Personal Reading

Children’s books: my favourites & recommendations

During the last few weeks I’ve probably handled more hard copy books than I usually pick up in a year. As I try to get my baby interested in books I remember all the books I read and loved as a child. Here are some of my favourites.

Reading to a baby from an ABC book
Trying to get my baby interested in reading.

The Ladybird ABC book – the first book I had as a child, and the book that (alongside my parents, of course!) taught me to read. I’m told I was a ridiculously early reader (I don’t remember learning), and my mother credits this book, where you can clearly see not only the letter, but the letter within the word and the picture all on the same spread. It didn’t take me long to make the connection between the big ‘a’ and the smaller ‘a’ within the word ‘apple’.

The Magic Faraway Tree
Just look at those illustrations! I wish I could photograph every page.

Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree. Blyton gets dissed a lot but I loved Dick and Fanny – not to mention Bessie and Joe. My view might be slightly coloured by the gorgeous illustrations in this edition, though. They are lush, and perfectly complement the trippy stories about a tree with its topmost branches touching a rotating carousel of magical lands, all with different, weird and wonderful themes. The tree’s inhabitants include a man with the moon for a head and a man who wears a suit made out of saucepans. What’s not to love?

Noddy and Big-Ears
Noddy and Big-Ears go to the seaside.

At the risk of wallowing in a Blyton nostalgia-fest I was also a big fan of Little Noddy. I didn’t notice the racist golliwogs at the time; I was just captivated by Noddy and his red and yellow car. The image above is from Noddy Goes to the Seaside.

The Flower Fairies
Be careful you don’t misspell ‘Poppy’. We don’t want a ‘Poopy’ fairy. We get enough poop in other aspects of life.

Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairies series is just delightful, and another series which is made by its illustrations. The charming poems also teach facts about each of the flowers; facts which are made more memorable by being cloaked in whimsical verse. Perfect if you don’t want girlie pinkified fairies for your daughter (some of the ‘flower fairies’ are male, and none of them sparkle) but don’t want to completely abandon magic.

Paddington Bear
I can vouch for the fact that marmalade chunks make excellent glue.

He’s very topical at the moment thanks to the recent film (and a forthcoming one in 2017), but I’ve been a fan of Paddington Bear since childhood. The dry, straight-faced humour appeals to children and adults alike, and Michael Bond also pulls off a slapstick line of physical comedy which is very hard to do in writing. And who wouldn’t love to be able to do Paddington’s trademark hard stare?

Jennings, White Fang, the Shadow in the North
Books for slightly older readers.

When she’s older, I hope my daughter will, like me, come to love Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings books, White Fang by Jack London and The Shadow in the North by Philip Pullman. The world of an all-boys boarding school might be dated, but it has a beguiling innocence and some laugh-out-loud moments. Throughout the decades, kids haven’t fundamentally changed and they have always got up to ‘mischief’. Philip Pullman needs no introduction … White Fang is not only a firm favourite but also a gateway to the harder-hitting, more adult Tales of the Klondike, which I read as a teenager and would heartily recommend. It taught me one thing – never light your fire underneath a snow-covered tree. The snow will melt and drop on your fire, smothering it and leaving you to die in the frozen wastes. You’re welcome.

Jinny, The Machine-Gunners and Harry Potter
Spot the wild card.

It might be an obvious, some would say cheesy, choice, but I’ve jumped enthusiastically on the Harry Potter bandwagon and can’t wait to read J. K. Rowling’s famous series to my daughter. Robert Westall’s The Machine-Gunners is also a classic these days, I believe (that makes me feel old!) and I love his down-to-earth style. There are quite a few lesser-known Westall books for my daughter to discover, including The Wind Eye and his collection of short horror stories for adults. My ‘wild card’ is the Jinny series of horse stories by Patricia Leitch, which are as far from middle class pony club romps as it’s possible to get and still involve horses. When I was younger I wanted to be the feisty, red-haired Jinny and to ride as fearlessly as she did. Each book (there are twelve) has a horse-related storyline together with a more meaningful facet to the plot where our heroine discovers more about herself and gradually becomes a less selfish and more respectful person who cares about the world around her.

