Billy and Ant Lie – James Minter

“If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” ― Mark Twain

Billy and Ant Lie is the fourth book in James Minter’s ‘Billy’ series – a life learning collection for children entering adolescence. The series focuses on difficult or troubling situations faced by many preteen’s as they embark on their journey towards adulthood. The world is a confusing, complex and ever-changing place, and Minter’s Billy series attempts to help young adults to understand the decisions and situations which they many encounter. The first book in the Billy series – a review of which you can find here – in which Minter’s main character, Billy, has his extra-special birthday present stolen by an older boy, tackles the issue of bullying, and how best to react, and deal with situations in which you find yourself victimised or picked on by other people. The fourth book, which uses a very similar approach to Minter’s first book, tackles the issue of lying.

The book begins with Billy setting off on his bike to meet his friend Ant so that they can ride to school together. It is a simple, ordinary enough day, until Billy and Ant stumble upon a £1 coin in the bus stop. Despite running a little bit late for school the two friends head off to buy some sweets from Mr Gupter’s garage.

There is something to be said for being in the wrong place, at the wrong time, which Billy and Ant discover, when their sweet buying attempt is interrupted by a fleeing shop lifter. Shocked, and presumably a little upset, the pair rush off to school before they can be questioned by anyone else at the scene. Worried that their lateness will land them in trouble, they concoct an elaborate lie to get them off the hook, deciding to say that Ant had a flat tyre, and that they had to return home to get it fixed before coming in to school.

Lies are never simple though, and they rarely get you off the hook. So when the police come to school appealing for any witnesses from the incident at Mr Gupter’s garage it is only a matter of time before the Billy and Ant’s story begins to unravel. When the local Police Constable asks to speak to Billy and Ant about the situation their teacher is shocked – they couldn’t possibly have seen what had happened, they were very specific about their whereabouts during the incident. Billy and Ant realise that it is only a matter of time before the truth catches up to them, and they discover just how much trouble their lie has caused.

The guilt and fear at having told a lie proves to be more trouble than it was worth. When Billy and Any made the decision to hide their true whereabouts from their teacher, they may have thought they were committing a victimless crime, but in reality, like a pebble being dropped into a pond, their lie created ripples that were more far-reaching than either boy could ever have imagined.

The reality is that if they had just told the truth to begin with, they wouldn’t have got in any trouble – their teachers and parents would likely have been concerned for their wellbeing, rather than disappointed and hurt.  By telling a lie, they made things the worse not just for themselves, but for all those around them too.

Billy and Ant Lie is another a wonderful example of a story that young children can enjoy reading along with the parents, while learning a little bit about the world around them. The book is well-written and easy to follow, offering an accessible route for parents to broach an issue that is likely to affect many young children as they begin their journey into adulthood.

Minter’s Billy Books are designed for parents, guardians, teachers and the young minds they care for, to help smooth the journey along the bumpy road from late childhood into adolescence. The books provide lessons and advice for children, as well as a conversation starter for adults wishing to approach these subjects with their young counterparts. By providing a character than children can relate to, the books help children to form an understanding of the real-world implications of their actions.

Go Set a Watchman – Book review and giveaway!

To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.

imagesSet during the height of the Great Depression of the 1930s, To Kill a Mockingbird, is the tale of an innocent childhood in a sleepy southern town rocked by scandal. When Lawyer Atticus Finch chooses to defend a black man charged with the rape of a white girl he exposes his children to the reality of racism and stereotyping. The story, which is told through the eyes of Atticus’ six-year-old daughter, Jean-Louise ‘Scout’ Finch, sheds an amusing unfettered light on the irrationality of deep-south traditions surrounding race and class in the mid-1930s. At its heart, To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic coming-of-age tale, which went on to become one of the most famed anti-racist novels of the 20th century. Today the book is widely regarded as a one of the masterpieces of American Literature.

It’s no wonder then, that the release of Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman, fifty-five years after To Kill a Mockingbird, was met with such excitement.

Go Set a Watchman – Harper Lee

You deny them hope. Any man in this world, Atticus, any man who has a head and arms and legs, was born with hope in his heart. You won’t find that in the Constitution, I picked that up in church somewhere. They are simple people, most of them, but that doesn’t make them subhuman.

