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Sensible Cat (Manchester, UK)

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Belle's Song
Belle's Song
by K.M. Grant
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Convincing, relevant and readable, 8 May 2011
This review is from: Belle's Song (Paperback)
Stories of meeting Shakespeare abound in juvenile fiction but, as a previous reviewer notes, Chaucer is rarely tackled, possibly because the mediaeval world-view sems so alien to our own. This account of a fictional character joining the Canterbury pilgrims, meeting Chaucer and becoming involved in a political intrigue fills the gap nicely.

Historical fiction for young people needs to do two apparently contradictory things: build a persuasive portrait of a vanished society and give the main characters, at least, some issues that contemporary readers can recognise and relate to. Grant manages to pull this off extremely well. She makes a society dominated by Catholicism and chivalry convincing and shows us intelligent and decent people invested in its values. Also, she works in some very contemporary issues about sexuality and identity, and shows that villainy comes in many forms and most people, well-meaning or not, are guilty of some duplicity and denial at times.

A couple of reviewers were not convinced that Belle's habit of self-harming was historically accurate. I didn't have a problem with this at all, though it surprised me at first. The story takes place in a society where deliberate self-harm was a frequent form of penitential religious observance. In fact, I felt this was an excellent strategy to build a connection between past and present for the young reader.

The central love triangle is treated sensitively and is not at all purient, but unconventional and, at times, exploitative sexual behaviour is also mentioned and the book deals with some fairly adult themes. For this reason I wouldn't recommend it for primary school children, but it's an excellent read for younger teenagers.


The Guardian Angel's Journal
The Guardian Angel's Journal
by Carolyn Jess-Cooke
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Far from flluffy, but a great read, 3 May 2011
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I was totally gripped by this book, and read it in a single day despite having many other things to do. The early chapters, a harrowing account of an abusive childhood, are not for the faint-hearted, but they are superbly written and the characters spring off the page. After that, things decline somewhat; the narrative becomes repetitive and occasionally lapses into melodrama. However, it's still a compelling account of Margot's battles with addiction as the trauma of her early years continues to affect her actions.

The philosophical and moral dilemmas raised by time travel and the possibility of influencing the outcome of human decisions have been recently explored in "The Time Traveller's Wife" and "Doctor Who", but to return a central character to her personal timeline is an intriguing new twist. The author builds up a deeply-felt and persuasive moral universe where angels and demons are constantly at war with one another. She also writes sensitively about the way it would feel to watch your own history unfold and have limited power to influence it, other than to offer comfort and support. In the end, we are responsible for our own decisions and the role of the guardian angel is to protect from damaging influences. This story will challenge you to think deeply about the wish most of us have had, at some point or other, that we could go back in time and communicate with our younger and more foolish selves.

It was the early chapters, and their account of Margot's childhood, that burned themselves into my memory. Do not be deceived by the word "Angel" on the cover; this is one of the most painful stories of innocence betrayed that you'll ever read. But the message is one of redemption and hope. It isn't perfectly written by any means. I found the account of Margot's earthly death curiously unconvincing and I began to feel that the series of tragic events heaped on her head became excessive and unconvincing, even allowing for her difficult early years. But even with its flaws, it's a deeply felt and powerfully poetic narrative.


Casper Candlewacks in Death by Pigeon! (Casper Candlewacks, Book 1)
Casper Candlewacks in Death by Pigeon! (Casper Candlewacks, Book 1)
by Ivan Brett
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.99

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Geeks vs Idiots in a country village from Roald Dahl country., 27 April 2011
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Casper Candlewacks and his geeky sidekick Lamp (yes, really) are the only intelligent people in a country village peopled by bullies and idiots. We are firmly in Roald Dahl territory here, where sadistic stereotypes exist to make life hellish for resourceful children.

Casper's home life leaves much to be desired - his family consists of his exhausted father, who is the chef at the village's really rather awful restaurant, his useless TV-addict mother and a baby of indeterminate gender and unparalleled hideousness. At school he is bullied by his teacher and his classmates - only Lamp doggedly clings to him, eager to demonstrate his embarrassing inventions.

You'd think things couldn't get much worse, but of course they do - Casper manages to anger a volatile Italian magician who promptly curses the whole village. Of course, it falls to Casper and Lamp to save the day - which they do using Lamp's latest creation - a buggy that runs on soap bubbles - more than a little luck and the inside information that the Italian magician is highly allergic to coriander. This is the kind of book where if it says something makes a character's head explode, that is precisely what happens.

