Dog Songs by Mary Oliver

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Now, I’m definitely more of a cat person than a dog person. Mainly because I hear dogs require far more time and attention than does a cat. (Those who say so have not met my cat.) But this collection of canine poetry made me feel that the deficiency is mine in not appreciating the fidelity, charm and adoration of dogs as they deserve. These lovely, heartwrenching poems, seemingly mostly about the loss of beloved, loving dogs actually made me cry (admittedly I was in a nice warm bath with a glass of red wine at the time). And one made me laugh (about the dog wheedling extra breakfast out of the author). But the recurring themes are love and all-too-speedy loss, because compared to humans, dogs live such a short time, less than ten years of youth and vigour, usually. The descriptions of Mary Oliver’s interactions with her dogs (the dogs are clearly her own, with particular personalities) often take the form of their unspoken conversations, transcribed here to move and delight us.

Mutiny at Crossbones Bay

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Too hard for a five-year-old! We took Mutiny at Crossbones Bay (and a couple more from this series) out of the library, thinking it would be like Lucy and the Sea Monster, but, alas for now, it is a series for the next age range up…perhaps for eight-year olds. The text is for a confident reader, and the puzzles are time-consuming and tricky for a child who’s not come across the idea of code-cracking before. In one puzzle, a shape must be traced accurately and cut out exactly to fit over parts of the picture to reveal a secret message. Another requires knowledge of a compass and mapreading. Others call for careful transcription of the alphabet to crack the code. Mazes have gone up a couple of notches in difficulty, occasionally requiring some arithmetic. The story is pretty exciting, too, and with Swashbuckle being all the kids want to watch on TV at the moment, we were content with the piratical theme.

This series (Usborne Puzzle Adventures) is a treat for future years. I hear tell of a box set of these too.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

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OK, I should have attended my book club meeting for this one. Definitely. It might have shed some light in the darkness. Because I have to admit I didn’t really get it. I quite enjoyed it…it was no hardship trucking through the 700 or so pages with the likeable protagonist, Shadow. I managed to spot many of the thinly disguised gods that pepper the pages, sometimes extremely incidentally. I got the (anti)christ allusion, what with Shadow inexplicably agreeing to be hung on the world tree for the sake of his father Odin. I got the ‘road trip’ structure. I foresaw the sacrificed children, though I don’t see why the whole Lakeside subplot needed to be there. There were a lot of overly symbolic dreams and otherworld visits that managed to be both tiresome and scary. Nobody ever seemed to stay dead. Though Shadow’s wife’s resurrection certainly didn’t seem to take the plot anywhere. The initial premise that forgotten gods fade and die (even when exported by immigrants to America) and that we have some new ones based on trains and TV and such called things like Media (ho ho, yes I got the nod to the classics there), making a Final Battle inevitable, eventually gets supplanted with the idea that the whole battle was a con set up by Odin and Loki to supply some fresh blood. I think. Shadow stops it. I think. Or was it The Land (aka an underground buffalo)? And there were also a lot of coin tricks.

Lucy and The Sea Monster To The Rescue

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More puzzle story fun! This is a sequel to Lucy and the Sea Monster, one of the Usborne Young Puzzle Adventures, a series by different authors with titles such as Molly’s Magic Carpet and Uncle Pete’s Pirate Adventure. The series seems to be aimed at slightly older readers, perhaps newly independent readers, following on from the excellent Young Puzzles books by Susannah Leigh. As in all the puzzle tales, a child has to read a simple paragraph or two per page, and solve a small puzzle, such as spotting something integral to the next event, or finding the way through a maze. At each page turn there’s a cliffhanger fraught with the kind of excitement that bugs out a five-year-old’s eyes. And although I didn’t find the tale quite as gripping as my daughter did, the little challenges do brighten up the story by seeming to involve the reader in the success of the quest. Plus, in this one, Lucy gets to ride through the waves on Horace the friendly sea monster’s back (again) to rescue her castaway pals on Treasure Island. Pirates too, y’see. Via Chocolate Island (vicarious tasty treats as well). As far as I can tell, the main difference between this series and the Young Puzzles books is there’s a bit more reading and a bit less puzzling. Suitable for co-reading from age four, probably.

Review of Some Remarks by Neal Stephenson

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Cyberpunk fans of Stephenson’s technophile fiction know that it ranges from historical (Cryptognomicon, Quicksilver) to futuristic (Anathem, Snow Crash, Reamde). Probably only his fans will want to browse this assortment of (mostly) real-time essays – Some Remarks. Yet his blisteringly intelligent and often humorous discussion of our world’s current interconnectedness has much to interest readers of current science. I particularly recommend the (very long) article about the challenges of laying the globe-circling deep-sea cable called FLAG (from its financing and geography to practicalities such as how you can tell where the cable is broken and how you then control the slack after splicing it together) that still carries much of the data we download every day. Another in-depth article, about using a computer while walking slowly on a treadmill, is echoed in a recent New Yorker piece (The Walking Alive) – like much of William Gibson’s work, Stephenson’s insights into our future eventually reach the mainstream. Perhaps stand-up desks for all of us who spend too long in front of a screen will soon turn us into much lither touch typists. There are also some personal interviews, short stories, analyses of previous books, and the occasional political diatribe disguised as a film review (of ‘300’). Pick and mix, geek or not, enjoy. See also

Review of Reamde by Neal Stephenson

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Stephenson can slice and dice with the best of those busily rewriting our history, and sometimes our future, with the help of technology. But this is a pretty straight present-day thriller. The eponymous virus is disguised as a readme file that extorts virtual treasure from the MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) called T’Rain. Its stratigraphy mirrors that of the real world in complexity, thanks to a crew of differently skilled programmers, enabling players to ‘mine’ commodities exchangeable for real-world currency, aka Bitcoin. A fascinating sequence is set within T’Rain as its creator attempts to track his niece’s abductors through their online presence. However, the (extremely long) tale swiftly veers away from T’Rain to more familiar (though still thrilling) spy and terrorist terrain, leaving us wishing William Gibson would write another novel instead. For a more down-to-earth discussion of our world’s interconnectedness, browse Stephenson’s collection of essays, Some Remarks, particularly the one about laying deep-sea cable.

The Haunted House by Kazuno Kohara

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The haunted house

A haunted house is made into a comfy home by its new owner, a young witch, and her helpful cat. The illustrations in this quietly hilarious and fear-banishing picture book are the star of the show, each composed of woodcut prints for a silhouetted effect in three colours.

Haunted house

The ghosts are overlaid in a tactile white, very suitable for their re-use (after being washed by the witch) as smiling sheets and curtains and tablecloths…”They were all very useful.” is my favourite line. Its original storyline makes it by far the best of the three books by this author, though the other two (Jack Frost and The Little Wizard) have equally charming woodcuts.

Milo and the Magical Stones by Marcus Pfister

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Milo and the Magical Stones

I have fond memories of the Choose Your Own Adventure books I read as a child, in which some pages ended in a choice, leading you to different story strands and eventually, via further choices, different endings, usually dependent on a mixture of luck or your own clever predictions. This book is like that, but with only one choice and a blasting moral imperative. Show gratitude and conserve the world! Or die, miserable, cold and alone…This might sound annoying, yet it is charmingly told and illustrated, with the magical stones picked out in gold foil, an effect beloved of artists and viewers since the Middle Ages, and no less effective here. Mice on a pretty island live a reasonably pleasant subsistence lifestyle until one day a mouse discovers a magical stone in a tunnel, emitting light and heat. (Oh, what can the analogy be, dear reader?)

The other mice all want one too, to see them through the chilly nights, and an old wise mouse advises them to give something back to the earth for every stone, and to take only one each. In option one, that’s what they do…dutifully substituting handcrafted items for the stones and living happily and warmly in the glow of the stones forever after. In option two, of course, there’s a human-style free-for-all as the mice mine the f**k out of the island and end up with worse than nothing. I guess, if you would like to introduce your child to the ethics of using carbon fuels in an indirect way, this would be a good book to start with. Or, you could keep the moral to the idea of playground sharing, and simply enjoy the adorable mouse pictures and the fun of flipping the pages to different endings.

Frog and a Very Special Day by Max Veltuijs

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Frog and a very special day

In this heartless story, young Frog awakes one day remembering that his friend (Mole, was it?) had told him what a special day it would be, but not why. He spends the morning visiting some of his animal friends, each of whom shed no light on the matter in various annoying ways. One (Rat, I believe) even smugly says that every day is very special for him. Finally he discovers that Mole has gone out to a party. This shattering news crushes poor Frog, who dismally imagines how wonderful it would have been to attend the party too. Feeling alone, sad, uninvited and still puzzled, Frog returns home…where (no surprise even to very young readers) all his secretive pals have prepared Frog a birthday party, exactly as he’d imagined it.

Sad Frog

A happy tale, after all? I think not. Setting aside the strange idea that Frog wouldn’t remember his own birthday, I failed to see the humour in denying him the joys of anticipation, instead causing him to suffer a dreadful birthday morning. Other Frog tales by this author have interesting morals, in particular Frog and the Stranger, which deals with prejudice very clearly and engagingly, but if there’s one here, I’ve missed it. The usual pleasant, simple Frog illustrations adorn this book, and the level is possibly suitable for beginner readers.

Katie and the Bathers by James Mayhew

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Katie and the bathers cover
How to combine a visit to the Impressionists that adorn London’s National Gallery with a cooling dip on a summer’s day? Use your imagination, of course! Cheerful and adventurous young Katie is taken out for the day by her Grandma. Sadly, the swimming pool is full! But Grandma needs a rest, so they pop into the gallery, where Seurat’s glowing Bathers at Asnières ( lure Katie in for a swim in the river.

She makes friends with young Pierre, and they sit on the frame for a rest…oh no! it tips, pouring water into the gallery! A boat is needed, and luckily Seurat provided one in another nearby painting. Pissarro’s Woman Hanging Laundry helps to dry their clothes, and the ‘magician’ in Signac’s Portrait of Felix Feneon returns the river to the painting. Eventually Katie returns to Grandma.

Katie and the bathers
A wonderful way to introduce children to some of the world’s artistic masterpieces and bring them to life, I heartily recommend all of the ‘Katie and the..’ books. Then, take your children to the National Gallery, of course, where they can relive many of their adventures with Katie.