really) I read for the good much more than the bad. Found the bad at times difficult to bear in fact and would flick through it to find the happy ending. I LIKE books which hold a light up to the positive and which allow their characters and their readers to be transported safely. Which find the beauty and the funny and the powerful in the everyday. It's a very female trait to be apologetic for enjoying the domestic more than the Grand or the Fantastical and well, ya boo sucks to that. I think you can hold a reader, grip a reader and illuminate emotional truths for a reader without also torturing them or descending to the saccharine or the banal. Hilary Mckay is very very good at this, as she herself says in afore-linked-to interview:

 "...these are supposed to be real life stories, about real life people. I’ve never come across an evil person. Have you? I write about what people really eat, and where they really live. I write about what people are really like, and in my experience most people are very kind to most people."

The Casson family novels consist of 'Saffy's Angel', 'Indigo's Star', 'Permanent Rose', 'Caddy Ever After', 'Forever Rose' and newish prequel 'Caddy's World' and follow the growing up years of a slightly ramshackle, bohemian and unashamedly eccentric family of artists, animal lovers and dreamers. They're a little bit unfashionably shabby posh but Hilary Mckay has a perfect ear for the universals of family dialogue and dynamics. I think she's particularly good at illuminating some of the trickier dynamics of friendships and school whilst keeping everything manageable and in context. Bullying features but her characters cope with it. Resiliance and humour in adversity is valued, nothing is made histrionic. Quite British in that respect I suppose. And mainly funny. Have I said how funny they are enough?
I want to quote large chunks to show you this- but it's hard to pick a snippet or a line and this post is already unwieldy so instead I am going to take the UNPRECEDENTED step of directing you to Dread Amazon for their handy 'Look Inside' feature that will allow you to read the first few pages and then you will immediately want to buy them too. From your nearest Independent Bookshop natch.
The Casson Family novels by Hilary Mckay, available in various different editions. Essential reading for dear friends who generally share my tastes...AND for Glaswegian bed dealers.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Review Policy

Stands up, clears throat and taps a mug with a teaspoon to gain attention.

It's time for a change here.

Spending my child-free hours focusing on my own writing has inevitably meant my blog posting rate has dropped off.
 I want to commit to continuing to post here once a week or so but I want those posts to only be about books I feel completely passionate about (or have a diversionary story to connect to them that might make you laugh...). There's no doubt that this blog works best remaining as a purely personal communication about our family's relationship with the books that frankly LITTER our house.
I'm going to stop accepting review copies.
Not that I'm going to burn them as they come through the letterbox obviously but I am putting on my blog management hat (navy with gold braiding,  many tassels and two embroidered entwined B's for Blog Boss) and politely hanging a closed sign at the window to new enquirers.
There are a few outstanding copies coming/in the house which will still appear here if I like them enough and think you might too but after that I am going to only write about the ones I have actually been moved to pay my own money for/get out of the library. Goodness knows we still do enough of that. And if you're going to pay for them on my recommendation it seems only right I should too.

To be clear- I don't receive a huge amount of review post and of those that I have there are plenty of books that I have never written about here. I have only written about the books we have really enjoyed. I have never been paid or even pressured to write a post.

Nevertheless it's impossible not to feel some sort of obligation at the goodies and it has stopped me writing other posts about older/different books which might make more entertaining reading. Blogging has opened up new worlds to me and (hold your thumbs) new work for me but it in itself is NOT my work. And the fun slightly goes out of it when you feel under an obligation.

Thank you for your kind attention. Back to the books at the weekend.

