Bollocks and Ladders – Block Tech Blocks ‘n’ Ladders

bnlI must confess to being biased against this product from the outset. I have a thing against Lego knock-offs. Half the price, a tenth of the fun; the pieces never stay together properly. When my son brought ‘BnL’ downstairs to play, my heart sank. I was holding out for another round of City of Zombies. BnL was a gift from a friend at my 6 year old’s birthday party. It’s horrible choosing gifts for these occasions; I never know what to buy.  From the outside this looks a pretty good bet. Snakes and Ladders, only you build stuff as you go. Brilliant!

If only.

The board doesn’t lay flat, since it’s only a (thin) cardboard square, this is inexcusable. The pieces are in non-resealable bags. The idea of the game is to build and rebuild the specified models each play, so something to keep the pieces from being mixed up between games would have been nice. Some of the pieces are poorly moulded and it would transpire later that they weren’t all there. Then there’s the minifigures. Their faces are very badly painted on; some of them are truly terrifying. They look like ‘Good Cop, Bad Cop’ after a trip to President Business’s beauty salon.

Despite my reservations we settled down to play. The first thing that caught my eye was the casual sexism. There are four characters, three male and one female. Their roles. SWAT team Policeman, Fireman, Dinosaur Ranger and… Fashion Model *sigh*. They each have their special squares where they can use unique abilities: Catch Criminals!, Extinguish Fires!, Follow tracks!, and…er… answer the phone… *double sigh*.

Only a fashionista can take that call...

Only a fashionista can take that call…

The game itself is straightforward snakes and ladders. You roll the die, move, then follow the instructions on the square you land on. These are normally ‘Take X pieces.’ The game says it’s for 5+ but my six year old who can manipulate Lego with no problem, really struggled. The pieces don’t fit together well and so he had to keep reattaching them. To his credit it took him the entire game before he lost his temper. The instructions for all four models are one double sided piece of paper. They are tiny and only one person can use them at once. You can cut the paper in half (which we ended up doing), but because they are double sided, it still means only two people can build.

These issues are exacerbated by the fact it doesn’t actually take very long to roll a dice.  Everybody has to either sit around whilst each person builds or just keep going collecting more and more pieces, getting further and further behind with their build. Each build has a wildly different number of pieces, which might be unfair, if it weren’t for the fact we’d all collected all our pieces around the half way mark. Three of us hadn’t built our models because we couldn’t see the instructions. We just had small heaps of Flego (Fake Lego) in front of us, but pressed on up the board as fast as we could in order to end the pain. By the end of the game my 6 year old finally managed to put his helicopter together, only for us to discover that his minifigure didn’t sit in properly. At that point he had a tantrum, and who can blame him?

This is a terrible game, devoid of thought or care. It is bound to end in misery for any family that tries to play it. Had this game been made by Lego it would surely have cost three times the price, but then I would only have to play it three times to get the same value for money.

Words and Pictures – Operation Red Jericho by Joshua Mowll

redjerichoNine years ago, Joshua Mowll and I both had babies.

Well, in truth, neither of us did, but I became a dad for the first time and Joshua brought into existence his beautiful children’s novel, Operation Red Jericho. I remember vividly reading Amanda Craig’s review in the Times and thinking, I must find this book. Fortunately, I worked in Waterstones at the time, so this was a fairly straightforward process. The book was a work of art. A beautiful textured, Moleskine-like notebook, filled with the most incredible maps, pictures and diagrams. It had fold out schematics of fictional, fantastical vehicles and devices. It was something to treasure, even if I never read it.

I justified the purchase, because I had a son now, and yes I should be buying nappies, clothes and exorbitantly priced travel systems, but one day, I was going to need to read him books, and well, it’s good to plan ahead. The following year, Operation Typhoon Shore arrived and finally Operation Storm City came along too. I bought them all and they sat on the shelf until this summer.

