Review: The Midnight Library

Have you ever imagined how your life might have turned out if you had taken a different decision at some point? If you had taken a job you turned down? Said no to something you didn’t really want to do but still did? Or simply allowed yourself to follow your dreams?

Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library is about exactly this scenario; Nora Seed decides to end her life but instead ends up in the Midnight Library where, thanks to a fairy-godmother-like librarian, she is given the option to try out all the other lives she could have had. In doing so she reflect on what her regrets are and whether life really is so miserable killing herself is still what Nora thinks is best.

Although the opening may unsettle some readers this novel could work really well as a book group read or an inspiration for a creative writing group. Sensitively handled it could also work in helping to discuss mental health issues and taboos around suicide. An easy and quick read, The Midnight Library isn’t as funny or insightful as some of Haig’s earlier books but it is one that could spark interesting conversations and personal reflections.

[Reviewed for FOLIO by Zoe]

Book review: Summerwater

A wonderfully atmospheric moody window into a brief moment of time, with glorious utterly, believable characterisation, Summerwater by Sarah Moss is like a film in slow motion, with a growing sense of trepidation as you move towards the final moments where the dreamlike quality will suddenly speed up leaving you as if woken in shock from an unnerving dream.

Set over just the few hours of the longest day of the year, in a Scottish holiday chalet park where the incessant rain means there is little to do but watch others who are also trying to survive another dreich day, Moss brilliantly gets under you skin with her seemingly effortless acute observations. Deliciously written and easily devoured in a single sitting.

[Reviewed for FOLIO by Zoe]

Book review: Humankind

2020 isn’t proving to be an easy time to remain optimistic. But if you’re looking for something that might help you feel hopeful, Humankind by Rutger Bregman, part philosophy book, part call to arms, is a stimulating and easy-to-read place to start.

To paraphrase Bregman, these might be the most challenging words you read this year:

“Most people, deep down, are pretty decent”.

With the Cummingses and Trumps of this world filling the headlines recently, it might be hard to believe that statement, but what Bregman’s book does is walk you through lots of stories and arguments to try convince you that yes, human beings are indeed fundamentally good. Not only that, if we were to wholesale start acting if we believed in our species’ essential goodness, the world could be transformed in a truly exciting, beneficial, enriching way.

Wide-ranging stories -from a real-life case echoing the Lord of the Flies basic plot line, to the puzzle of the statues on Easter Island, via gene research done on domesticating foxes and the infamous and terrifying psychological experiments carried out by Milgram and Zimbardo – form Bregman’s canvas for exploring the varied arguments in favour and against the claim that is widely made (including by many religions); that we’re born bad.

And it’s a challenging read.

“Belief in human kind’s sinful nature also provides a tidy explanation for the existence of evil. When confronted with hatred of selfishness you can tell yourself, ‘oh well, that’ just human nature’. But if you believe that people are essentially good, you have to question why evil exists at all. It implies that engagement and resistance are worthwhile, and it imposes an obligation to act.” (my emphasis)

To inspire us, Bregman then goes on to explore a number of ways around the world a different, more positive, constructive approach has been taken, whether that is the participatory democracy seen in the Venezuelan principality of Torres, the Norwegian prison system where inmates are treated as people not monsters, or the story of how South African avoided all out civil war in the months leading up to the inauguration of Mandela as the first President following the Apartheid era.

It’s an encouraging and exhilarating read.

I’ve a t-shirt which says “Read books: Complicate your point of view”. This is certainly a book to do that. Whilst much of what Bregman convincingly argues for is exciting and uplifting, at times things pop up that worry me. If you’re an introvert, Bregman’s argument that sociable people are smarter won’t sit well. If you believe changing human behaviour is a key plank to mitigating climate catastrophe, you’ll be frustrated by his rather glib faith in our ability to invent our way out of the environmental disaster we are facing. He also makes an argument for empathy being a bad thing…

You may believe that it’s unrealistic or idealistic to believe that people are fundamentally kind and good, but I for one, want to believe Bregman’s arguments. Bregman’s proposal that we fundamentally restructure how we act, either as individuals, groups, organisations or countries, so that at all stages we are informed by a belief in better, in goodness, and in hope is one to make you feel optimistic even in these hard times.

[Reviewed by Zoe for FOLIO]

Book review: Together

There are many things we use all the time without really paying attention to them. That’s normal and even helpful a lot of the time; life would slow down impossibly if we couldn’t move relatively seamlessly through certain tasks or activities.

And yet it can be refreshing to stop a while and see something familiar in new light, to reflect on what we take for granted or what we assume must always be done a certain way because we’ve simply never wondered if there’s a different way to do things.