There you go – my pick of books for young and older children. Some of these are obvious, but I hope some of you benefit from the more obscure recommendations. And if my daughter doesn’t enjoy any of these, I hope I won’t be too disappointed but will continue to nurture a love of reading through books that she does like!

Reading Reviews

Book review: The Forgotten Daughter by Renita D’Silva


I chose this book from the Om Bookshop in Phoenix Mall, Mumbai, because after visiting India twice recently I’m keen to discover lesser-known contemporary novelists writing about the country.

The story starts with Nisha, a young British-Indian woman, shortly after her parents’ unexpected death. She has always lived in England and feels no connection to India, never having visited – as far as she knew. But the discovery that she was adopted from a Catholic convent near Mangalore sends her on a journey, both physical and emotional, to find out more about her early childhood.

There are three main characters – Nisha, Shilpa and Devi – and we gradually find out how they are connected as we follow Nisha in her efforts to find her biological parents.

After such a short time in India I’m still not fully au fait with koilolis, idlis or chicken sukka, but I can certainly appreciate D’Silva’s rich, multi-sensual picture of life in a small Indian village. She uses food, colours and aromas to paint vivid images in the mind’s eye with great skill. She also does an excellent job of showing us three key characters with quite different personalities. They all face challenges relating to love and relationships; they all have experiences of motherhood to convey from the perspective of mother, daughter or both.

Sometimes Nisha’s lines of dialogue can seem a little stilted – which British person would say “It would have been different had they been writing a scientific paper” instead of “… if they’d been writing a scientific paper”, for example, and who talks out loud about “The vivid smells which accost my nose”? – but those few moments are quickly forgotten in the sweep of the story.

D’Silva brings all the threads together with perfect timing, keeping the reader guessing for just long enough before showing us how the next piece of the puzzle fits in. The plot never gets confusing yet it’s not too predictable either. My only criticism is that the ending doesn’t quite work for me – it seems a little too symmetrical, if I was going to be very fussy – but I strongly suspect that might just be a personal thing!

My verdict: if you want a taste of India, either as a reminder or a new experience, you can’t do much better than this. Don’t be put off if you’re not into ‘motherhood’ as a theme. This book is about love, loss, difficult decisions, personal growth and what people are capable of – themes that can resonate with anyone. Four stars out of five.

4 stars

Reading Reviews

Book review: The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling

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I’m a little late to the party but I finally got my act together and read The Casual Vacancy.

I’ll give the elephant in the room a pat on the leg straight away and come clean that yes, I’ve read all the Harry Potter books. I’ve also read quite a lot of reader reviews of The Casual Vacancy so I knew enough to expect something completely different from Harry Potter. I mean, it’s a book about a vacancy on a parish council. Just how magical did people think it was going to get?

Opinion seems to be divided and I thought I’d be one of those people who either hate this book or love it. Having finished, I can honestly say that I feel conflicted. The whole thing had good and bad points.

I’m not one of those people who thinks that JK Rowling’s writing style is terrible. I enjoyed the Harry Potter books and thought her style worked well in them. I would describe it as ‘workmanlike’. It’s functional, which lends itself well to stories which revolve around plot and character. It also suits a magical world because when the things and situations in your story are fantastical or out-of-the-ordinary you don’t need an overblown swathe of purple prose to describe them. You just need to give the reader’s imagination space to work.

However, I don’t think this translated so well to The Casual Vacancy. The book focused on ordinary people doing ordinary things, and the ordinary prose in my opinion failed to lift the whole thing above, you’ve guessed it, ordinary.

The story arc focuses on the ‘casual vacancy’ on the Pagford parish council and the machinations of various villagers to get their favourite candidate to fill it. There are clear ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ – the reader is obviously meant to side with the candidate who wants to keep The Fields estate with its drug and deprivation problems within the boundaries of Pagford, along with its addiction clinic. The other candidate wants the sink estate to be someone else’s problem, and favours redrawing the boundaries in order to shunt The Fields off to nearby city Yarvil – which has plans to close the addiction clinic down.