Sits back down again and dunks biscuit in tea.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Book of Beasts

I think I may have mentioned before my complicated relationship with a book called 'The Unexplained' that could be found in Cambridge Central Children's Library in the late 70s. I never actually took it out of the library; it was far too scary. I nerved myself up to read snatches of it only within the safety of the book shelves. Having spent 20 minutes or so sidling up to it via the library's tub of old Beanos and Dandys I would feel brave enough to tackle what Lay Within:
First  the ho-hum every day Unexplained of the Loch Ness monster and the Abombinable Snowman (EXPLAINED as just a bear this week? pah.) then through the slightly spookier poltergeist and apparition section, and finally to the most terrifying part of all; the grainy photos said to show sites of spontaneous human combustion. Am I the only child to have spent a disproportionate amount of my pre-teen years worrying that I might spontaneously combust at any moment? If not then 'The Unexplained' has some explaining to do.

The 'Book of Beasts' by Giles Sparrow, illustrated by Colin Ashcroft and Lee Gibbons seems altogether softer stuff to me. But since we were sent a copy a week or two ago it has been exerting a strange pull on Bill who has been sidling up to read sections of it with slightly fake insouciance. Divided into five 'beast' sections including Monsters of the Gods, Shapeshifters and (personal favourite) the Undead, the book is a lavishly illustrated glossy guide to the fancies and foibles of a range of monstrous beings. Bill reads it over breakfast with a nervy laugh and occasional question. "Who would you rather fight Minotaur or Gorgon?" or "So...um..the Black Shuck...is that like real?" It's not too terrifying. There's a fair balance between humour, myth and helpful top fighting tips (make sure you're carrying bullets dipped in white ash if you're tackling a Skinwalker for instance). Plus frankly the swish full colour spreads can hold none of the fear of a small 1970s black and white photo of still smouldering slippers hidden in a dense page of text. The production values of this book are just too high for nightmares.

This is not in truth a book for me but I'm not who it's for either. Should you have an 8 yr old with a penchant for facts in top trump digestible chunks, zombies, Percy Jackson and ilicit watching of dodgy 'Slender Man' myth videos on Youtube they'll love it. Nicely done TickTock; Bill's a fan. He may even be ready for 'The Unexplained' next should you wish to reboot...

'Book of Beasts' by Giles Sparrow, illustrated by Colin Ashcroft and Lee Gibbons, published by TickTock. isbn 978-1-84898-896-5

With thanks to the publishers for a review copy. Our opinions are our own.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

The Adventures of Shola

Last Thursday was apparently 'Super Thursday' in the world of publishing; the day when many of the books expected to be heavy hitters for the Christmas gift market were released. In reality this turned out to be just about adult titles; particularly celebrity memoirs and cookery tomes, Super Thursday for children's books happened a week or two earlier.

Having just spent a small but significant fortune on glorious hardbacks for Eddie's birthday I can confirm that bookshops are full of their most irresistible candy  at the moment: Pretty books, stroke-able, substantial, tempting gifty books.

One bidding for a slot on Father Christmas's sleigh is a smart small yellow hardback from new imprint Pushkin Children's Books. This small publishers is carving out a rather classy niche in translating a few interesting and handsome European children's titles and wafting them under our perhaps  less cultured noses.

'The Adventures of Shola' by Bernardo Atxaga was thus originally published in Basque in the late 90s, before being translated into Spanish and now finally reaching us.

It's a curious book but a charming one. It seems relevant to the market divisions of Super Thursday because actually I think this is a 'gift' book which might be as much appreciated in an adult dog-lover's stocking as a child's.

The book has four stories about Shola, a small white dog with healthy self-esteem and ways of getting what she wants from life (mostly food and sleep). Much will ring true to any one who has ever (in Dodie Smith parlance) been 'owned by' a dog. The strongest and funniest story in the book is the first in which Shola becomes convinced she has been wrongly categorised and is in fact a lion.

'Shola, who had been dozing in the armchair, pricked up her ears. What sort of beast was this lion, so like herself in so many ways? She too was strong, powerful and noble. Although she had never actually fought with anyone or seen a hunter, she was sure they would all be afraid of her; she was sure that all animals and all hunters were aware- painfully aware- that she could strike them dead with the last beat of her heart.'

Shola's personality is completely convincing and her encounters on the streets of the city in full lion mode made me chuckle out loud. The mismatch between Shola's indomitable self-belief and the reality of say, coming face to face with a tusked and angry wild boar, provide the book's best moments. She's well served by the book's cartoon illustrations by Mikel Valverde too. He has a good line in doggy eyes of determination and confusion.

There are some translation issues though possibly. This feels like a foreign book and though that's not a bad thing obviously, it's a pretty sophisticated read for the child audience it might be bought for. The last two stories rely on quite a lot of word play in places and perhaps an adult sensibility which I suspect would work better in the original text. I'm all for vocabulary stretching as I've said before but I think Bill would struggle with this on his own.

I think it will work best as a family read aloud. A perfect Sunday afternoon, snuggle by the fire Christmas choice to share. Especially if you have a small, egotistical dog of your own at your feet with one ear cocked listening too.

'The Adventures of Shola' by Bernardo Atxaga, illustrated by Mikel Valverde, pub. Pushkin Children's, isbn 978-1-78269-009-2

With thanks to the publishers for providing a review copy. Our opinions are our own.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Shine and Picture Me Gone

This counts as a diversionary post. These are not books for the Fellow Reviewers.Yet. But as I spent the last 24 hours immersed in these books' company, in a frankly gluttonous feast of words, they are where my head is at. They both deserve their own separate reviews really, but turned out to be rather interesting to read together; sharing both themes and qualities.

'Shine' is Candy Gourlay's second novel, following the acclaimed 'Tall Story'. 'Picture Me Gone', Meg Rossof's sixth book; although I confess I haven't read any of the intervening four since 'How I Live Now' came out 10 years ago. I have some catching up to do. She's such a pretty arranger of words.

Superficially my claim that they twin nicely seems dubious: "Shine" tells the story of Rosa, a teenage recluse by necessity of her disfigurement on the superstitious island of Mirasol where it never stops raining. Her virtual escape through her computer brings the possibility of new friendship but also danger. "Picture Me Gone" is a road trip mystery. 12 year old Mila accompanies her father to the US to help find his friend who has disappeared.


Both are first person narratives of teenage girls with special gifts: Mila can read the emotional subtext of a situation; literally 'sniff' out deceit. Rosa is mute and considered a mystical demon with the power to take life within the community she lives. Both are only children and both books explore the relationship between father and daughter in love and betrayal. Both books require their heroines to unravel the lies of an adult world and the stakes are life and death. Both are concerned with friendship and how much of oneself to expose in its cause. 'Picture Me Gone' is firmly grounded in reality whereas 'Shine' is harder to categorise; a recognisable universe a jump or two away layered with a tropical ghost story with echoes of Jane Eyre...

(Ghost stories are so associated in my head with cold and bleak English landscapes and Victoriana that it's rather wonderful to be given a steamy, tropical, contemporary version: 'The Woman in White' will never seem the same again.)

The main point of comparison though is that both books are wonderfully well written taut, compact prose. It was greedy of me to read both in one day (and may make the writers' despair, given the craft and time of their own that went into them!) but Oh it was lovely. And it was possible: Not that they're that short-but  hurray for telling stories with only what is necessary and beautiful included.

 I could not stop reading either book in fact and it's a long time since that's happened. Sorry kids- who got a lot of "mmm...lovely dear" through whatever they were telling me yesterday afternoon as I mentally absented myself.
I missed the recent 'Nosy Crow' conference on Children's Publishing alas, but I believe Lucy Mangan said in her speech that one of the reasons she reads children's books is because she 'doesn't have time to be bored'. The truth of her words was with me yesterday. I consumed my treats at speed, you may choose to savour but be assured; treats await you.

'Picture Me Gone' by Meg Rossof, pub.Penguin, isbn 978-0-141-34403-4
'Shine' by Candy Gourlay, pub. David Fickling Books, isbn 978-0-385-61920-2