During the Covid-19 lockdown many of us have had the opportunity to think again what it means to be together, what it means to be lonely, and what we can do whilst we’re alone (or living on top of one another?) to keep our sanity as we go through this period in history at the same time but apart.

Together by Vivek Murthy was conceived a long time before any of us had heard the word coronavirus, in a time when lockdown was a word normally associated with prisons rather than everyday, all day life for millions across the world. And yet, with his generous, engaging exploration of “Loneliness, health and what happens when we find connection” Murthy (Surgeon General of the United States under Obama) offers an pertinent, inspiring if also, at times, worrying read.

Insights from scientists about the causes of loneliness and how it physically and mentally impacts us form the first half of this book. Stories from people engaged in creative, thoughtful and kind ways to bring people together to reduce loneliness fill the remainder of the book, and whilst this is no self-help-how-to guide, so many different ideas are presented, so many different but effective ways of making a difference are shared, it’s an essential read for anyone who wants to make a difference, especially those who programme events and activities, whether in work, in clubs and community groups, or even at home.

Whether it is GPs making the most of social prescribing i.e. recommending “resources and activities in the community that can help patients forge health social connections”, the US mayor who decided to turn his city into a City of Kindness, the neighbour who started street potluck meals, the university student who created Space Gatherings where fellow students could leave social expectations about student life at the door, the (now) worldwide Men’s Shed movement, telephone helplines like Silver Line, or school projects which encourage anonymous acts of generosity, Together is packed with a rich buffet of examples that can inspire and give hope.

An exhilarating germane read. A must for anyone who wants to make a difference, especially as we move forward to life beyond lockdown, where – surely – the only way to rebuild will be together.

[Reviewed by Zoe for FOLIO]

Book Review: The Perfect Shelter

At a time when parents around the world are trying even harder than usual to create happy, safe spaces at home, and children are being faced with all sorts of difficult emotions including fear and anxiety, The Perfect Shelter written by Clare Helen Welsh and illustrated by Åsa Gilland is poignantly relevant and comforting.

Following the hopes and fears of a young family when a child becomes ill, The Perfect Shelter manages a graceful balance between exploring the the fear, anger and sadness anyone can feel in such circumstances, with the love, hope and kindness that such experiences can also nurture.

Unpatronising and gentle, the text is kind and honest. The illustrations, with lots of leaves, flowers and nature imagery, are just as refreshing and soothing. The story begs to be brought to life with the making of your own shelters and dens, whether with cushions and sheets, boxes and blankets or twigs and leaves. As well as being serious and sensitive, this is a playful and joyous book.

Whilst the story follows the arc of one (unnamed) illness , from the days before the family had any awareness of it, through to an optimistic ending, the parallels with the situation we are living in at the moment make this book especially moving, and will also perhaps give it a wider readership. Whereas before such a story might have been found on then “When a book might help” shelf in school or library, it can instead be read as a mirror to our times, and as such it will provide much comfort. Really, though it is disguised as a book, The Perfect Shelter is a hug for us all.

[Reviewed by Zoe for FOLIO]

An interview with author Donna David

Donna David is a West Midlands based children’s author who we spotted in the audience at our Bookfest earlier this year, and when we learned she had a new book out this month we were keen to help spread the word about it.

Oh No, Bobo! is the story of a little orangutan on the search for the perfect pillow to fall asleep on. He plucks a feather here and a tuft of hair there but this upsets his jungle friends. When Elsie the elephant enthusiastically strokes Bobo in an effort to cheer him up, it is now Bobo who gets very upset. He didn’t ask for a cuddle or want Elsie to get so close. With a little bit of help from Elsie’s Dad, Bobo and Elsie go on to learn about the importance of asking permission – even when just trying to be kind.

With its bold and appealing illustrations, Oh No, Bobo! is a sweet and gentle story about personal space and being considerate. It offers a quiet and sympathetic way to have an important (and topical) discussion with the youngest of children.

To learn a little more about the author of Oh No, Bobo! FOLIO asked Donna if she would share with us a selection of books that have been key in her life, books which helped her become a reader, and a writer. Here are the books she chose, along with her comments about them:

Stig of the Dump – Clive King (illustrated by Edward Ardizzone)
“This is one of the first books I ever remember reading at school. According to my mum, I read voraciously from a very young age but we didn’t own a huge amount of books. We were regulars at the library though and I feel incredibly lucky to have lived within walking distance of our local library.”

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
“I read Jane Eyre at GCSE and again for my English A Level. Then, when I got to university, I read it again as part of my degree. You’d think I’d be sick of it by now but I’m not at all. I must have read it over thirty times and I can still pluck a Jane Eyre quote out of thin air!”