There is also a third candidate, who seems to have been thrown into the mix for no real reason other than to make the situation slightly less ‘good vs evil’. Although you can’t root for him as he’s a complete arse.

The book starts off with the death which creates the casual vacancy and then settles down into a series of character studies. There are a lot of characters to get to grips with. Some people found this confusing; I didn’t find it too bad, if a little slow-moving.

The plot progressed by means of little vignettes from each character’s point of view in turn. It’s a good idea, but I thought it was just a bit too slow to make for a great novel in this case. Part of the problem for me was that I was never interested enough in the outcome. A parish council sounds boring on the surface, and when I read the book description I assumed that Rowling had teased some drama out of the tensions that undoubtedly arise on these kinds of committees, but I was disappointed. There was only one scene where the parish council actually meets, which I expected to be a pivotal point with some excitement, but that scene fell completely flat.

Some readers didn’t like the amount of swearing. It didn’t bother me particularly as I thought it was a fair representation of actual speech, but I didn’t like Rowling’s habit of writing ‘in dialect’ for the characters from The Fields. That’s just a personal preference; I’m not a fan of that practice in general. I prefer to learn where a character is from and ‘hear’ their accent in my head.

The characters weren’t very likeable and the outcome wasn’t a happy one, but I don’t have a problem with that. It was billed as realism, and realism it was. The teenage characters were well-drawn; the adults often stereotypical. The descriptions of life on the sink estate rang true (I used to live on one very like it!) and it was refreshing, in a way, to read about an estate like that in a rural, superficially idyllic area. Most stories involving hard drug use seem to be set in cities, as though it never happens in the green belt.

I don’t mind unlikeable characters, but I did rather warm to Samantha – getting older, bored with her boring husband and regretting the travelling she missed out on in her younger days following an unexpected pregnancy and shotgun wedding. None of this applies to me except the very first part, but I think Samantha and I could get on!

There is one character who is meant to be ‘nice’ – Barry Fairbrother, who dies at the beginning of the book. Although he’s painted as some kind of saintly champion of The Fields, I don’t think he’s fleshed out enough to become more than just a cipher, which is a shame because he is so pivotal to the story.

My verdict: the love child of Miss Read and Irvine Welsh but not approaching their talents. Pedestrian with some redeeming characterisations. Three stars out of five.

Authors Cheltenham Literature Festival Events Reading Writing

Cheltenham Literature Festival in more detail

I already wrote a summary of my experiences at the Cheltenham Literature Festival; now I’ve gone into a bit more detail over at the Help For Writers blog.

I didn’t mention my coughing fit in the middle of the Simon Armitage event. The woman next to me looked very disapproving indeed and offered me a cough sweet (I’d already had three, but perhaps they were too rustly for her comfort).

During the Alexander McCall Smith event I was sitting on the left hand side of a lady with her left arm in a sling. I spent the whole hour trying to sit as still as possible for fear of knocking it.

I found the audiences very genteel. Hardly anyone seemed to take photos or use their phone during the events – which was nice in a way, but made me feel very conspicuous. I always keep my phone on silent in events and turn the flash off, but I’m surprised there weren’t more people live-tweeting – at the beginning and end of events, at the very least. (I try to be polite and considerate and restrict my phone-fiddling to the first and last couple of minutes. I’m not a total philistine.) There was much less activity than I expected on the #CheltLitFest hashtag. Maybe I should be thankful for small mercies, but I don’t think it has to be an either-or between highbrow literature and social media – I enjoy both!

In Cheltenham itself I recommend the Queens Hotel, which is right next to the literature festival and has a great bar with very friendly staff and loads of different gins, as well as amazing wallpaper designed by Pugin in the stairwell. At the time of booking it was the same price as the usual ordinary chain hotels!

