Happy Roald Dahl Day!

The last two weeks have been crazy – many a lost purse, blocked drain and sick cat to keep me busy, so I do hope you’ll forgive my radio silence.

Couple of pieces of good news for you:

Firstly, I have recently received a beautiful copy a super-exciting new children’s book, The Grotlyn, by Benji Davis, the much-loved author of The Storm Whale – I’ve read it, and it’s fantastic, so keep your eyes peeled for a review in the next couple of days, and maybe consider buying a copy in the meantime.

Secondly, but most importantly, it’s Roald Dahl Day!

I hope you have all managed to take a little time out to appreciate, or celebrate in some way, this wonderful children’s author. As for myself, I plan to watch the film adaptation of The Witches the second I get home tonight – the book has always held a special place in my heart – partly, but not just, due to the present of mice.

I love mice, after all, mice, I am fairly certain, all like each other. People don’t.

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In the meantime, to keep myself ticking over, and for the personal enjoyment for each and every one of you reading this, here is a little excerpt from the book. It’s quite possibly the loveliest thing you will read all day, and sure to breed all the good thoughts – remember, if you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely 🙂

“How long does a mouse live?”

“Ah,” she said. “I’ve been waiting for you to ask me that.”

There was a silence. She sat there smoking away and gazing at the fire.

“Well,” I said. “How long do we live, us mice?”

“I have been reading about mice,” she said. “I have been trying to find out everything I can about them.”

“Go on then, Grandmamma. Why don’t you tell me?”

“If you really want to know,” she said, “I’m afraid a mouse doesn’t live for a very long time.”

“How long?” I asked.

“Well, an ordinary mouse only lives for about three years,” she said. “But you are not an ordinary mouse. You are a mouse-person, and that is a very different matter.”

“How different?” I asked. “How long does a mouse-person live, Grandmamma?”

“Longer,” she said. “Much longer.”

“A mouse-person will almost certainly live for three times as long as an ordinary mouse,” my grandmother said. “About nine years.”

“Good!” I cried. “That’s great! It’s the best news I’ve ever had!”

“Why do you say that?” she asked, surprised.

“Because I would never want to live longer than you,” I said. “I couldn’t stand being looked after by anybody else.”

There was a short silence. She had a way of fondling me behind the ears with the tip of one finger. It felt lovely.

“How old are you, Grandmamma?” I asked.

“I’m eighty-six,” she said.

“Will you live another eight or nine years?”

“I might,” she said. “With a bit of luck.”

“You’ve got to,” I said. “Because by then I’ll be a very old mouse and you’ll be a very old grandmother and soon after that we’ll both die together.”

“That would be perfect,” she said.”

 

‘The Wishing Star’ by M Christina Butler and Frank Endersby

I have a real soft spot for books about mice.

I’m sure it has something to do with how tiny they are – almost the perfect size for living in a doll’s house, and so somehow just right for ascribing human qualities to.

Obviously, ‘The Tale of Two Bad Mice’ was an absolute favourite of mine as a child, but even as an adult I still find myself drawn to any children’s book with a mouse on the front cover – ‘The Mouse and His Child’ and ‘Redwall’, though aimed at a slightly older audience, are two of my favourite finds in recent years.

‘The Wishing Star’ is the latest addition to my children’s book shelf, and one I look forward to sharing with the little people in my life.

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Little Brown Mouse and Little Grey Mouse are the best of friends, and spend all their days together, doing the things that best friends do. They climb trees, and pick berries and have such a jolly time, each content in the others company.

‘I’m so lucky to have you as a friend,” said Little Grey Mouse.

One night, the two friends see a beautiful wishing star fall from the night’s sky and disappear into the nearby lake, and set off in their boat to find it. The night is full possibilities, with so many lovely things awaiting them, like untold adventures, and an unlimited mouse-sized pantry – but there is only one star, and both little mice want to make a wish.

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How will they decide who gets to choose the wish? And what happens if someone gets to the star before them?