This year, having read my son the Hobbit but floundered with the Lord of the Rings (he was insistent, but we got lost in the fog on the barrow downs), we were looking for something else to read. After a couple of false starts I pulled down Red Jericho and lured him in with the blueprint of a nemoesque subermsible. He took the bait, hook, line and sinker…

It’s fair to say he absolutely loved the adventures of Becca and Doug McKenzie. You can always tell a good children’s book, by the size of the tantrum at the end of a chapter. It’s a sad truth (or at least it is in this house) that the best books make getting the children off to sleep all the harder. The story is in the ‘Boys Own’ mould; plucky upper class children, who are far too inquisitive for their own good. Occasionally I was just waiting for somebody to request ‘lashings of ginger beer,’ but this shouldn’t put you off. Characterisation is strong, and whether male or female all have an equal part in the daring-do.  redreichosub

The plot involves disappearing parents, pirates, explosions, kidnapping, sword fights, madcap inventions and shadowy elite warriors. There really is nothing not to like. Set in Asia during the 1920s it feels historically accurate, aided and abetted by colourful maps, excerpts from mocked-up journals and blurry ‘antique’ photographs. Doug and Becca discover their parents were members of a secret society called the ‘Guild of Specialists’ but the children have no idea what they were searching for when they went missing. Becca and Doug’s investigations take them to various dens of iniquity, and situations more dangerous than they could have imagined. Running alongside are a French scientist wanted for a murder and a mysterious and powerful element, Zoridium, that has the potential to change the world.

Some of the language was a little too dense for Ethan (who’s coming up 9), he certainly would have been too young to read it himself, but as a read aloud book it was great. It provoked much pre-bed discussion.  The illustrations are peerless, and perfect for firing up the imaginations of inquisitive children. The story held his interest, and whilst there was the occasional gory bit, there was nothing to upset him. Upon finishing Red Jericho, he immediately started leafing through Typhoon Shore. I don’t think a recommendation can come higher than that. I’m not sure these books are still in print, but they are well worth picking up for they are works of art with brilliant stories. What more incentive do you need?

Connecting at Waterloo – Gordon Corrigan’s New History

waterlooThis post is not so much a book review as a thank you to Alison at Atlantic books.  When the last Atlantic books catalogue came out there was, as ever, several titles that interested me. I’m gradually learning not to gorge myself on the titles offered in these glossy brochures of temptation, because I just end up feeling guilty about the pile of unread books stacked on the shelves. One book that did catch eye, though I knew I’d never read it, was Gordon Corrigan’s Waterloo: A New History of the Battle and its Armies. I wouldn’t read it; my dad however would love it.

Those of you who read regularly will know that my Dad suffers from Parkinson’s. This is a great source of sadness in my life, and the posts about it aren’t particularly cheery. All through my life Dad has spent his spare time, either in the garden or surrounded by toppling piles of history books about Wellington, Napoleon and the Battle of Waterloo. He is an amateur historian, but he loves it. I figured he’d love this book, but there was a problem. Dad’s Parkinson’s makes it very difficult for him to read. When he’s off, and forced to sit in a chair, he can’t hold a book or turn the pages (or even operate a touch screen).  When he’s able to move, the last thing he wants to do is sit in chair.

My passion for books (and maps) comes from my Dad. His reading of the Hobbit to me as child engendered a love of fantasy. He helped me cross the traverse between solo gamebooks and roleplaying games, by patiently reading Jackson and Livingstone’s ‘Fighting Fantasy‘ to me. I used to spend hours with him as child pouring over the almost fantastical maps of ‘Muir’s Historical Atlas‘, a book I love looking at even now.

Once I’d grown up, for Christmas and birthdays, it became a challenge to find a book that would interest my dad; usually military history, hopefully on some aspect of the Napoleonic Wars he wasn’t fully conversant with. Then, about seven or eight years ago, I noticed he didn’t read them any more. Even now I find myself thinking, ‘Dad would like that’ but there’s almost no point in buying it for him. It will sit unread.