81SX8d6vpzLGo Set a Watchman takes up with twenty-six-year-old Jean-Louise, as she returns to Maycomb to visit her now ageing father, Atticus. Set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, Go Set a Watchman delves into the raw truth of the political turmoil which marred the Southern United States of the 1950s. Jean-Louise’s homecoming, far from being an idyllic break in the country, takes an unsettling turn, as racial tensions rippling through the town come to her attention and she learns some troubling truths about the friends and family close to her heart. As she struggles to comprehend the changes occurring around her, Jean-Louise embarks on a life-changing journey guided by her own conscience.

By now, you will have no doubt read your fair share of reviews and criticism of Go Set a Watchman. Before I get into the controversy surrounding the book’s release, and subsequent criticisms of the book itself, I first want to tell you why I loved the book.

The structure of Go Set a Watchman is so completely different to To Kill a Mockingbird; I’ve heard it called jarring, and awkward, but I found it refreshing. The novel is told in the third person, but still awards an amazing insight into the minds of the central characters, with large sections of text given over to Jean-Louise’s hilarious internal monologue, particularly when she finds herself at odds with her insufferable aunt (‘Jehovah!’). As a reader you are able to witness Jean-Louise without being restricted by seeing everything through her eyes. I loved the effect that this had and I feel it allowed for a deeper understanding of her character.  The quick fisted child from To Kill a Mockingbird may have aged some, but her personality and morals remain as rigid as ever. Even as an adult she is far happier in slacks than a skirt, and more than willing to speak her mind to anyone who disapproves. Twenty years on, and the adult Jean-Louise is still a force to be reckoned with.

I also loved the amount of time Lee gave to looking into Jean-Louise’s life in the years in between To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman. I loved Jean-Louise’s internal anecdotes about her childhood, in particular the nine month’s spent thinking she was pregnant after being wrongly advised about the birds and the bees by an older girl. Watching the whole debacle unfold is hilarious, but none so much as the exchange between Jean-Louise and Calpurnia when she finally confesses her horrible secret:

“I’m going to have a baby!” she sobbed.

Calpurnia said, “As sure as the sweet Jesus was born, baby. Get this in your head right now, you ain’t pregnant and you never were. That ain’t the way it is.
“Well if I ain’t, then what am I?
“With all your book learnin’, you are the most ignorant child I ever did see…” Her voice trailed off. “… but I don’t reckon you really ever had a chance.

Little gems like this give Go Set a Watchman a really human feel, which I absolutely loved. It is one thing to witness a character’s story as it unfolds, but another to observe a character revisiting their past. The Jean-Louise of To Kill a Mockingbird exists only in the present moment, whereas the adult Jean-Louise transcends time periods to enable a fuller understanding of the complexities of her character.

Now, on to the controversy.

I know a lot of people are of the opinion that Lee was manipulated into granting permission for the release of Go Set a Watchman, and I’m sure nothing I say will change this, but I, personally, do not believe that this is the case. Firstly, friends and family close to Lee have outright denied that this claim – but this is not the only reason I choose to believe that Lee wanted the book to be published. I think that the presence of anomalies within the text, specifically with regards to the outcome of the Tom Robinson case in To Kill a Mockingbird, suggest that Lee had the definitive choice when it came to publishing the book. For me, the presence of such anomalies show that Lee wanted the book to be seen and to be viewed as it was; true to the time it was written, and not as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. If the release of Go Set a Watchman was nothing more than a money-making plan at the expense of a fragile old lady I do not think this would be the case.

The circumstances surrounding the publication of Go Set a Watchman are not the only thing awarding the book negative media attention. I have read so many opinion pieces that suggest that the book ruins To Kill a Mockingbird and taints the Atticus Finch that we all knew and loved. One US bookstore even offered refunds to anyone who purchased the novel from them, on the ground that their advertising it as ‘nice summer read’ was unquestionably false. This, again, I do not agree with.

When I read To Kill a Mockingbird I fell completely in love with Atticus, and there is no doubt in my mind that the Atticus Finch in Go Set a Watchman is fundamentally different. But did this new portrayal of his character ruin the former impression I had? No, of course not. The Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird still exists, and nothing will ever change that. Go Set A Watchman may be set 20 years after To Kill a Mockingbird, but it was never intended to serve as a sequel.

The time portrayed in Go Set a Watchman can’t be viewed in a vacuum, but neither should it be completely judged based on To Kill a Mockingbird. The two books are fundamentally different. One gave birth to the other. Go Set a Watchman in itself is an incredible look at the time in which it was written, allowing for amazing insight into the Southern United States of the 1950s.

Would Go Set a Watchman have been accepted by a publisher now were it not for To Kill a Mockingbird? I don’t know. Maybe not. The novel is certainly not as ground-breaking as To Kill a Mockingbird – but is that really surprising? It is the history of the book that is really fascinating. As readers we have been given the chance to read the first draft of one of the most famous books ever written. In reading Go Set a Watchman you are given an incredible insight into Harper Lee’s writing process. Needless to say, as a booklover, and a fan of To Kill a Mockingbird, I found Go Set a Watchman to be an incredibly interesting and exciting book to read.

If you haven’t yet read Go Set a Watchman, and haven’t been put off by all the negative media coverage than I have good news for you. I have an extra copy of the book up for grabs for one lucky reader.

Simply comment on this blog post by Friday 4th September, to be in with a chance of winning.

Happy commenting!

“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” ― Groucho Marx

A child’s innocent review

My Family and Other Animals ― Gerald Durrel


My Family and Other Animals is the childhood autobiography of the renowned naturalist Gerald Durrell, and takes place over a few short years that the Durrell family spent together on the Greek Island of Corfu. It is perhaps the best known of Durrell’s Corfu trilogy, the others of which are ‘Birds, Beasts and Relatives’, and ‘The Garden of the Gods’. I have yet to read the other two, but they are currently working their way to the top of my ever increasing ‘to read’ pile.

The Durrell family made the choice to migrate to Corfu in an attempt to escape the dreary English weather. Early on in the book you are made aware that the family is somewhat unconventional as moving abroad seems to be a very snap decision. While of course this could just be the situation viewed through the eyes of a child, I have heard it said that the book paints a fairly accurate picture of the family. In fact it was described by Gerald Durrell’s elder brother Lawrence as “a very wicked, very funny, and I’m afraid rather truthful book”.

Through My Family and Other Animals Durrell traces the amusing happenings of the family in their new lives, and goes to great length to describe and account for all the creatures that he comes into contact with throughout his adventures. In fact, Durrell originally planned for the book to be purely a journal of all the animals he discovered, but in the process of constructing the journal he managed to wonderfully meld his own adventures with that of his family. The result is a really charming child’s snapshot of a period of Gerald Durrell’s life which to all extents sounds absolutely blissful and idyllic.

When writing about her married life to Durrell in her autobiography ‘Beasts in My Bed’, Jacquie Durrell remarked that she had never known Durrell to work with the vivacity he had while writing My Family and Other Animals, commenting that “it seemed to pour out of him”. I find this interesting, as many writers consider writing to be a laborious task. I remember with such clarity a lecture on essay writing during my first week at university. One of our new lecturers told us quite matter-of-factly ‘Writing hurts, and it will always hurt, when you sit down it will be painful’; words that have forever stuck with me. As much as I love writing, I do often find it painful in a way, albeit a positive way. There is no doubt that Durrell was immensely passionate about the animals he wrote about and this seems almost to have flowed directly out of him, through the pages of the book, and into the minds of the reader. I suppose you have to, like Durrell, write about something you love ardently for it to come this naturally.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Durrell’s time in Corfu, while it is not an action packed adventure novel there is so much to appeal to the reader. The eccentricities of the Durrell family seem to make each character instantly likeable. To live on a whim, as the Durrell’s do, must be ever so exciting. Imagine at the age of ten having a mother that would let you keep as a pet any creature you brought home be it a snake, a toad, an owl, anything. Everything that occurs in the Durrell’s lives in steeped in unconventionality, absurdity and hilarity. From the offset Larry has only to suggest going to Greece, and although Mother attempts to resist at first, it is done. Once in Greece Larry makes the bizarre suggestion that they move to a bigger villa, because their current one is too small to accommodate the guests he has invited to stay, and again Mother attempts to stand her ground, but part two of the novel begins with the line ‘The new villa was enormous’. Indeed the uniqueness of the family does not go unnoticed, their parties are always lively to say the least, and on the journey back to England, with “the finches [singing] in their cages, the Magenpies [chucking] and [hammering] with their beaks, and Alecko [giving] mournful [yarps] at intervals. [While] the dogs lay snoring” the family are described by passport control as “One travelling Circus and Staff”.

The entire book is told from the point of view of Durrell’s childhood self, Gerry, the inquisitive ecologist. Gerry’s love of animals of all sorts comes out in all aspects of his writing, the most obvious of course being the title ‘My Family and Other Animals’. He has countless encounters with strange beasts, many of which would make the average person squirm in discomfort, but fill Gerry with an unquenchable curiosity. In fact some of the most animated conversations, and interactions that Gerry recollects are those between himself and his best friend Roger the family dog. He speaks of, and to his pets [and there are many of them] as if they are people. I would even say that in some ways Gerry appears as if he is a sort of animal himself, distanced and at odds with the rest of the family, he is often referred to as: ‘THAT BOY!’

Throughout the novel Gerry is subjected to an education of sorts and often finds himself with the most peculiar tutors. He seems to bond the most with, and indeed goes into the most detail describing, his final tutor Kralefsky who quite coincidentally has a house full of exotic birds. Not surprisingly nature plays a large role in Gerry’s methods of learning and remembering those dull things which children were often forced to memorise. Hannibal and his elephants were memorable because Hannibal gave his elephants hot water bottles, equally he is most interested not in Columbus discovering America, but it the fact that Columbus’ first words upon reaching the shores of America were ‘A Jaguar’. There is the distinct impression that much of the time Gerry spent with his tutors was time better spent elsewhere, as he ultimately learns the most from his unlikely friendship with Theodore, a scientist, and nature lover just like Gerry. Days spent with Theodore are the days Gerry looks forward to the most, and when he commits the majority of his education to memory, asking questions, learning and discovering:

”What, I wondered, did things sound like to a trapdoor spider? I could imagine a snail would trail over the door with a sound like a sticking plaster being torn off. A centipede would sound like a troop of cavalry. A fly would patter in shorts bursts, followed by a pause when it washed its hands – a dull rasping sound like a knife-grinder at work. The larger beetles, I decided, would sound like steam rollers, while the smaller ones, the ladybirds and others, would probably purr over the moss like clockwork motorcars.”

One of my favourite things about My Family and Other Animals, and I am sure this is a recurring theme throughout Durrell’s work, is the lengthy descriptions of the most stunning scenery, amongst events, people, animals, although it is the scenery in particular that I enjoy. The book is full of examples of this, but one of my favourite instances and the one which really stood out to me first and foremost was the description near the beginning of the book, of the family having breakfast outside of their new villa:

“We ate breakfast out in the garden, under the small tangerine trees. The sky was fresh and shining, not yet the fierce blue of noon, but a clear milky opal. The flowers were half-asleep, roses dew crumpled, marigolds still tightly shut.”

Through a description like this you can almost smell the dampness of the flower buds, and feel the slight chill of dawn, the soft blanket of night being pulled back to reveal the splendours of the day ahead.

Durrell pays just as much attention to detail in the description of just about everything in the book. Accounts of different characters are described down to the smallest details; the invaluable Spiro is “a short, barrel-bodied individual, with ham-like hands and a great, leathery, scowling face surmounted by a jauntily-tilted peaked cap”. Everything is described so that it feels it will leap out of the page, like the crowd of Corfiots waiting in the church to kiss the feet of Saint Spiridion “This dark multi-coloured wedge of humanity moved slowly towards the dark door of the church, and we were swept along with it, wedged like pebbles in a larva-flow.”

One aspect of this particular edition of my family and other animals that I very much liked was the inclusion of an afterword by Peter J S Olney. This gave the reader a little information on what happened to the family in the years after the book was set. I thought this a very nice addition, as with works based on true events I often find myself wondering what happened afterwards, knowing of course that the lives of these characters carried on beyond the pages of the book. It was through this afterword that I discovered that the events described in the book, are sometimes, not exactly true. For example, Gerry’s brother Larry actually spent the whole of the time the book is set, living in another part of Corfu, with his wife Nancy. I have also heard it quoted that the reason the family left the Greece, was not, as Gerry claimed, so that he could get an education, but in fact due to the outbreak of the Second World War. Indeed the dates do match up. These inaccuracies, if you can call them that add to the innocence of the book. The idea of the whole family, living together, embarking on one huge, somewhat eccentric adventure, is far nicer than thinking of them having been separated by something as grown up as marriage. Also, while being forced to leave the home of your dreams to pursue an education is hardly a pleasant thought for a child, it is much sweeter than the bitter harsh reality of the Second World War.