Monthly Archives: June 2014

Book A Day Challenge Week 2

Time for the #bookadayuk week two collection!

Out of all the things that are my favourite things, books are definitely and forever top of the list. Sorry, potential future husband! I am both envious of and have sympathy for the poor people in the @boroughpress offices who are retweeting, favouriting and commenting way outside of office hours. Are you abusing some poor intern, Borough Press??? Good.


Day 8 – More than one copy

JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

They put a spell on me

They put a spell on me

I own this book in three languages: English, French and Spanish. I will one day own the whole series in all three. I’m currently at Eng 7, Fr 3 and Esp 1. I am a first-gen Potter fan. I was turning eleven when book one came out and I spent all summer waiting for my letter. PS is the only book in the series (in English) that I have in paperback. I couldn’t wait for the paperback for the rest. I think waiting for the next Potter book was my introduction to the frustration of reading ongoing series.


Day 9 – Film or TV tie-in


I read them first! Before they were pictures!

I read them first! Before they were pictures!

I tend to avoid buying books that have the film-related cover. I don’t think I have any of those! I have a fair few books that have since been made into films or TV shows, though!


Day 10 – Reminds me of someone I love

David Gemmell, Echoes of the Great Song

Not the original one I borrowed (which was beautiful) but the awful CGI reprint.

Not the original one I borrowed (which was beautiful) but the awful CGI reprint.

One of the first Gemmell books I read was a creased, well-thumbed paperback of Echoes that I was lent by my best friend. Whenever I read it, I think of him, and the journey we have taken together so far. Can’t wait to see where we go next.


Day 11 – Secondhand bookshop gem

Gaelic Self-taught

Ciamar a tha thu?

Ciamar a tha thu?

Language and learning languages is a big part of my life and now I live in the Highlands, it seems more important to tackle Gaelic (pronounced ‘gallic’ in Scotland) and this very dry, old-school, much re-printed little book will at some point be my guide. When I’m not busy doing everything else.


Day 12 – I pretend to have read it

Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d’Urbervilles

Getting dusty

Getting dusty

I bought it, it sits on my shelf… that’s where it’s been for years. I know exactly what happens in the story, so now I never have to read it. I studied Far From the Madding Crowd at GCSE (pre-Gove) and sort of enjoyed it, so I bought Tess and now it sits there, judging me. Like buying a gym membership and never going.


Day 13 – One that makes me laugh

George Macdonald Fraser, The Pyrates

Always a great read, sa-ha!

Always a great read, sa-ha!

Fraser also wrote the Flashman books, if you’re thinking you know the name. My dad is a big fan and while I never got into Flashman, I did repeatedly steal The Pyrates. It’s anachronistic, farcical in places, and in a way similar in style to the Princess Bride. It takes all the best of pirate stereotypes and puts them in 1950s Technicolour. Think Danny Kaye’s The Court Jester mixed with a pinch of Carry On and The Voyages of Sinbad. It makes me laugh every time.


Day 14 – an old favourite

Noel Streatfeild, Ballet Shoes

Utterly charming

Utterly charming

Another one that I liberated from my sister’s shelf. I have never read any of the other Shoe books, though I often think about it. Ballet Shoes is such a charming book. It tells the story of three adopted sisters who choose a surname for themselves as they don’t belong to anyone else. They grow up in London and end up at a stage school because their guardian can’t afford to send them anywhere else. Pauline, the oldest, is blonde and blue-eyed and becomes a good actress. Posy, the youngest, is the daughter of a ballet dancer and thinks with her feet. And in the middle is Petrova who would rather make meccano models than do embroidery. The sisters grow up fast in a house full of lodgers who are needed to pay the rent. Everything turns out alright in the end of course.


Don’t forget to use the tag #bookadayuk if you’re joining in at home, and keeeeeep reading!

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Book A Day Challenge Week 1

If you follow me on Twitter (and if not, why not?) you’ll have seen that I’ve been taking part in the Book A Day challenge. Every day in June there was a different prompt or category of book to find. I thought I would collate my responses here, so that I could give a bit more of the stories behind each choice, as 140 characters doesn’t give me a lot of room for that.

Day 1 – Childhood favourite

Alan Garner, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen

Best 4 shillings I wasn't alive to spend.

Best 4 shillings I wasn’t alive to spend.

I have posted about this book before. The copy I have is the 1963 trade paperback and it cost four shillings, back in the day. I snaffled it from my sister’s bookshelf along with the sequel, The Moon of Gomrath. I think both books were snaffled by my sister from my dad.

