Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Matilda the Musical

Saturday was a very exciting day in our household.  My friend and I booked to see Matilda for a birthday treat for A and her daughter, several months ago, and have been waiting a long time for the day to dawn.  So excited was I about the trip, that I eschewed wine on the work trip out on Friday night in favour of the less yummy, but less hangover-producing gin.  I was bright eyed and bushy tailed (almost completely) on Saturday morning.

We arrived in London and ate at the Rainforest Cafe, which was, it has to be said, more fun for the kids than for the mums.  I would have absolutely loved it when I was 8.

We then took a slow walk to the theatre,  buying assorted stuff which cost all the money in the world because it's in London, and that's the way it rolls.

The musical was absolutely, completely, amazingly brilliant.  Matilda is one of my favourite books ever, hence the name of this blog (The Reader of Books is the sub-title).  I was a little worried that the musical might not quite measure up, but it so utterly did.  It adapted the basic story for theatre, but not in a way that made it unrecognisable.  The songs were brilliant, the actors were amazing, and the stagecraft made us all gasp several times.  None of us wanted it to end.  And, as someone who normally starts fidgeting after more than 50 minutes in a theatre, that is high praise indeed coming from me.

The characters were all recognisable, but there were clever adaptations to make some of them fit better on stage.  Michael, Matilda's brother, is a grunting buffoon in the musical, and Mrs Trunchbull has a hilarious tinge of utter madness, which is hinted at in the book, but more fully realised on stage.

I would recommend this to any Roald Dahl fan, young or old, wholeheartedly and completely.  It's not cheap, but it's worth every penny.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian

I was thinking earlier about books that have changed my life.  I was clearing off A's bed, and found that she had squirreled Goodnight Mister Tom at the end of it.  This was my absolute favourite book as a child (I think I read it for the first time at around nine).  It certainly changed the way I perceived the world in quite a major way.  I read it so many times, and loved it so much, that I bought a special plastic cover in WHSmith for it, like books have in the library.  It was the only book of mine that ever received this very special treatment, and it was this copy which was in a pile of Jacqueline Wilsons in the top bunk.

Before reading Goodnight Mister Tom I don't think I had ever really thought too much about people whose lives were clouded by neglect and misery.  But the pictures of the lonely, grieving, emotionally barren Tom, and the terrified, neglected Willie, were so startlingly clear, that suddenly I was confronted by a new reality.  Some people are desperately unhappy.  Sometimes, for some people, life is unbearable.  The first time I read the section where Willie has to return home I felt physically ill with horror at the traumas that Willie has to face.  In fact, it took many, many re-readings before I read that bit again, and generally I skipped it up until Tom kidnaps Willie and they return to his home.

The characters seemed so incredibly real.  Up until that point, I had existed on a diet of Enid Blyton and the like, where the story, rather than the characters, takes primary importance.  Goodnight Mister Tom was the first book I read where the characters seemed utterly real.  I remember working out whether or not Tom would still be alive when I read the book, and realising that he probably wouldn't be, since the book was set in the war, and it was already the late 80s.  I still remember the feeling of devastation, even though I knew deep down that Tom had never really lived.

Chapter 4 was my favourite - the one where Tom takes Willie into the village to buy him supplies.  I remember feeling the excitement along with him, when he is allowed to choose a comic and a sweet, and the contentment of being in the library.  The language is just so rich that I have memorised and internalised large chunks of it.  Chapter 4 of Goodnight Mister Tom was my comfort reading for many, many years.

I almost don't want A to read it, because I think I would find it really quite painful if she didn't like it.  And it almost feels like Goodnight Mister Tom is my book, which is ridiculous, given that I know it is one of the most popular children's books of all time.  It's a great gift, to be able to write as though you are just writing for one person.  I have enjoyed all of Michelle Magorian's books, but to my mind, none of them quite measured up to this, and, quite possibly, no book ever really will for me.

Sunday, 20 May 2012


A's latest school project has been about Vikings.  She had a Viking themed day last week, where there was drama and air-dry clay, which made it pretty much the perfect day from her point of view.  That evening she asked if we could go up to bed early and look at all the books we could find about vikings.  This kind of question pretty much never gets a no from me, and so I scurried off upstairs to sort out the history books.  We started with the brilliant A Street Through Time, focusing on the Viking invasion page.  C also really enjoyed looking at this, and A talked us through what the vikings were wearing, the long boats, and the reasons why they came to the UK.  She was then interested to see if any of the features of the street stayed the same through all of the pictures from the very ancient landscape at the beginning, to the modern street.  They didn't, and we worked out that the church was the longest lived building.  I absolutely love this book, there's so much detail, and it's a brilliant antidote to the overly wordy history books which can dull any sense of excitement about the past in the young reader.

Next up was another favourite The Usborne History of Britain by Ruth Brocklehurst.  This is a very weighty tome, and is quite expensive for an Usborne, but, to my mind, worth it.  The text is nicely presented and interesting, and the illustrations, photos and captions are interesting and very nicely presented.  It's a brilliant homework resource for Key Stage 2 and 3 kids.

The Viking story from 101 Stories from British History, which I've mentioned before on the blog was a little on the bloodthirsty side, so had to be swiftly edited as I read it, which I am sure is probably good for my mental agility. 

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Reading as morphling.

I have now come out of my four-day Hunger Games marathon, largely unscathed.  I was struck, when reading about morphling, a substance which can "become addictive and ... may lead to side effects that heavily affect the user's appearance" (Hunger Games Wiki), that addictive books can be a little like morphling.

There have been several series of books which have caused me to become uncommunicative, dull-eyed and in a state of anxious adrenalin-driven tension where I can't settle to anything unless I am reading.  When I am reading, I take it in almost hungrily, and often skip as much as I read (leading me to miss a rather crucial death towards the end of Mockingjay, the final book in the trilogy.  When I finish reading, there's a kind of emptiness which can be quite disconcerting.

I am not sure that this kind of addictive reading is a good thing.  A can get like it with a new Jacqueline Wilson book - I see her eyes go glassy and the rest of the world dissolve into nothingness as she voraciously consumes the book until there is no more to consume.  It's similar to an excess of computer games, to my mind, but people tend to look at is as acceptable, because reading is universally understood to be "a good thing".

Is it possible to read too much, to the detriment of the rest of life and relationships?  As a teenager, I quite often opted out of "real life" in order to exist in the world of fiction, where unfortunate things were happening to other people, so that I could ignore the unfortunate things that were happening to me.  As addictions go, it's almost certainly more healthy than most, but I am glad I have completed the books, and that it's only a trilogy, as I cannot afford to let real life grind to a halt quite so spectacularly on a regular basis!

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Step AWAY from the computer (The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins)

I had the luxury of an extremely long, child-free train journey today, and made the most of it by reading for the entire journey (apart from the section somewhere along the Borders where I dropped off for a while).  I read some Game of Thrones, but I wasn't quite awake enough for one of the boring bits in the Dorne, and so I decided to make a start on the first book in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.  Lots of people have recommended this to me, which always serves to put me off, in a totally and utterly peverse way.  However, I decided it would be a good one to read, since there is now a film version, and I am looking around for a book to appeal to next years Year 10s.  Books with a film are always more popular, because the film can be the reward for reading the entire book.

I grudgingly read the first few pages.  After I'd read about 9% I abandoned my packet of Cadbury's Chocos (this is quite unprecendented).  After 15% I ceased any attempts at conversing with my husband, who was working, and so was probably quite relieved.  After 20% I forgot I even had a husband.  This book is seriously, seriously compelling. 

I was so tense towards the end (because obviously I couldn't stand not to read the whole thing today) that I was actually shaking.  At various points I had wept copiously (although silently to avoid frightening people on the quite packed train) and also almost shouted exclamations of fear. 

Suffice to say I would wholeheartedly recommend this book for readers aged 12+ (using your discretion, as it is quite gruesome in parts).  I am now going to step away from the computer.  I am most definitely NOT going to download the next book in the trilogy and read it until I am so ridiculously worked up that I can't sleep.  Because that would be a very silly thing to do after a fun-packed weekend which has left me completely exhausted.  So I certainly won't be heading from this browser page straight to Amazon...

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Rosie's Walk by Pat Hutchins

C needed a calming, familiar book at bed-time tonight, to deal with the traumatic event which happened just after bath-time.  We were discussing pets, and what pets we might get when we move house.  I'm still pretty much gunning for the dog option, although after the recent weather, I am not convinced that my romantic notions would fit the reality.  Anyway, C said "I want a hamster or a guinea pig."  Sometimes facts pop into my mind and then suddenly they are out of my mouth before I can think "No!  STOP!"  The other day one of the girls in my form was telling me about her friend who had had seven hamsters in the space of three years.  They had all died horrible deaths, including the one (named, charmingly, Missy) who ate her own babies.  So after C angelically declaring his fledgling hopes for his first pet of his very own, probably the thing I shouldn't have said "Sometimes, hamsters eat their own babies."  How can I describe the noise which followed?  It was a slow tremor, followed by a waaaaaaaaaaaAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH! which built up to a deafening crescendo, accompanied by spurting tears. A also cried, but is older and therefore more wise to the cruel ways of Mother Nature.  C was desolate "but then they'll never see their babies again!  If they're naughty, they can just tell them off, not eat them!"  He cried for ages.  I cuddled him on my lap like a baby.  Then MrM came home, told a joke about eating C's bottom for dinner, and he was laughing again.  Perhaps sometimes, a mother's love can be a little smothering.

Anyway, I found Rosie's Walk by Pat Hutchins for him to read at bedtime.  He's always loved this story, and it's one of my favourites too.  The Rosie in question is a hen who sets off around the farmyard for a stroll.  A fox is trying to eat her (see what I did here?  Funny story about animals eating each other!  FUNNY!  LIGHTHEARTED!)  The fox is foiled at every turn, accompanied by hilarious pictures.  There are few words, the joy is in the illustrations which are quirky and beautifully drawn.  The colours are very 1970s, I have always quite fancied a Rosie's Walk themed room in my house.  C went to sleep happy, rescued by Daddy and the power of literature from a Mummy who will make more of an effort to engage her brain the next time she feels the need to share a nugget of wisdom with her progeny.

The Internet is a wonderful place.

So I've had food on my mind a LOT today.  FOOOOOD, it's been saying.  Repeatedly.  It's Live Below the Line week, as I discovered via Christian Aid on Twitter on Sunday.  The idea is that you live on just £1 worth of food every day, for five days.  I decided to do my own variant, based on an article I read in the Times Educational Supplement the other week.  The article was about how the recession has led to many children being very hungry at school, and stated that, often, the free school meal was virtually the only food that some children consumed all day.  Although this stands to reason, I had never really thought about it too much, and it really struck me.  I have an extremely healthy appetite, and have always been lucky enough to have access to enough food to keep me going.

So that's been my week so far.  No breakfast (although admittedly I usually only eat Mini Eggs for breakfast), no break-time snack (usually a fair few biscuits and some fruit), a school dinner, and then very minimal food in the evening (so far it's been a small bowl of cornflakes each evening, tonight I am pushing the boat out with a slice of toast).  I am really, really hungry.  Really hungry.  I have been drinking big glasses of water in an attempt to delude my stomach into thinking it's full, but it's having none of it. And I've also been cheating a little bit. The worst time is early evening, when I would normally have either quite a large meal or a massive snack attack.  And this is only for one week.  It must be all-consuming when it's every single day.  And we expect these children to produce homework.

Anyway, reading Game of Thrones this afternoon was not the best idea.  I hadn't really noticed before, in my well-fed state, but George RR Martin writes about food A LOT.  Lots of really yummy sounding food.  For some reason I googled "Game of Thrones food".  Goodness me, there are a lot of blogs out there about people cooking food which is written about in books!  What a great idea!  People have been having Game of Thrones themed feasts, all over the world!  There are pics of Lemon Cakes, of which Sansa Stark is so fond, all over the web.  I particularly enjoyed www.fictionalfood.net, which was well written, and had great pictures.  If I hadn't had to go and get the kids from school, I think I possibly would have been on there for quite some time.

One of my favourite ever series of books is The Darling Buds of May series by H.E. Bates.  A lot of that is about the food - however rough life gets, the thought of a Sunday roast cooked by Ma Larkin always makes me feel a bit better.  Obviously others also derive a lot of pleasure from reading about food.  And then cooking it and making blogs about it.  Before the Internet, these people would probably never have been able to connect and share.  Without the Internet, I wouldn't have known about the appeal, which has led to a bit more insight for me into the lives of others.  The connections the internet forges can be a real source of understanding and exploration.  And you can look at pictures of Brown Broth like Arya would have eaten in Flea Bottom that someone has cooked on the other side of the world. 

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Peace and quiet, courtesy of Spongebob Squarepants

We have in our house, bought by lovely MIL but fully condoned by me, a cloth bag in the shape of the inimitable Spongebob Squarepants. I like Spongebob - it is whimsical, slightly bonkers and funny, but the characters are positive and the relationships between them are warm and supportive. It contains ten books, each based on an episode of the television show.  It hangs on the back of the door, and occasionally makes an appearance when the door stop comes out of the way, and the children remember that they own it.