Mucky Duck – Sally Grindley and Neal Layton
“My daughter had this book for her first birthday and we LOVED it. She called it ‘Muh Duh’ and would ask for it most days. It’s about a little boy called Oliver and his friend, Mucky Duck. I could relate so much to the poor parents who cleaned everything up, only for Oliver and Mucky Duck to create a mess almost instantly!”

Once – Morris Gleitzman
“All three of my children read this book in Year 6 and, despite being very different characters, they all adored it. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about so I read it myself. I couldn’t put it down! I was so affected by it. Morris Gleitzman doesn’t shy away from the atrocities of the Holocaust and I was blown away by how he could convey something so horrific but still make it suitable for his ten-year-old readers. Gleitzman’s skill is phenomenal and it made me want to write for children.”

Never Tickle a Tiger – Pamela Butchart and Marc Boutavant
“After realising I wanted to write for children, I threw myself into reading across the age groups, from picture books right up to Young Adult. When I read ‘Never Tickle a Tiger’, I knew that I wanted to write for 3-6 year olds. You can be incredibly playful with language and no idea is too bonkers!”

Julian Is a Mermaid – Jessica Love
“This is my favourite picture book of 2019. The illustrations are beautiful and the story telling goes much deeper than the words on the page. It tells the story of a little boy who wants to dress up as a mermaid, and the love and acceptance he gets from his grandma. ‘Julian is a Mermaid’ showed me that picture books can convey subtle and gentle (but important) messages to very young children. I wrote ‘Oh No, Bobo!’ in response to the #MeToo movement and ‘Julian is a Mermaid’ showed me that there was space for books like this.”

All these books are in the Birmingham Libraries catalogue, and you can borrow an eBook version of Jane Eyre via Libby, if you have a Birmingham Libraries membership card.

Find out more about Donna on her website https://www.donnadavidauthor.com/ or follow her on Twitter @donnamdavid.

Oh No, Bobo!‘s illustrator is Laura Watkins. You can find out more about her on Instagram, https://www.instagram.com/watkinsillustrations/ or her website https://watkinsprints.co.uk/about/

Thank you Donna!

Book Review: The Vanishing Trick

Magic and mystery abound in this delicious and exciting tale of deception and hope set in the Victorian era, perfect as a family read-aloud or for upper primary school aged children to enjoy.

Madame Pinchbeck, glamorous but evil, makes her money by persuading people she can communicate with the dead and summon up ghosts. Her seances are quite the theatrical spectacle, made all the more convincing by the orphan children she has kidnapped and trained, and over whom she has mysterious control.

But the children have had enough and want to escape, and in doing so expose Madame Pinchbeck for the fraud she is. Will they have the strength? Will they be able to break the magic? Will they overcome their differences to work together as a team?

The Vanishing Trick by Jenni Spangler draws the reader in to a wonderfully imagined world, with a brilliant mix of beautiful descriptive detail balanced with great pace and a story arc full of momentum. There’s a character for every reader to love; I can already imagine lots of world book day costumes based on this lovely book which, with its intertwining of fairy tales, along with historical setting, gives lots of scope for extension activities.

My e-review copy didn’t have any illustrations, but I’m looking forward to seeing a published copy of this book as it has illustrations by Chris Mould – the ideal illustrator to pair with this spooky story.

A perfect mixture of thrills and triumph, ideal for fans of Abi Elphinstone or Peter Bunzl , this is a delightful tale reminding us it’s not necessarily blood that makes you family, its love.

[Reviewed by Zoe for FOLIO]

Some links inspired by The Vanishing Trick
https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/12824/12-weird-vintage-pictures-s%C3%A9ances

https://twistedsifter.com/2013/09/hidden-artworks-on-the-edges-of-books/

Book Review: Funny Weather

I’m hoping you have never heard of Olivia Laing because then you’ve got a treat in store. I hadn’t before I picked up this book, its title enticing me as I sought something to give me hope or to excite me during Covid-19 lockdown.

If you are already a fan (it turns out Laing is a well established writer and critic) you will likely have already read the essays collected in Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency (most were previously published as articles in the Guardian, frieze and New Statesman, as well as elsewhere). If, however, Laing’s name is at best only vaguely familiar, and if, like a beachcomber, you enjoy looking for curious objects to pick up, turn over and contemplate, this book during this period might well bring you delight.

A rich collection of mini biographies, interviews or reflections on artists in the broadest sense including musicians and writers, this book works as a tasting menu with many flavours and textures. Some offerings bring the comfort of familiarity, others extend your palette, sometimes out of your comfort zone, but always leaving you glad for the experience.

Reading Funny Weather was for me an example of ‘reparative reading’, an idea Laing returns to at several points in her collection, explaining it as being “fundamentally more invested in finding nourishment than identifying poison. This doesn’t mean being naive or undeceived, unaware of crisis or undamaged by oppression. What it does mean is being driven to find or invent something new and sustaining out of inimical environments.”

The inimical environments Laing is referring to are often the backgrounds of the various artists she writes about, the poverty or prejudice they experienced. It also refers to the political climate in which many of her essays were written – first the economic downturn, then the change in the political landscape, not just in the UK but also the US, as well as the fracturing of communities through Brexit campaigning and the referendum. It is almost disconcerting, the prescient relevance of her reflections, now we find ourselves experiencing another crisis, though this time not primarily financial or political, but instead a worldwide health emergency.

I read a digital review copy of the text for this book, so I’m not sure if the printed version will feature any illustrations. I really do hope each essay will be accompanied by an example (or more) of the art discussed; you’ll find yourself intrigued, even excited by Laing’s descriptions of the art she describes, and will want to see for yourself what provokes and draws out her thoughtful enthusiasm.

At a time when we’re experiencing an insular life, largely confined, hoping to feel connected to something larger and more satisfying than the swiping of news feeds, this collection of essays is a treat, opening doors to wonderful journeys exploring new places, people and ideas. In one essay, Laing quotes Ali Smith, “Art is one of the prime ways we have of opening ourselves and going beyond ourselves.” Laing’s art – her words and generous reflections – enable us to do just that.

[Reviewed by Zoe for FOLIO Sutton Coldfield]

Several books by Olivia Laing are available through Birmingham Libraries, though not (at the time of posting this review), Funny Weather. If you wish to purchase a copy of Funny Weather through Amazon, please consider choosing FOLIO Sutton Coldfield as the charity to benefit from a small donation with your book purchase, by signing up for Amazon Smile (see here for details: http://foliosuttoncoldfield.org.uk/support-folio-with-amazon-smile/). Another way you can support FOLIO is to sign up to Easy Fundraising (https://www.easyfundraising.org.uk/causes/folio/) and then purchase the book through Waterstones, The Book Deposistory, HIVE or Abebooks.

Book Review: The Not Bad Animals

The Not Bad Animals
by Sophie Corrigan

A book that gives you thrills, makes you laugh, and contains just the right dose of grossness to make your toes curl with delight (at least if you’re 7 years old) is a pretty fine thing. Add in the fact it can sneakily offer opportunities to talk about empathy, discuss emotions and even explore fake news, and you’ve got quite a package.

Such is The Not Bad Animals by Sophie Corrigan, a richly illustrated panoply of animals who though they often get a bad rep from us humans turn out to be pretty amazing and helpful creatures when you delve a little deeper.

38 animals get to introduce themselves, first playing up to all the bad things said about them – whether that’s them being stinky or dangerous, sneaky or just plain icky. These pages may be a little bit frightening to start with, but they are quickly followed by pages of myth busting where each animal explains the truth about what they do, what they eat, how they communicate, and how they actually help us humans.

The fact checking is funny and illuminating, helping readers see creatures they might be frightened of (such as wasps or spiders) in a new light. The illustrations are dynamic, funny and very clever; a challenge for slightly older readers could be spotting what Corrigan does to make the animals which looked mean and nasty on one page all cute and cuddly on the next.

Humorous and substantial (the book is over 150 pages long, and also includes a glossary), it would delight many a 5-10 year old animal lover, at the same time as helping parents/teachers talk with children about prejudice, fears and setting the record straight.

Find out more about the author/illustrator:
http://sophiecorrigan.com/

[Reviewed by Zoe for FOLIO]

Book Review: Japanese Cooking Recipes

Japanese Cooking Recipes
by Fumiko Kawakami

Stuck at home during the Covid19 lockdown Japanese Cooking Recipes has provided a lovely does of armchair cultural travel with its wide range of recipes, a wealth of cultural information and reference material about Japanese cuisine.

The layout, with numbered step by step photos, and text in both Japanese and English makes each recipe look like a menu, adding to the fun of reading when stuck at home and unable to visit a restaurant. Some of the photos are a little surprising – not the sort you’d see often in Western cookery books – with blood and guts shown on the chopping board.

The recipes require lots of authentic Japanese ingredients, not necessarily easily available outside large cities in normal non-pandemic times, so I haven’t been able to test any of the recipes, though there were lots I thought sounded delicious, and many techniques I wanted to try out, not least kneading noodles by stamping on the dough with my feet!

Overall this was an intriguing and enjoyable culinary tour and worthy of a place on a cook’s bookshelf for both reference and inspiration.

[Reviewed by Zoe for FOLIO]