Why it’s a favourite: It’s a tale of two children drawn into an epic battle of good versus evil, right on their doorstep. It takes place in the real world (it actually does!) and it seeps into their mundane lives. Anyone could be an evil warlock! The owls in the barn are watchers sent by dwarves! Mineshafts are the entrances to a hidden goblin kingdom! Throughout the tale are elements of Arthurian legend, Welsh mythology and dark magic. It’s a pretty tense tale for a children’s book. It doesn’t talk down to the reader. I still read it now!


Day 2 – Best bargain

Clive Barker, Weaveworld

£3.95 at time of publication

£3.95 at time of publication

Clive Barker in 1988

Clive Barker in 1988


Apart from the picture of Clive Barker, circa 1988, in the back of the book, which was worth the £1 I paid alone, this is a stunner of a book. A whole civilisation woven into a rug to keep it safe? Some of the plot turns take a while to get your head around, and I didn’t immediately warm to Cal, the main character, but it just sucks you in and keeps going! Might have to re-read it… if only there were room on the “to-read” shelf!


Day 3 – A book with a blue cover

Laini Taylor, Dreams of Gods and Monsters

Can't wait to read it!!

Can’t wait to read it!!

Finally! The end of the Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy… I’ve not even opened it yet… it’s my latest real-book purchase. It is firmly at the top of the to-read pile. Ah, Karou… I’ve missed you! I need to hurry up and read it, because Rivka has been waiting for it too!

This prompt was based on the bookshop/library trope that people wander in and ask for “that book with the blue cover”, assuming the poor staff will know exactly what they mean.

Bonus: Here’s a round-up of all my blue-covered books! Extra points if you can name all the hidden ones at the back!




Day 4 – Your least favourite book by your favourite author

Margaret Atwood, The Robber Bride


This one didn’t steal my heart.

I began my affair with Atwood when I yoinked my sister’s copy of The Handmaid’s Tale, aged 15. She had studied it at A Level and it was covered in her notes and highlighting. Considering the themes of the book, it was a good thing I had those annotations to help me get my teeth into the text in front of me. I’ve since read a handful of her books and though there may be books I’ve re-read more often, and books that are my favourites-of-all, Atwood is my favourite author. I love her style, I love the imagery she creates and I love her complex characters.

The Robber Bride is my least favourite of the books I’ve read. Perhaps in my desperation to read all her back catalogue I was too eager to realise that this book requires some life experience. I just didn’t engage with the characters because at the time I read it, I couldn’t really sympathise with them. My experience of love and betrayal and lies was limited at that point. My life did not revolve around matrimony and suburbia and the middle classes, which of course it totally does now I’m staring down the barrel of my late twenties. I think if I read it again I would connect with it better. I have no doubt I would best identify with Zenia.


Day 5 – The one that isn’t yours

Stephen King, Duma Key



I confess, I have never read a Stephen King book. I have no desire to read the Dark Tower series; I don’t care how much you like them. I live extremely far away from pretty much everyone I am good friends with (before I met the good friends I made since moving) so when anyone from the time B.H. (Before Highlands) visits, it’s a heck of a trip.

Last year, one of those friends – an old uni housemate actually – hired some native guides and trekked all the way up here. She brought a couple of books with her, and she left Duma Key behind when she left. She says it’s good, but it just sits on my shelf in the living room so people think I’ve read it. She doesn’t want it back, either, as she is a bit crap at caring about her possessions. I’ll give it away eventually.


Day 6 – The one you always give as a gift

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

This book contains the best drawing of a sheep ever.

This book contains the best drawing of a sheep ever.

I don’t actually give books as gifts very often. I’m an extremely good gift-giver (right, J?) but on balance I’ve likely received 98% more books than I’ve given. I will give book tokens/vouchers, but people’s reading taste can be a bit too hard to judge if I don’t know them super well.

I have, however, given The Little Prince as a gift. It’s a book I own in three languages – English, French and Spanish – and one I fall in love with every time. Part of that is knowing the story of Exupéry himself, and part of that is the Prince. The story is bittersweet and timeless; a lost child in search of a way home and the adventures he has had along the way. It’s almost an Odyssey or a fairy tale. Even though I know how it ends, I still hope it will turn out differently but alas the type refuses to adjust itself.


Day 7 – Forgot I owned it

Mervyn Peake, The Gormenghast Trilogy

Gormen-ghastly to forget about it.

Gormen-ghastly to forget about it.