‘The Wishing Star’ is a book about friendship, which carries with it important message of not letting little things get in the way of what really matters. Unlimited pantries and adventures forgotten, the two little mice realise that what really matters is that they have each other, and other friends they meet along the way, which is more than anyone could ever wish for.

This book would serve as a good bedtime read to share with younger children, with a good amount of dialogue allowing for adults to express their own creative flair by choosing voices for the various characters. It would also work well as an introduction to reading for those children who are setting off for school this autumn – the charming illustrations, and a simple, thoughtful storyline providing a perfect stepping stone to discover the joys of reading by yourself.

‘Copycat Bear’ by Ellie Sandall

I was drawn to this book by the illustration on the front cover; there was something vaguely nostalgic about the big, scratchy blue bear that seemed to pull on a distant childhood memory and invite me back inside. Who am I to try and resist?

This book is short and sweet, so I will try and keep my review so.

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Mango is little bird with a big attitude, and an even bigger best friend – Blue the bear. The two make an amusing pair, one big, trundling and blue, the other small, swift and orange, but Blue doesn’t seem to care. No matter what Mango does, he always tries to copy her. Whether it’s jumping from branch to branch in the tropical trees or attempting to sing a jungle ditty – he even pretends that he can fly!

Mango cannot stand it!

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When it all gets too much, Mango flies off in a huff – knowing at least Blue can’t follow. But it doesn’t take long before she starts to feel lonely… Where is her copycat bear?

‘Copycat Bear’ is a story of that celebrates friendship, while teaching an important lesson about tolerance and understanding. It reminded me slightly of Rainbow Fish’ – a firm childhood favourite of mine – both in the colours and imagery used, and it its attempt to reflect the importance of kindness and empathy.

The effect is quite something; at times I felt more than a little sorry for Blue.

Thank goodness for happy endings.

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Like all good picture books, ‘Copycat Bear’ is there for children to enjoy, with amusing anecdotes – like a bear attempting to fly – paired with beautifully captivating images, but also alludes to some important and valuable life lessons.

With this in mind there are two main messages running through the book that even young children can learn from. Firstly, that imitation is the highest form of flattery, and though copycats can seem annoying, they might just be the ones who love and respect us the most. But also, and perhaps most importantly, that being different is ok.

‘Under the Silvery Moon’ by Colleen McKeown

The perfect bedtime companion, this beautiful children’s book is soft, sweet, and magical.

So often it’s the words or images alone that make a children’s book, with the other standing in the side-lines paying an occasional well-placed compliment. This little book strikes the perfect balance between the two, with beautiful flowing words perfectly captured by magical, moon-dappled imagery.

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“Around us swirls a summer song; it’s whispered through the trees.
The evening wind is blowing through the softly rustling leaves.”

The sun has set, and bedtime has long past, but one little kitten is struggling to sleep. Snuggled up in the hay lofts of a cosy wooden barn, the scene is perfect for slumber, but outside, animals are stirring, and the night-time noises fill the little ginger tom with fear.

Under the Silvery Moon is the softly sung lullaby of Mother Cat, as she guides her little one on a journey through the sounds of the night, stopping to visit each nocturnal creature along the way.

We pass the shadow-like figure of a fox, singing his night-time song, a happy trundling badger, barking with delight, a host of croaking frogs, bathing by the light of the moon, and snuffling, scurrying hedgehogs, out for a midnight snack.

Elsewhere, a mother duck snuggles with her ducklings, and other animals, tired from a busy day, get some well-earned rest – just as little kittens should.

Mother Cat’s soothing lullaby shows the night is full of noises, but none we need to fear.

Under the Silvery Moon is a calming bedtime read, perfect for settling any little one to sleep, the soft rhyming text and beautiful, dream-like illustrations paving the way for a sweet slumber filled with nocturnal adventures.

‘Beijing Smog’ by Ian Williams

Social media is a powerful thing, even in a world where government-sanctioned firewalling attempts to keep it under wraps. In a place where public opinion is learned, not formed, and freedom of expression is non-existent, innocent Tweets, shares and updates can be taken all too seriously. Even the smallest of jokes can end up spiralling out of control.