Today, despite my snobbish regard for tv-tie-in books as a sub-species of "proper" books written for children, I have been deeply glad that we own them.  Both children have spent several hours today poring over them and laughing at the storylines and pictures.  They are relatively easy reads, helped along by the fact that C already knows the storylines, so he can guess at tricky words, so neither child required parental involvement in reading them. 

What price peace and quiet on a Sunday afternoon?  £9.99 for a 10 pack from the Book People.  Bargain.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Pretendy history books

I've never said "youth is wasted on the young", because I think it's a big load of nonsense.  It's not possible to appreciate the errors of youth, until you've actually lived through it and come, slightly battered, out of the other side.  However, I do think that A-Level History is, on the whole, wasted on the young.

I did  A-Level History.  I didn't particularly want to.  I wanted to do biology, but the timetable constraints were such that I couldn't.  I was quite glad in the end, as biology seemed to consist of the teacher handing out about 47 photocopied pages from an incredibly boring text book and answering inumerable questions on said pages. Not that history was much better.  It was several hours a week of listening to men who liked the sound of their own voices droning on about what I perceived to be utter ephemera to the important stuff in life (like who was going out with whom, and which pubs would let you in with your blatantly forged NUS card).

I went on to study English and had several run-ins with tutors who were historicist literary critics.  I, at the ripe old age of 19, had decided that history had no relevance to literature, and that the people who believed it did were crashing bores, living in the past.  It didn't help that all the historical material on our reading list was drier than whatever desert is the hottest in the world (I didn't much care for geography either).  If I had been told to read the complete works of Philippa Gregory, then I would have had a much deeper understanding of the main players that shaped the past.

Now, I am aged myself, and so history has become interesting.  It happened quite quickly, much more quickly than other switches that mark the passage from youth to experience.  For example, it took several years for me to go from thinking that garden centres were torture devices inflicted on you by your parents, to voluntarily going to the garden centre as a valued part of my leisure time.  I am still in the process of going from Radio 1 to Radio 4 as my default station (at the moment, it depends on my mood).  However, with history, it seemed to me that one day it was BORING, and the next, I couldn't get enough.

So, to the point.  I absolutely LOVED The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer when I read it last year.  It's a really clever piece of writing, a guide to what the modern visitor would expect to see in England of the fourteenth century.

So when I saw A Visitor's Companion to Tudor England by Suzannah Lipscomb in The Book People catalogue, I assumed from the title that it would have jumped on the Mortimer bandwagon, and would be the same sort of thing.  I was a little disappointed, as it's not, really.  It's more of a guide book to the stories behind 50 important Tudor buildings or landmarks.  It is interesting, but not quite as interesting as I thought it would be.  However, I notice from looking for the titles on Amazon, that Ian Mortimer has bought out another book, this time relating to Tudor England.  I have been very restrained and not ordered it.  Yet.

I am fully aware that people who have actually studied history would probably look down their noses at all of these books, and huffily point out the smattering of errors which defile the pages.  I would probably do the same if it were my area of expertise.  However, what I like about these books, is that they give a flavour of the past, and are not eyelid-leadeningly dull.  Although, if I'd have read them at 18, I may have thought differently.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Small Change for Stuart by Lissa Evans

What an absolutely brilliant book!  It's a real old fashioned mystery story, with only very mild peril and loads of really loveable characters.  I loved the nurturing but slightly old-fashioned nature of Stuart's family set-up. The plot is intricate, but carefully structured so that it is easy to make sense of.  There are interesting clues, which build up throughout, and lots of funny moments.  I felt most put out that I had to go to work today, and could not just get this all read in one sitting.  

The story is about a boy named Stuart, who moves town with his mum and dad, and starts to unravel a family mystery which has lain dormant for decades.

I have now read two of the novels shortlisted for the Carnegie prize this year, and they have both been spectacular (this, and A Monster Calls) and they have both been absolutely brilliant.  I really don't envy the judges having to choose this year.

A relatively straightforward read (although the Dad character writes cryptic crosswords, so there's quite a lot of complex vocab there), suitable, I would say for children of 9+, younger for reading aloud by a parent.  It's a proper children's book - not aimed at girls or boys in particular.  It reminded me a little of the brilliant The Queen's Nose