This cut out a great shared experience. For as long as I remember we’ve talked about books, bonded over them. Whether it be an Ian Rankin, a historical novel, or military history tome, we’ve talked about books. Even when it was just him indulging me by listening to my teenage-self bang on about the latest plans for my Warhammer Army. Parkinson’s, that bastard of an illness, steals the person away gradually; so slowly you almost don’t notice it. The theft of conversation is its most insidious trick of all.

Nevertheless, I asked Alison whether she would mind sending me a copy. I explained to her that I’d probably never review it, that it was for my dad and he’d quite possibly never read it. Despite this she was kind enough to send me a copy. It arrived around father’s day, and I sent it to him with a card and he thanked me for it, and then, I guess I sort of forgot about it…

At the end of July dad moved down here for the summer. Some temporary respite for my mum, he took up residence in care home around the corner from us, which is great because we can see him regularly and he can enjoy his three grandchildren without them driving him crackers and exhausting him.

I noticed he’d brought his Waterloo book with him.

‘Are you reading this?’ I asked.

‘Yes.’ he said, ‘It’s good. So good, I actually want to finish it.’

It’s hard to sum up what high praise this is. Gradually, over the summer, dad worked his way through the book. To maintain his interest despite the difficulty of reading, makes it a rare book indeed. Better still it rekindled conversation. It’s not only that talking is physically difficult for dad. His frame of reference has shrunk so much in the recent years, it’s hard to sustain conversation when you see him everyday. There’s only so much we can talk about football. The book reignited his passion for all things Napoleonic and he talked animatedly about it.

I’m not an expert in this area at all but this is what he thought of the book.

Dad liked the narrative style. It overlooks the battle as whole, and not just from one side or point of view. It’s authoritative; whilst it takes an omniscient view of the battle, the available evidence is interpreted in one way only. Other interpretations are available but they are not offered here.  This clearly might not be to everyone’s liking but it met with dad’s approval.

There is lots of background information and it’s covered well. The battle itself doesn’t start until after halfway through the book. This is unusual, and contained some information that dad hadn’t heard before. There are details about Napoleon becoming emperor placed in context of the French revolution. There is lots of stuff about the preliminaries before the conflict; more of the book isn’t about Waterloo than is. Of the stuff that is about Waterloo, dad didn’t find anything he thought was wrong, greatly adding the book’s authority. The subject of  the latter part of the book, the battle itself, has been extensively written about elsewhere, so there are less revelations. In short the first half of the book is excellent and enlightening, the latter half is solid and well explained, if unremarkable.

Gordon Corrigan’s interpretation of Waterloo, met with dad’s approval and has spurred several father and son conversations, which has greatly improved my understanding of the period. It’s enabled dad and I to talk about something that goes beyond ‘how are you feeling today?’ and for that I am eternally grateful to Gordon for writing his book and Alison for sending me a copy. Last night dad I were discussing the aftermath of Waterloo, whilst I used my phone to check facts on Wikipedia (well hopefully they were facts). 21st century bonding stemming from a 15th century innovation, discussing 19th century history. Parkinson’s may be shit, but the world can be an amazing place.

Many thanks to Alison at Atlantic for sending me this book. May the sun shine upon her always! 

There and Back Again, Again – The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

the-hobbit-unwin-paperbackI recently launched my limited-interest, single-member book club, based on Jo Walton’s What Makes This Book so Great.  I’ve focused on the books Walton discussed that I’ve yet to read, which is ironic as the basis of Walton’s essays is the rereading of books. I hadn’t planned to reread any. I completely forgot that even at the time of writing the original post, I was reading my oldest son the Hobbit. So here is a bonus post, about Tolkien, fatherhood and where my love of reading began.

But first here’s Walton’s essay.