41Q5eoeLSxL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_So goes the story in ‘Beijing Smog’, the debut novel from Ian Williams, former correspondent for Channel 4 News and the Sunday Times newspaper, who spent more than two decades living, working and reporting on China. Dark, cynical and somewhat satirical, Williams presents a modern Chinese society that is suffocating and depressing, and might prove for hard reading were it not for an entourage of well-rounded, relatable characters, and, what I hope will prove to be, Williams’ signature satirical humour.

A book of multiple pathways, ‘Beijing Smog’ centres first and foremost on the life of Wang Chu, a video-game-addicted computer science student and the unexpected father of revolution, who hides behind the screen of his smartphone, in a world inhabited by crazed monkeys, brain-hungry zombies, and poorly drawn aliens.

Wang’s devil-may-care attitude to social media has a far more prominent effect on his followers than he could have ever imagined. How could anyone have foreseen that an innocuous Tweet, subtly poking fun at the modern Chinese government, could start a revolution? That all it would take to undermine the ruling Communist Party is a simple, crudely draw stick alien with a wide bulbous head and round, sloping eyes? It started life as a joke, but the Party are not laughing.

As he wanders blindly into the heart of the storm, Wang’s story intertwines with that of two others: Chuck Drayton, an American diplomat, sucked into the world of cyber security not by desire, or ability on his part, but apathy and incompetence of everyone else; and Anthony Morgan, a listless British businessman, striving to keep his Chinese partners on track while revealing his true feelings via VPN with gloomy predictions published under the Twitter tagline @Beijing_Smog. As their stories collide, the alien revolution set in motion by Wang takes on an unpredictable life of its own, threatening all those involved, none more so than the Party itself.

This is a book about espionage, corruption, censorship and alienation. Cyberspace and the choking Chinese smog form a striking metaphor of the disorientation that clouds the main characters’ brains and the wider Chinese public. As government sensors work tirelessly to conceal, delete and mould online opinion, businesses boom with the sale of inadequate gas masks and smog apps and university students hide within a world far more palatable than reality. It may seem apathetic; a generation of students unable to look up from their phones and at a total loss when the internet goes down, but it is online that revolution is brewing.

This is not an historical novel, nor an exact representation of life in the People’s Republic, but rather a book which seeks to capture the madness and intensity of life within a highly censored society. This is something that Williams achieves without a doubt, his sparky style and dark satirical humour creates a world where student sinks overflowing with ramen dishware, shabby coffee shops with more tab than substance, and cracked smartphone screens, sit alongside bloated, machete-mutilated corpses, hungry Siberian tigers, and invitations to ‘tea’ with the university authorities. A world where a single slipped word could see a person disappear.

This review was first published online for E&T Magazine 

‘There’s a Bear on my Chair’ by Ross Collins

I’m a sucker for a book with rhyming couplets.

Rhyme offers so much opportunity to explore the written word in children’s books – archaic and dated words fit right into the flow of text, alongside nonsense terms and odd turns of phrase. In short, anything goes. Get the rhythm right and the rest will follow, children are sure to love a book that rhymes.

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This book caught my eye in WHSmiths during one of my regular lunchtime strolls at work, and I decided to give it a read, sucked in by the triple rhyme in the title, and the furious mouse on the cover image. What’s his story?

It’s a simple book – but the simplicity is what makes it so excellent. Collins writes in rhyming couplets using only ‘Air’ words, and the result is quite delightful.

The story has a childish humour running through it that adults and children alike are bound to enjoy. A poor little mouse discovers a selfish polar bear sitting in his favourite chair, which simply is too small to share. The poor little mouse attempts all sorts of amusing tactics to shoo the bear (to make him go back to his lair), he gives him quite a nasty glare, he tries to tempt him with a pear, he jumps out in his underwear, but nothing works. The bear just simply does not care. You get the picture.