I am of course psychically linked to all my books, like a hivemind or a weird hoarder, so I don’t tend to forget I own books. I’m like a walking card catalogue for my precious, precious tomes. Gormenghast has been on my to-read shelf for ages, though, and my eyes tend to skip over it. Not because I don’t want to read it. No, no. I watched the BBC mini-series with Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and fell hard. I am itching to read this book. I just want to do it justice. I want to have the time to read a decent chunk of it at once and not random snatches. I have read the first few chapters already. But now it languishes. That’s as close to forgotten as I get.


There’s still time to join in #bookaday or #bookadaychallenge on Twitter. The list of prompts is below. It’s been a great month so far and I’ve made a few literary connections already. It genuinely fills me with hope for the human race that there are other people out there in the world who enjoy language, literature and the amazing infinity of words and knowledge as much as I do (and possibly more). It sounds really twee, or insincere, but I feel like I’m part of the coolest club on Earth. And there’s still three weeks to go!



#bookaday click to enlarge



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Fairy Tales

Today, on the radio, as I drove into work, I heard that Richard Dawkins didn’t think fairy tales were good for children because it might encourage them to believe in things that weren’t real, and that they should instead focus on being cynical.

I was quite annoyed about that. Then I checked Dawkins’ Twitter feed and saw what he said.

“Interesting Q[uestion] what effect fairytales might have on children. Might foster supernaturalism. On balance more likely to help critical thinking.”

To be honest, I actually agree with him on the critical thinking front. I realised that among all the positives I could come up with about fairy stories was the idea that whatever magical content the story has (witches, dragons, magical swords, talking animals) the driving force of the story is usually if you use your brain, out-thinking the villain tends to work better than anything else. The whole point is that nothing is what it seems.

Is there usually some sword action? Yes. But the end-boss-fight tends to be preceded by the hero or heroine getting the info first. There’s a helpful old woman/bird/talking cooking pot that gives guidance and steers the protagonist away from just blundering in. I’m thinking of “How Ian Direach got the blue Falcon” or “The Princess Bella-Flor” and such stories. The hero overcomes the problems and dilemmas set before him by being brave, yes, but also by being kind and listening to wise counsel.

While writing this I was  waiting for Dawkins himself to speak on BBC World Service about the issue, and get a better idea of what he actually thinks.

What do we even class as fairy tales? The first ones that come to mind are the big obvious Disney ones: Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, Rapunzel, The Little Mermaid… the ones with wilting princesses and fairy godmothers. That’s only the tip of the iceberg. I point you towards Andrew Lang’s collections of folk tales from across the world. He tracked down and wrote up oral tales that were being lost. At home, I have the Orange Fairy Book. It has stories from Scotland and Ireland, Spain, Scandinavia… and most of those are about young people (not always children) solving problems and kicking ass. They’re practical and often brutal.

Illustration by Pogany, W. (mid 20thC)

The Goose Girl (Grimm) Illustration by Pogany, W. (mid 20thC)

Dawkins seems to be all about the quest for truth. In stories like “The Enchanted Wreath”, “The Bird of Truth” and “The Goose-girl”, self-serving, lying characters do all they can to keep the truth from coming out. Eventually it always does. Of course, the premise is usually about false brides, but I guess they’re a product of their time. The point is, it’s still relevant to modern day. The wronged party sticks to their beliefs and plugs away, seeking justice or a way to get their voice heard. The more the liars work to keep the truth from coming out, the bigger the mess, and the harsher the punishment from the King/Prince/Universe. It’s also a reminder that good people, who seem intelligent, can be taken in by smooth talking.

What about Anansi and the trickster tradition? Brer Rabbit, Reynard the Fox? Those tales are all about outsmarting your adversaries. They’re about quick wits and comeuppances.  Sometimes the trickster is the one who falls into his own trap, but that teaches its own lesson: alright, be smart… just don’t forget your social skills.

Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby

Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby

Have now heard him on World Service and made some quick bullet points from what he said.

–          Fostering supernaturalism is a downside of fairy stories

–          Fairy stories beneficial for learning there are stories that are not true: can learn to differentiate between reality and fantasy, and gives children exposure to making those judgements

–          enjoyment: good to stretch the mind beyond the mundane (he points out that science  and science fiction can also fire the imagination/curiosity)

–          Child psychology issue  – why do children stop believing in Santa/Tooth Fairy/dragons but grow into adults who still believe in God? (to be honest that is an interesting question and I say that as a Christian)

–          How do we make the distinction between frog à prince and water à wine? (in his opinion both are equally fairy stories)

So I missed his point and he didn’t mention any of mine. Dawkins is arguing that stories as whole bubbles can be used to compare fantasy with reality. Not a bad point, and I think we all go through the internal process of analysing fairy tales or doing a mental check against reality when we’re children. It doesn’t take long to get the idea that in stories dogs can talk, but Mrs Next Door’s labrador can’t. That’s a natural thing and it happens anyway. I assume that’s what he means. I don’t think he’s asking parents or teachers to make children explain or write essays stating that they understand these points. We don’t have to show children a biology textbook alongside The Frog Prince, or get them to do background research on the rich/poor divide when they’re reading The Prince and the Pauper. He’s pointing out something we do without prompting already.

On the other hand, I think he’s selling kids short. Children are not stupid. The awesome part of being a youngling of your species is your endless capacity for learning. Children are infinitely absorbent sponges of knowledge be it street-smarts or academic. They are constantly adapting to new environments and experiences. They’re like natural Borg.

Joanne Harris (oh my beloved Chocolat) is quite passionate about this today. She tweeted:

“Children instinctively understand the distinction between “telling lies” and “pretending”. Why then do some adults find it such a challenge?”

and that’s a reasonable point. Children are among the biggest, meanest cynics on the planet. Anyone with a three-year-old can attest to that. They know you don’t actually have their nose, they know exactly where you hid the chocolate biscuits, and they know that a pumpkin can’t really turn into a carriage. Perhaps because from birth (until they can decide for themselves what they want to read) they are told stories, they appreciate being in on the joke. They go along with it, perhaps because they pityingly think that you still believe, but they’re not fooled. I have been fixed with the withering stare of a small child who thinks I’m an idiot for talking – outside the context of sanctioned pretending-time – about mermaids or dragons. “Poor you,” their eyes say, “you gullible fool”, before they pat me on the hand and ask for juice. Fairy stories, or any kind of fiction really, are not lies.

That’s where the enjoyment comes in. Children (and adults too!) like to pretend. Fairy stories give all children the chance to experience high adventure, danger and excitement without the need for fancy gadgets, downloadable content, or surround sound. They don’t need to worry about if they can afford it, they don’t have to share their imagination with eight siblings like they do their toys. All they have to do is let themselves dismiss reality for a while. It’ll still be there when they come back.

I really don’t want to touch the “The Bible is (not) fiction” hornet’s nest. I am a Christian who believes in God, and I don’t mind whether you do or not, or if you believe in a different God. That’s your business, as my beliefs are mine. But objectively, Jesus feeding the five thousand with the loaves and fishes, or walking on water… neither of those would be out of place in a fairy tale. Clearly there is a whole lot more to religion and faith than that, and it isn’t the main point of this post, but I didn’t want to just gloss over it. I can see why as a non-believer it would be difficult to see the difference, is all.

The two Caskets - a story of a good sister and a lazy sister who both get exactly what their behaviour deserves!

The two Caskets – a story of a good sister and a lazy sister who both get exactly what their behaviour deserves!

Critical Thinking is indeed a skill that we should all become basically competent at, and for the most part our daily decision-making is based on it; consciously or unconsciously. But there is a lot more to the contents of the stories that Dawkins seems to acknowledge. Yes, they are enjoyable and feed the imagination, but they’re also a good way of showing:

–          in order to overcome problems you need to take action

–          evil happens where good people do nothing

–          friendship and kindness are two extremely powerful things

–          helping those in need is never wasted time

–          using your brain is often more effective than physical force

–          sitting around complaining while others do the work doesn’t go well in the long run

–          schemers and liars get their bad karma dealt out to them in spades

–          there is good advice out there, if only you listen to it

The problem with all that is of course that it is intangible and unmeasurable: you can’t quantify the emotional benefits of kindness. But I find those points just as useful life lessons as Dawkins does the power of logic and analysis. People cannot be dissected and measured; they are irrational, emotional, reactive. Fairy stories help us to work through complex issues by making them manageable. Memorable simple stories stick with us through our whole lives. If we stand up to bullies, does it matter that it’s because we remember Belle standing up to Gaston? If we are brave enough to tell our boss we found some problems with their latest awesome project, does it matter that we were inspired by the boy in the Emperor’s New Clothes?

There is room for both mine and Dawkins’ opinions on why fairy stories are beneficial: as whole constructs or for their hidden lessons, I hope we can agree that everyone – not just children – should use all available resources to make informed decisions on how they live their lives. Whether that’s scouring a narrative for implausibility or remembering that showing people kindness makes people more likely to be kind to you, isn’t it just a good thing people are thinking about it?

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