She talks about the wonderful rhythm of reading the Hobbit aloud, and it’s instantly recognisable. From the moment I started with,

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.’  

we were both mesmerised by the beautiful cadence, and richness of the language. I was immediately transported back to the time I was eight and my dad sat on the edge of my bed reading me exactly the same words. That magical introduction is the very reason I’m sitting typing these words. In these nineteen chapters my love of books was born. Not only that, a love of fantasy and a lifelong addiction to boardgames and roleplaying games.  

I must confess, although having the book read is one of my most cherished childhood memories, my respect for The Hobbit had waned over the years. Whilst I remember being read to with crystal clarity, my recollections of the story were rather hazy. I berated the film version for messing up the bit with the trolls, but actually it was closer to the book than the version I’d remembered. I was amazed how quickly the dwarves arrived in Rivendell and how little they did there. Did Beorn always have animal servants? I realised for the first time that the path on the map the cleaves straight through Mirkwood, that’s not the one they take. (Considering how many maps and atlases of Middle Earth I own this proves my mum was right; it was all a waste of money.)

I think the biggest spike in my love of the book came from a terrible stage production I saw many years ago. From necessity it stripped out all of the travel, so Bilbo and the dwarves crashed from one unlikely escapade to the next. The whole thing was condensed to a procession of incompetent pratfalls followed by implausible escapes. It showed the limits of the story. If you rip out the history and description there’s not much left. (As a digression, I think the 2nd two LOTR films do this too.) Now having reread it, I was surprised how sophisticated the story is. Bilbo’s sleight of hand with the Arkenstone, I’m sure was lost on me in my early readings, likewise, the cleverness of the thrush being instrumental in Bilbo saving the day. I had to explain both to Ethan, as they had passed him by, although he did guess what Bilbo was going to do with the stone.

I worried about reading him The Hobbit, more specifically concerned about how it would compare to the mighty juggernaut that is Harry and Hogwarts. My recollection is that in 1980 I’d had zero exposure to fantastic literature. The Hobbit was unlike anything I had ever encountered. These days just about every kid over five has heard of Harry Potter. Ethan has read them all, and loved them, consuming them like an addict. I was afraid the more verbose language of the Hobbit would feel leaden compared with that of JK Rowling’s books.

Beyond that, the commercialism of everything popular could well dent his love of the books. When you can buy a Lego Gandalf with a key chain sticking out of his head, it rather ruins the mystique. I need not have worried, by the time the dwarves were threatening to ‘Chip the glasses and crack the plates!’  he was hooked. There’s nothing like having a child begging you to read just a bit more to tell you how much they are enjoying it.

He loved it from start to finish, quite possibly because I was so animated reading it to him, but everything interested him. The maps (clearly a chip of the old block), the place names and the battles. He was practically jumping off the bed when Bilbo was creeping down the passage towards Smaug, and he was fascinated to know where Gandalf had gone. I seem to remember being disappointed once the wizard had left, because he was one of my favourite characters.

So, that’s one child indoctrinated with a passion for Tolkien. Just two more to go. It’s hard to sum up just how much pleasure reading his books has brought me over the years, but nothing compares with sharing them with my children. At the time of writing, we have inevitably embarked on a bigger project. We stand at the beginning of chapter 3 of The Lord of Rings. With Ethan, myself and one of the finest books ever written, three is definitely fine company.

 

 

Bleak House – Arms Wide Open by Tom Winter

arms‘They sit in silence at first, the two of them sharing in a holy communion, the transubstantiation of mere chocolate into feelings of love and security.’

It’s always nerve-wracking picking up a new novel from a writer when you’ve loved their previous work. Tom Winter’s Lost and Found was one of my novels of 2013. I even got my book group to read it and they all loved it too. How would Arms Wide Open compare, could it possibly live up to my expectations?

Probably not.

In tone and humour the books are very similar. Winter is very good at highlighting the absurdities of life. Trite though it may be to say it, his observations are funny because they’re true.  What made Lost and Found for me, is that the whole cast of characters had a perfect synchronicity.  They worked together in unison, separate notes combining to make a beautiful ensemble piece. Arms Wide Open has a wider cast, and there a few characters are slightly off key. Both novels, I think, are very English affairs and the introduction of two American exchange students in Arms Wide Open didn’t quite work for me.

The overall tone here is different too. Lost and Found is bittersweet, and ultimately redemptive. Here there is redemption of sorts, but the story is more bleak and the finale is more bitter than sweet. So on finishing Arms Wide Open, I wasn’t left with a warm fuzzy feeling that I had with L&F. Rather than ‘life throws curve balls, but good things do happen’, it’s more ‘life’s a shitty mess and then you die’; probably forgetting who you are.

So because I didn’t enjoy Arms Wide Open as much, it’s tempting to dismiss it as an inferior novel. After all, total enjoyment is a pretty good qualifier for measuring the quality of an experience. But what if it’s me? Maybe I don’t like the book as much, because it didn’t offer the redemptive assurances I was looking for? If that’s the case, maybe it’s a better book. It reflects my own life, my own fears and worries; it’s not the pages of a book I’m staring into, but an abyss. This stirring up of negative emotion might make it a stronger book.

OK, the abyss thing was overstating it, but here’s why I found the book discomfiting.

When reading Lost and Found I was 39. 40 was only a few months down the way, but not yet reached. Despite being not overly worried about this milestone, it did hit me quite hard when it finally arrived. Now, I’m 41. Closer to 80 than to birth (as my 8 year old helpfully pointed out this week). There is suddenly a feeling that my best years are behind me. I’m probably not going to set the world alight now (see my Stoner review).Things ache more than they used to. Nights out, are not only rare, but also require about 3 days to get over. The world is not so much an oyster but a mountain of dirty washing. My marriage, whilst not over like Meredith’s, is after ten years and three children starting to calcify. There is the sense, as Winter puts it, that,

‘…it’s like life is made of concrete or something and I’ve already set. No one tells you when you’re young that your life is going to harden and solidify, That you wake up one morning and find it’s turned to stone and that you’re not actually some architectural marvel, you’re a pavement.’

This is wonderfully, beautifully spot on. It’s also bloody depressing. In addition to picking out my deepest neuroses directly from my brain, Winter backs this up by writing about degenerative illness. As any regular readers of my blog (should there be any) will know, my Dad has Parkinson’s. A comparatively slow degenerative illness compared with Jack’s, but the idea of personalities being subsumed by illness is one that strikes a chord with me at the moment. The third strand of woe that Winter tugs at is the parent-child relationship and he pretty much sides with Philip Larkin. As my children grow up and the teenage years loom ahead of us, books like this strike terror into my heart. Winter is a fine chronicler of the agonies and ecstasies of family life (with heavier focus on the agony).

All in all it’s perhaps not surprising that I came out with idea that I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I’d hoped. Whilst I didn’t get my redemptive resolution of Lost and Found, on reflection I find it impossible to know which of Winter’s two books is the best. What I do know if you want someone to display the absurd side of life, whilst dealing with some serious themes, and if you want to have the occasional belly laugh, you could start by reading Tom Winter.

Many Thanks to the team at Corsair for sending me a copy of this book. 

Animal Pictures – Animal Kingdom Infographics by Nicholas Blechman

information-graphics-animal-kingdomI love infographics. I can lose hours staring at them. But whilst they’re pretty, and feel informative, I’m not sure how much of the information actually sticks. This could well be my mind, but I find Infographics are great to display a particular point, (where they can be very persuasive),  but I don’t find them useful for retaining factual knowledge. Having said that, I reiterate, I love infographics.

Animal Kingdom is a beautiful book. It’s vibrantly coloured, has tabbed pages for ease of use and contains all sorts of interesting tidbits of information contained within. It’s broken down into 8 sections. These are mostly unrelated to one another, and the order appears arbitrary (Species, Senses, Record Breakers, Food & Drink, Family, Habitats, Killers and Man’s Best Friend). This sections do not build on each other nor is the information grouped by species, habitat or location. That’s OK as the sections are well labelled, and the tabs to help you locate the section you are looking for. Having said that, there is no index. So if we were doing homework (for these book are aimed at children), we’d probably be more likely to plum for one of our more traditionally arranged books. The lack of index is, I think, a criminal oversight.

I gave the book to my 8 year old to read. He is probably at the lower end of the age range this book is aimed at. He liked it. The visuals he found interesting, and there isn’t too much text to switch him off. He did keep reading for a reasonable length of time.  His major comment was, he liked it, but ‘preferred books that were arranged by type of animal.’ As I said, he is at the lower end of the range of this book, and is still at that ‘I want to read about sharks’, phase of using non-fiction books. Animal Kingdom takes a more holistic approach to its information.

This is a nice book, made with high production values. It’s very pleasing to the eye, and it’s great to browse through. Quite what its longevity would be, I’m not so sure.  It strikes me as the sort of book that would sit on the shelf; admired but rarely used. As I own a host of infographics books that I rarely read, perhaps that’s a personal failing rather than one of the book. A lovely book then, but probably a luxury rather than an essential purchase.

Thanks to the team at Templar Publishing for sending me a copy of this book 

 

City of Song and Stories – Ghoulish Song by William Alexander

gholishGhoulish Song is a companion novel to William Alexander’s exemplary children’s story, Goblin Secrets. I say companion, for it is not a sequel. The events of the two books run concurrently.

In Goblin Secrets, the focus of the tale was acting. Here it is music. After being given a flute by a Goblin troupe (the same that featured in Goblin Secrets), Kaile the baker’s daughter plays a tune on it. A small event with strong repercussions. After finishing the tune, Kaile discovers her shadow has been severed. It’s still there but is now a living, speaking moving entity with a mind of its own and a fear of the dark. To make matters worse, in Zombay, tradition holds that those without shadows are freshly deceased. Unquiet ghouls unwilling to make the journey into the next life. Kaile’s family and friends shun her, casting her out, ignoring her existence, but it turns out the penalty for bring dead could be a whole lot worse.

As in Goblin Secrets there are two tales here. There is the quest, in both books, the desperate search for a reunion but beyond that there is the wider story of the river and the arrival of the floods. In both cases the fate of the city is bound up with the arts. The theatre in Secrets and music in Song.

This book isn’t quite as good as its predecessor, but as I think there is a strong case for making Goblin Secrets my all time favourite children’s book, this is not wholly unexpected. I found the driving force behind the story is less compelling. There is no scary Graba hunting Kalie down and the quest to track down her shadow is less emotionally engaging than the hunt for Rownie’s brother. The fact that Kaile’s family and friends think she’s dead, when she clearly isn’t, felt arbitrary and therefore less intense. The comparative lack of goblins was also a bit of a blow.

That’s not to say there isn’t much to love about the book. I love the idea that in a city countless stories are unfolding. It’s an idea often forgotten in children’s stories. Invariably there is only one story; everything else is everyday life. There is no background to the settings and children’s tales can be exciting but two-dimensional. Not so Zombay. The band of musicians Kaile falls in with are a great group of characters and there is also the reliquary, which, despite being hard to say when reading aloud, is one of the creepiest and well imagined places in children’s fiction.

In Zombay and its arts, William Alexander has created a wonderful setting for his stories. Once again his prose sparkles, shines, smells and bustles. The city is alive, with history and tradition and is filled with fascinating people and customs. Alexander’s pair of Zombay novels are a cut above what else is out there for children aged 8+ and I can’t wait to see what story comes our way next. It’s impossible not to speculate; saving the world through interpretive dance?


Many thanks to the Sam and the team at Much in Little/Constable and Robinson for sending me a copy of this book