Good reads for a lockdown situation – Part Two!

Our previous book review article received a very positive review! So here are a few more suggestions of some great reads that will be perfect for a quiet afternoon in the garden or just chilling at home.

There are also suggestions for children, ideal bedtime stories!

Hopscotch and Handbags – Lucy Mangan

Subtitled ‘The truth about being a girl’, this book is essential reading for grown up girls of all ages.  In it, Lucy Mangan explores the subtleties of female life from school onwards – or, as the title has it, from Hopscotch to Handbags.

As the cover and the chapter headings suggest, the tone is always light-hearted.  This is no self help book – instead it’s a mixture of reminiscences, cautionary tales and laugh out loud moments.  Packed with lists, diary entries, jokes and quizzes that are pure 1970’s Jackie magazine, the beauty of the book is how quickly you can place yourself within it.  What girl doesn’t remember the intricate rules of teenage friendship, or the range of helpful excuses to get out of the dreaded PE lesson twice a week?  And while lists may be something you would expect in a boy’s book, here they serve as a checklist and a reminder – I guarantee that you will measure your teenage self against the ‘cool and uncool’ list, and the Top Ten Beloved Books will send you back to your old childhood favourites (Malory Towers, anyone?)

Mangan’s style is chatty, confidential and inclusive – you instinctively feel like you are part of a gossipy group – and her points hit home.  Even when you do find yourself matching 90% of the criteria that make you a grown up, you’ll still be safe in the knowledge that it is still ‘so much better than being a boy’!

The Cat in The Hat/ Dr Seuss’ Sleep Book – Dr Seuss

You can never have too much nonsense in your life – especially not if you are under eight years old – and if you want nonsense, then Dr Seuss is the absolute master.  These two classics are a must for every child’s bookshelf.

The Cat in the Hat is a cautionary tale of sorts – never let strange felines into your home.  One wet and cold day, the narrator and his sister make the mistake of opening the door to the eponymous cat, only for him to wreak rhyming havoc on their home.  Children delight in each new calamity, and the rollicking rhythm carries you along to the end.  

Dr Seuss’s Sleep Book is a calmer tale, ideal for bedtimes, but still with the same humour and pizazz.  Featuring an array of strange and sleepy creatures, from the Chippendale Mupp to the Hinkle Horn Honkers, the ‘Who’s Asleep Score ‘ gradually grows until the very last sleeper is needed – you!

Illustrated in the author’s bold and distinctive style, these books stand repeated reading.  Which is just as well, as you’ll be asked for them again, and again, and again….

Call the Midwife – Jennifer Worth

If in lockdown you’ve been re-watching the entire wonderful BBC series Call the Midwife, you might want to take the time to read the books on which it’s based. Jennifer Worth’s bestselling memoirs recall stories of life, birth and death in London’s East End during the 1950’s.

It opens as Jennifer – then fresh-faced young Jenny Lee – arrives at Nonnatus House, a community of nuns who provide midwifery and district nursing for the close-knit families of the dockers of Poplar, and follows her as she lives and learns amongst them.

Jenny is an honest and sympathetic narrator, quick to point out her own failings. The nuns, from calm, steady Sister Julienne to mischievous Sister Monica Joan are characterised beautifully, and Jenny’s fellow midwives are a memorable bunch.  But it is the people of the East End who burst from the pages – from terrified runaways to hardy mothers of four (and even twenty four!), from seedy pimps to rough and ready  dockers, all are described so vividly that they practically step out to meet you.

The backdrop is almost a character in itself.  As the book progresses, the reader begins to understand something of the history of the area – bombed heavily during the war, it has not recovered by the time Jenny arrives, and many families are caught in limbo, unable to do anything about their appalling living conditions.  This element is explored in further detail in the subsequent volumes of the trilogy, particularly in ‘Shadows of the Workhouse’.

And, of course, there are the birth stories.  Every birth is different, and the book contains comic, tragic and poignant experiences.  Worth balances human interest and medical detail deftly, never talking down to the reader but never baffling them with complex terminology, as she guides us through the emotions as well as the technicalities. For anyone with an interest in birth, midwifery, social history or just a good story, this is a must read.

The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins

We’ve watched all the Hunger Games films again while in lockdown. They are a great lead-in to the books which if possible, paint an even more vivid picture. Collins’ dystopian vision of Panem is even more sinister on the page. This land, which was once America, is now divided into twelve districts, controlled by the Capitol and subjugated both by hunger and by the yearly tradition of ‘reaping’ one boy and one girl from each area to fight to the death in a televised theatre of cruelty.  

In order to save her sister from this fate, Katniss Everdeen steps forward to take her place.  Instantly her life changes as she is taken first to the Capitol for a series of rituals, and then thrust into the Games themselves.  To complicate matters further, she must decide whether her fellow ‘tribute’ from District 12, Peeta, can be trusted or whether he must be sacrificed in order for Katniss to save herself.

This was the novel that turned my reluctant teenage reader into one who stayed up well into the small hours to finish it. And like all the best fantasy writing, it allows us to reflect on our own world, and how we treat others. No bad thing right now.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency – Douglas Adams

When Douglas Adams’ novel was adapted for television, purists complained that the version shown bore little resemblance to the original.  That may be true, but it is perfectly possible to enjoy both.  

The ‘detective’ element in the title is not entirely misleading – there is a detective story here, albeit one that doesn’t follow any of the usual patterns of the genre.  As might be expected, Adams interweaves humour, science fiction and a strong sense of the absurd, along with characters who are essentially believable and sympathetic, creating a novel which is much more than the sum of its parts.

The plot is almost impossible to summarise.  There is a horse stuck in the bathroom of a Cambridge college for a start.  An Electric Monk is on the loose.  And Samuel Taylor Coleridge is particularly important.    Early in the story, electronics entrepreneur Gordon Way, finds himself unexpectedly murdered and refuses to accept that death is indeed the end.   His employee Richard MacDuff, soon finds that the sofa stuck halfway up the staircase to his flat is the least of his problems – not least when his old university acquaintance Dirk Gently, telephones him unexpectedly as he is in the middle of breaking into his girlfriend’s flat… 

What follows is often complex, mostly impossible, but always funny.  If nothing else, it will make you think about time in a completely different way.

Winnie’s Dinosaur Day – Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul

It is easy to see how Winnie the Witch has become such a favourite character for young readers everywhere.  This is her thirteenth outing and, as always, things don’t go totally to plan.  Accompanied by her faithful cat Wilbur, Winnie loves to visit the museum.  Not only are there buttons to press and levers to pull, there are dinosaurs!  Not real ones sadly – just bones and skeletons.  Winnie would love to see a real dinosaur – Wilbur is not so keen.  So when the museum runs a competition to draw or model a dinosaur, Winnie is determined to win…even if she needs some magic to help.

Thomas and Paul work as a perfect team to bring Winnie and Wilbur to life.  The words are well judged and often understated, whilst Paul’s illustrations help to draw the reader in, giving depth and detail to the tale.

Winnie may not always get it right, but it is bound to work out in the end  – and children will love returning to the story again and again.

See our previous book reviews here

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