I also highly recommend John Gordons whisky bar. If you love a good single malt you’ll be in heaven.

signed copy of simon armitage's book walking away
Simon Armitage: My fangirl moment immortalised.
Authors Events Reading Writing

Eggs Benedict & Biggles books

Last week I went to the local Society for Editors & Proofreaders meet-up. It’s only the second time I’ve attended; everyone seems very friendly and keen to talk shop. There was a debate about whether eggs Benedict need a capital ‘B’ and, if not, whether eggs New York should therefore take lower case. I was surprised that people talk so much about work at these meet-ups, but having just read the last sentence back to myself, perhaps I’m not all that surprised. Every now and then you need people to talk to about capitalisation and apostrophes!

At the weekend I went to the thirtieth meeting of the W. E. Johns Appreciation Society. For those of you who don’t know Captain W. E. Johns, he was the author of well over a hundred ‘Biggles’ books. Many people don’t know that he also wrote other series – not only the ‘Worrals’, ‘Gimlet’ and ‘Steeley’ books for young people, but a science fiction series, romance novels for adults, and nonfiction books on aviation and gardening.

I’m too young to be part of the ‘Biggles generation’ – the biggest W. E. Johns fans tend to be around the age of my parents or older – but my parents enjoyed the books and read them to me, and I became a fan in turn. I also find the geekiness of the true Biggles fans fascinating, and on Saturday, among other topics I enjoyed talks about Tierra del Fuego (the scene for Biggles at World’s End) and the role played by an obscure Leicestershire aerodrome – now disused – in the war effort (it was an important ferrying base).

shelf of old books
A shelf of vintage children’s books at the W. E. Johns Appreciation Society meeting last Saturday.
Authors Cheltenham Literature Festival Events Reading

Cheltenham Literature Festival 2015

I spent the last two weekends at the Cheltenham Literature Festival – it was the first time I’d attended the festival or indeed been to Cheltenham, and I thoroughly enjoyed it!


inside of a big top
The Little Big Top – the children’s tent at the Cheltenham Literature Festival.


I’ve written a blog post for Help For Writers, based on one of the events I attended, in which I’ve focused on ‘top tips’ for writing for children. I’m planning more blog posts over at Help For Writers about my experiences at the festival, so watch this space!

Cheltenham has lots of horse chestnut trees, and at this time of the year the pavements are thick with conker mulch. Conkers are a great metaphor for my book ideas – seductively beautiful and shiny straight out of the shell, but a few hours later they look dry and wrinkled… That, my friends, is why I’ve never written a novel.

One of my favourite events was ‘Come to the Cabaret’, featuring singer Mary Carewe and pianist Philip Mayer. As well as performing for us, Mary imparted plenty of information about the Berlin cabaret scene during the interwar period, and I left feeling as though I’d learned something. Not to mention the gorgeous food!

On the literary scene, my biggest fangirl moment was meeting Simon Armitage and getting a copy of his book, Walking Away, signed by him. I loved his dry sense of humour as he talked about his journey along the South West Coast Path.

Barrington Stoke’s event, ‘Removing the Barriers to Reading’, was an eye-opener, particularly if you have a child in your life who doesn’t enjoy reading or who isn’t particularly good at it – whether that’s because of dyslexia, other medical issues or simply that it’s not their thing.

I also had the pleasure of seeing and listening to Martha Lane Fox, John Torode (of Masterchef fame), and Alexander McCall Smith. I also thoroughly enjoyed readings by debut novelists Claire Fuller and Sarah Leipciger.

More posts about the festival to come; there’s just too much to write about all at once! You can also read something of a blow-by-blow account over at the Help For Writers Twitter feed.

On a personal note, my journey down for the second weekend of the festival was quite eventful. On the train my reserved seat was next to a man who had fallen asleep over his can of lager; it turned out he’d missed his stop (sorry I didn’t wake you up!), and on the way to the hotel I narrowly missed witnessing a nasty-looking moped accident (I hope it was ‘only’ a broken arm and nothing worse). My life is normally pretty mundane so this was all quite a drama!