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In the end, the mouse gives up, being driven to the end of his tiny mouse tether by this big troublesome bear. He leaves his house, distraught and beaten, to find a new place to rest.

Once the mouse has gone, the bear, of course, gets up and walks home.

Here we find the delightful twist in the tail.

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I confess, I laughed. I laughed loud, and insisted that my colleagues give the book a read. Waiting patiently for the satisfied chuckle I knew was coming once they reached the end of the book.

It’s simple, but clever, and I really didn’t see it coming.

This book would be perfect for sharing with children, to help foster a love of reading from a young age. It’s no ‘Cat in the Hat’, or ‘Green Eggs and Ham’, but it does have a vaguely Dr Seuss-esque feel to it, in style, substance, and illustration – a winning combination that truly represents the power of the written word.

 

‘A Portable Cosmos’ by Alexander Jones

More than 100 years after it was first discovered, and following on from decades of research by scientists and theologians alike, author Alexander Jones reveals a new and unknown approach to understanding the mysterious Antikythera mechanism.

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Since the dawn of society, mankind has striven to understand the forces that dictate history. Ancient Greeks found answers in fate, with shrouded white beings, known as the Moirai, depicted alongside the gods as the bringers of destiny.

It would be easy to suggest that fate was at play in 1901, when sponge divers off the coast of a small Greek island stumbled upon the ruins of an ancient shipwreck, which just happened to be one of the most important archaeological discoveries of all time.

The contents of the wreck, dating back as far as 60 AD, revealed untold wonders of the lives of the privileged in Ancient Greece. The vessel was laden with artistic masterpieces in the form of bronze and marble statues and intricate glassware and ceramics. Most important of all, though, was the unique Antikythera mechanism – the crumbling remains of an ancient gear-driven device, since dubbed the first analogue computer.

‘A Portable Cosmos’, written and researched by Professor Alexander Jones, from New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, attempts to unpick the murky history of the Antikythera mechanism. The book presents the device as a gateway to the understanding of scientific thought in Ancient Greece, where the divine and the methodical were inextricably entwined.

Jones takes the reader on a journey through the various years of research into the mechanism’s background, as well as into the device itself, affording a glimpse beneath the corroded surface and into the interior gears and cogs.

Since its discovery more than 100 years ago, scholars and scientists have dedicated years of research to uncovering the secrets hidden beneath the mechanism’s corroded exterior. The symbols, writings, gears and cogs uncovered by years of investigation have revealed that the mechanism is some kind of advanced astronomical calculator, with dials given over to tracing cycles of time and the movements of the sun, moon and planets.

Various theories have arisen as to the machine’s true function, with it being labelled as both an astrolabe and a planetarium at various stages throughout the 20th century. It was not until Derek de Solla Price began researching the object in the 1950s that the word ‘computer’ arose and with it the idea that the device could have been used to determine certain predictions and calculations.

For Jones it seems unlikely that the mechanism was created to compute data in any practical way, but rather, was more likely created as a reflection of certain beliefs and aspirations in Ancient Greece. Navigational and other purposes would have been much more easily supplied by other, cheaper means, whereas the range and breadth of information expressed by the mechanism is far and beyond the realms required by any merchant ship.

Instead, Jones poses the idea that the device may have served as vessel for teaching the ‘educated layman’ how astronomical phenomena were interwoven with the natural and social environment. Take a glimpse at Ancient Greek texts and one can see the presence of mechanical thought within the understanding of astrological forces. Vitruvius described the heavens themselves as spun about mechanically – viewing astrological revolutions as driven by a system of invisible, interlocking parts. For some, this theory went further, into the very nature of fate itself.

Within the Antikythera mechanism, each astrological and chronological function had a rich context in Ancient Greek life and as such serves as the perfect gateway to understanding astronomy and scientific technology within society at the time. Just as fate and serendipity fascinated and guided the hands of ancient scholars, so too has it dictated the journey of the Antikythera mechanism, from a corroded piece of rubble to one of the most important discoveries of modern times.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine