Article · Books

January Reading: New Year, New Process

My January book pile.
This year I have set myself a routine. Instead of meandering about picking books willy-nilly, based on system-less and entirely arbitrary decisions, books shall be chosen this way:
  •  monthly Old Baggage’s Book Club book, chosen by a club member;
  •  one off my ‘unread but I’ve owned it more than a year non-fiction’ pile;
As it happens ‘Persuasion‘ ticks a box on two of the challenges, so hopefully that will ease me in, and probab-, possibl-, hopefully help me stop buying books I know I’m not going to read just yet, but which I’m worried I’ll forget about if I go away and leave them on the shelf.
Now if I can just get the sound of their papery little sobs out of my head, as I walk away and abandon them…
As well as reading, this year I’ve decided to give my brain a workout and included a puzzle book. Though I’m not going to worry about trying to get through one a month.
OS puzzle tour
I’ve been eyeballing these in Waterstones for about three years now, and over the Xmas break finally took the plunge with Sinclair McKay’s Scotland Yard Puzzle Book. I had assumed that they would be far too complex for me, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that they also cater to those of us with an IQ level that more often resembles the lower end wattage of old-school filament light bulbs.They do get progressively more difficult, though, so there is a challenge there for everyone. Having mostly completed McKay’s puzzles in about a fortnight, I picked up the OS Puzzle Tour of Britain. There’s a secret cartographer hiding in a small ,quiet corner of my soul so this was an obvious choice, and it was half-price to boot. So far, so good, I’m three puzzles in and the lightbulb hasn’t blown a fuse. Yet.
This is a surprisingly ‘historical’ collection for me. I usually veer more towards crime and sci-fi. ‘Styles’* is an easy one, then, but I’m Christie-lover anyway, and anything by her can be classed amongst my comfort-reads. My copy is one of the facsimile editions released a few years ago. There is something particularly special for me about reading a book in the form the author understood it would be published in. I have also found, having now read a few, that this small hardback format, is actually very pleasant to read. They are not particularly heavy, but they have that feel of solidity, and substance that paperbacks lack, but without the bulk and stiffness of modern hardcovers.
The Austen is a different proposition. I’ve never been a fan of this genre (in my head its classed as ’19th Century middle-class soap opera’) But I’ve enjoyed, if not loved, the odd BBC production, and they are classics, so maybe it’s time to get my head down and give it a shot. Especially as this one book fulfils both Penguin’s monthly challenge, and one of MMD’s slots. 
West Winging
West Winging It, by Pat Cunnane has been on my shelf for a while. I’ve been mildly obsessed with the goings-on of the White House since the turn of the century, and (yeah, you got it) The West Wing TV series. (Thanks, for that Mr Sorkin). I’m not high brow enough to read the really in depth political books though, so I settle for the stuff that’ll fill the void left by the end of the show. The gossipy light-weight fluff that throws out an occasional detail of process whilst spilling hundreds of secrets about the people, their cock-up’s, and scandals and (hopefully) eschewing any kind of regard for the Official Secrets Act, or whatever they have over there. I’m hoping Cunnane is going to live up to all my lowest expectations.
Gentleman Jack
The last book on the pile is ‘Gentleman Jack’. This is our January book over at The Old Baggage’s Book Club.
Chosen by one of our members, I’m having a little wobble about this, too. I love non-fiction, but the flat-out truth is I’m a junk reader, and whilst non-fiction subjects fascinate me…it takes me a lot longer to read them. They have complicated stuff like, y’know…𝑓𝑎𝑐𝑡𝑠, in them. It takes more time to absorb the information they contain. Not to mention my compulsive Googling of every tiny detail that I suddenly need to know more about. So whilst I’m thrilled at the idea of learning more about Annie, I’m vaguely worried I might have to exert some effort.
So, with slightly mixed feelings about how this month is going to go (how am I going to survive with no sci-fi, no urban fantasy, no….Bryant & May?!)  it’s time to see if I can make it through the first month of my new reading routine. Or if I end up back in Waterstone’s gathering up my weeping new children from the shelves, and carrying them home to a life of comfort, genre-sectioning, and very little prospect of ever being read.

*If your first thought upon reading this was “Harry?”, then you should definitely be reading a different blog…


Reading For Pleasure Tube Map

Brilliant idea fro helping kids find new reading material

Mister Bodd

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Behind The Oil Myth – A Personal Epiphany

OK, this is not a book post – nor is it any kind of a review, it’s one of the rare ‘other’ posts I warned you I would be making.

I recently got a reminder on Facebook  of a post I made a year ago. It described the sudden realisation I had come to during a conversation with one of my kids some time previously. In light of the news we’ve had about the pervasive, invasive effects of plastics in the last twelve months I thought it worth re-sharing.

Why is the oil industry so powerful? Why can the U.S. justify going to war, and staying at war, maintaining a ‘presence’ in oil-rich countries, and why does our government keep backing them, even when (Tony Blair) they have to manufacture evidence and ignore the will of the people in order to do so? Just why are these people so all-powerful and so completely untouchable? What about renewables? We know they work, how come the Oil Industry isn’t threatened by them? I used to wonder this, and it wasn’t until one of my kids asked me that I had the sudden epiphany that answered the question for me.

Now maybe I’m late to the realisation, but when it came a couple of years ago it was pretty breath-taking and it’s occurred to me that a lot of other people may still not really understand the answer to this question, not because it’s complex or hidden but because it’s so far out into the open it’s actually invisible in plain sight.

The Oil Industry – or the Petro-Chemical Industry (which includes other fossil fuels) to give them their proper title – have their claws sunk so deep into our day-to-day existence that they are quite literally unchallengeable. And it’s not because we all like to drive our cars, or get buses or fly off on holiday; it’s not even because we like food delivered to our local shops by truck, or white goods from Taiwan by ship. It’s far more subtle and pervasive than that.

It’s plastics.

All synthetic plastics (save a minuscule percentage now recycled) derive from the fossil fuel industry. So here’s the question: How much plastic do you use every day?

Start at the beginning: were you born in a hospital? Disposable aprons, gloves masks, syringes, canulas, tubing, saline bags, blood bags; the flooring , the light fittings, the light switches, the panic button you press to bring the nurse, the bottles of medication, possibly even some of the medication itself. Are you reading this on a phone, PC or tablet? You’re using plastics. Got a TV, DVD player, stereo, mp3 player, flash drive, games console? Do you listen to vinyl records, CD’s, the radio? Use headphones? All electrical wiring is coated in plastic, and even the most basic of tools, like a saw, have plastic handles – power tools, have buttons and switches and washers, and often cases too.

Got a baby? Whether you bottle feed or express and store breast milk, use plastic spoons, bowls, cups – you’re feeding your baby courtesy of the petro-chem industry. Do you like to clean your house with environmentally friendly cleaners? Still your dishwasher, washing machine, vacuum cleaner, mop & bucket, toilet brush (bristles, even if not handle), sponges all contain plastics. Plastic seals, plastic buttons, plastic edging, plastic parts. PVC windows.

What are you wearing? Unless you’re wearing 100% cotton, linen, wool, leather, hemp or silk you’re wearing petro-chemicals – from the soles of your shoes, to, the zippers on your jacket, and the fabric of the zipper; the elastics in your underwear, the lycra in your leggings to the acrylic your jumper is made out of petro-chem products. In fact if you’re female and you’re wearing ‘nice’ underwear that didn’t cost you a years average salary then you are definitely wearing petro-chems – there’s a whole branch of plastics devoted just to lingerie. Ann Summers wouldn’t exist without plastic. Polyester, which now probably accounts for a bigger percentage of the low-end clothing market than cotton, is actually the single most common plastic on the planet. Check your clothing labels. See how much you are wearing.

Image courtesy UPSTREAM

Your carpet, the acrylic paint on your walls, the oil paint on your door frames, the little twiddly thing you’re fiddling with as you read this. The veneer coating on your furniture, your picture frames, your kitchen cupboards. Got plants? Like nature? Did you take a picture of it with your camera? Did you put your house plants in plastic pots, did you water the garden with a plastic hose? Keep fit? All that ‘gym wear’ you’re wearing, all the cardio machines you’re using – all chock full of plastics. Hell, even the gun industry got in on the action (Hello Mr.Glock).

Carrier bags, the lid on your coffee jar, the wrapping round your food, the bag your apples are in , the till you checkout through, the uniform of the person serving you. Your glasses, the aglets on your laces, the glue you use, the bowl you wash up in. Your biro, the ink in your biro, your razor, the bottle of shampoo, in fact EVERY cosmetic or cleaning product comes in something that is at least partially plastic, even the eco products. Kitchen knife handles, food processor, pan handles, storage boxes, dustbin, bin bags, the tray the chicken you bought for dinner was on, and the absorbent pad that soaked up the blood. The cover on your ready meal, the parts in the microwave you heat it in, the handles in the cutlery you eat it with, the sofa you sit on whilst you eat it, the rug under your feet (pure wool rug? check the canvas it’s woven on and the thread it’s stitched with). And on your car it’s not what goes into the fuel tank – the light units are not glass anymore, the window seals, the door handles, the dust covers on the tyre valves, the dashboard, the mirror housing, the upholstery. Your bath, your cushion-vinyl flooring. The washers in your taps, the plumbing that drains your bathwater away. The plugs. All the plugs. The socket plates, coat hangers, combs, brushes, hairbands. Jewellery, watches, activity monitors. Teddy bears, fluffy cushions, your really cosy dressing gown and slippers, and onesie. Your daughter’s nightie, her socks, her school uniform, book bag.

The cover of your paperback is coated in plastic to protect it. Glossy magazines, printer’s ink. Your washing line, laundry basket, your pencil sharpener, the window in your shed. Your reading light, the non-slip coating on the back of your bathmat. The toys your child plays with. Lego. Feltpens, crayons. Rubik’s cube, poker chips, the playing pieces in most games.

Almost every single action you take through every single day of your life will bring you into contact with plastics. Even just sitting still looking around you and realising how much of our day-to-day functioning today is facilitated by or dependent on the Petro-chemical industry, you are almost certainly in contact with plastics somehow. In fact unless you live and entirely tech free existence in a field (in which case you’re not reading this) it is actually IMPOSSIBLE to get through each hour, and most minutes, of your day without utilising plastics, however indirectly.

The ‘oil’ industry oligarchs don’t give a shit about you running your car on electricity, or powering your house from the sun – they control the single most ubiquitous product on the planet. They’re not going to take governments to war for the black stuff. They’re taking governments to war so that they can sell you your entire life, from double glazing and cheap clothes to the idea that you can have perfect skin forever, and restyle your home whenever you want.

And they can keep doing it because we consume plastic at rates we don’t even understand. And then we throw it away, and consume more because it looks slightly different, and because somewhere down the line we were sold the idea that ‘plastic’ defines ‘disposable’.

There’s a lot being said over the last few years about the disproportionate power and wealth wielded by those who control the flow of oil out of the ground: a general and growing feeling that they figure far too large in the lives and careers of the politicians who make the decisions around our daily lives: that they need to be toppled from their ivory towers and that this can be achieved – in part at least – by reducing our dependence on oil. Similarly, it might be imagined that the disturbing news of the last year regarding the insidious nature of synthetic plastics would have helped to undermine the manufacturers’ power-base, that they would finally be back-peddaling from a position of  responsiblity for such irreversible global damage.

We are deluded.

In December 2017 U.S. plastics manufacturers planned an investment boost that would increase production by 40%, and threats to convert to clean energy become meaningless when the oil companies – predictably – start moving into renewables now they are becoming profitable.

We are never going to challenge the power these people wield until we are prepared to radically change the way we live.

It’s not the politicians they own. It’s us.

Book · Graphic Novel · Review

Delightful French Children’s Tale About A Family of Gourmet Mice

The Mice of Bistrot des Sept Frères
by Marie Letourneau

The Mice of Bistrot des Sept Freres

A family of French mice own a little Bistro famous for it’s soup. One day when the Papa Mouse is out buying ingredients, including the secret ingredient that makes his soup so famous, an important critic arrives and demands the soup!

What will the seven brothers do? The don’t have the secret ingredient! Will the day be saved or will their reputation go down the drain, along with a second-rate soup? Read on, and find out!

Only the French can mix rodents and food and make it seem like a good thing 🙂


Book · Graphic Novel · Review

Other People’s Kids, Other People’s Humour…

Pico Bogue
Pico Bogue: Striking the Balance

I picked this up through NetGalley. Short version: I struggled with it.

I had hoped it would be an enjoyable, easy, and amusing read. I love the art-work but the text just fell flat. I can see where the jokes are supposed to be, where the humour should be but it just wasn’t coming across.

I suspect that this is a collection of work based on the things actual kids have said, and had I witnessed any of them in real life I probably would have found them hilarious.

I find my own kids hysterical, and I am clearly the funniest person on the planet, but other people’s kids and their parents’ funny stories rarely do it for me.

What can I say? Humour is subjective and water is wet. Other people may love this, or it may all have got lost in translation.

Books · Review · YA


A beautifully rendered YA ghost story

I’m not a big YA reader, but you can definitely sell me a book with a cover, and Pam Sym’s Thornhill is a good example. Although I didn’t actually buy it (it arrived in the staff room as part of the appraisal batch we received in advance of the Waterstone’s Childrens’ Book Award) it was the cover that pulled me in. Charmingly dark and Gothic with a moleskin-feel, and black-edged pages, I wanted to read it just so that I could touch it.*

Thornhill by Pam Sym

This is not a complex book, it’s not an original story but it is beautifully and originally delivered. I read it in a matter of hours, helped by the form of the binary narratives.

The story revolves around the lives of two lonely girls, Mary and Ella. Mary is an orphan, and Ella the only child of a mostly-absent, widowed father. Mary’s somewhat more complex narrative is delivered in a series of diary entries, whilst the simpler tale of Ella is depicted in Sym’s cleverly constructed, and beautiful black and white illustrations.

Their stories converge when Ella and her father move into a house over-looking the old orphanage (Thornhill), and Ella starts seeing a strange girl in the over-run, and fenced off grounds of the building.

There is definite homage paid to Francis Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden which not only provides clear inspiration but is actually cited as a favourite book for both girls. Mary, isolated from her peers by selective mutism, finds expression in the making of puppets which she models on characters from her favourite books. As we intersect with her story she has just begun to fashion the characters from Burnett’s book.  The two girls’ interest in each other grows to nascent friendship when Ella finds and repairs one of the puppets that had been left broken and lost in an enclosed garden in the grounds of Thornhill.

I really enjoyed this book. I felt for both girls, and felt the frustration of any parent at the poor choices made by the attendant adults in the tale, but ultimately it is a story about friendship, and how somewhere there is a friend for everyone. Though – again as a parent – I have some reservations about the conclusion as a cure for loneliness. I’m also left with the impression that there may have been another direction this book was originally taking. There are details in the story that suggested to me a different conclusion, or even another character emerging, and when that didn’t happen the attribution for certain events didn’t really ring true. That said I doubt if it is obvious enough for most of the target audience to either notice or worry about.

Overall, definitely worth the read. 

*I’m a bookseller, fondling books is one of the perks. If you think that’s weird you should be in a bookshop when two or more of us are stood around together sniffing copies of a new book and comparing it to other fragrances we have known.