What redeems this book from often-imitated cliche is the liveliness of its writing, which is genuinely original and funny. Children will love the random craziness of Ivan Brett's metaphors ("children were rolling around like terrified sausage rolls", for example). My review copy wasn't illustrated throughout, but the few pages that were suggest that the pictures will add a further level of wackiness and break down any lingering resistance to the printed word in its target audience (probably boys aged around six to nine, though there's much for girls to enjoy, too).

So, if your little one has worked their way through Hiccup Haddock Horrendous and Mr Gum and is clamouring for more of the same, this will fit the bill nicely. I hope it's one of a lengthy series.


The Goblin King (Sophie and the Shadow Woods, Book 1)
The Goblin King (Sophie and the Shadow Woods, Book 1)
by Linda Chapman
Edition: Paperback
Price: £4.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Writing by Numbers, 11 April 2011
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Finding a successor to the phenomenally popular Rainbow Magic series is the Holy Grail of children's publishing at the moment, and Linda Chapman (one of the writers for the Daisy Meadows brand) is a safe pair of hands for the job. Sophie's main character trait seems to be her enthusiam for active pursuits: her best friend is a boy but she's very much the leader in the twosome. She has a twin brother, and no love is lost between them and (a rather old-fashioned device), absent parents who have left her in the care of an uncle and his housekeeper. Her uncle expects her to be conventionally girly, and is busy preparing her brother for his destiny as the keeper of the Shadow Gate. Of course, it turns out that this is Sophie's destiny instead.

The plot and characterisation leave a great deal to be desired. It's all very formulaic - whether this will go down well with the young audience, or whether they'll recognise its very clear resemblance to similar fare and go for something different is more a matter of fashion and preference. At least they seem to be tackling the depressingly conventional gender stereotypes celebrated by the Daisy Meadows brand. It would just be nice if the style was less crude and the characterisation less clunky. Linda Chapman can do a lot better - it's hard to escape the impression that she's writing by numbers here.


Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
by Joshua Foer
Edition: Paperback

6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Zero to Hero - can anyone do it?, 23 Mar. 2011
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
I wasn't expecting great things from this book, since I'm the kind of person who tends to abandon popular science titles halfway through. But it gripped me from the start, probably because the facts are assembled along the spine of a well-written and absorbing narrative of self-discovery.

When science journalist Foer covers the US Memory Championship he's torn between wonder and pity for the socially challenged, geeky competitors. Surely they can't be normal people? We've all heard of savants who can perform superhuman feats of memory, but as he gets talking to these mental athletes (as they prefer to be described), they all say that it's a skill anyone is capable of learning, given sufficient commitment to practice several hours a week.

When the young English memory champion Ben Cooke offers to tutor him, Foel agrees to test the hypothesis that within a year a regular guy like him can improve his memory sufficiently to compete in the US Memory Championship - and that's where things get really interesting. Cooke trains him in the "Memory Palace" technique, a time-honoured strategy to make random memories stick by turning them into vivid (sometimes rude) images and locating them in various locations in a building that exists inside the mind. It sounds flaky, but the point behind the device is that we are hard-wired to remember the physical details of our environments better than strings of intellectual information.

And it has a long and venerable history, covered by Foer in one of the book's most interesting chapters. We have numerous modern devices to store information for us, but that wasn't always so. At one time, when books were scarce and expensive, humanity's ability to retain and pass on knowledge depended almost entirely on remembering it by heart, and in the ancient world a person was judged by their ability to be a good memorizer. We're tapping into an inborn, universal mental ability that has been neglected for generations.

This is a fascinating journey through the arcane circuit of the super-memorizers of the world circuit, a tale of personal determination and triumph, a quest to discover what words like "ordinary" really mean. Foer talks with some interesting people along the way - Tony Buzan (whom he admires but distrusts, without quite knowing why), 'Brainman' Daniel Tammett and, most heartbreaking, an elderly American man who can't remember anything that happened to him since he was twenty years old, and exists in an eternal present. Whilst this isn't a self-help book that will take you through strategies to improve your own memory (try Tony Buzan for that), it does challenge us to rethink our assumptions and consider how concentrated effort can improve human performance in multiple areas. It worked for Foel (he won the 2006 US Memory Championship) and even for me - I built my own little memory palace and can remember my car registration number at last - I just think of a bee outside my front door, then a kangaroo, then the flat where I used to live...
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 12, 2011 9:11 PM BST


GEAR4 PG487 AlarmDock Reveal
GEAR4 PG487 AlarmDock Reveal

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Simple, good value, nice small footprint., 18 Mar. 2011
This little unit meets all my needs. I'm not very technical so I just wanted some way to tell the time quickly in the middle of the night, and a straightforward place to charge my iPhone. Two things I really like about this - first it has a small footprint, making it ideal for crowded bedside tables. Second, it's very adaptable. I've been able to charge both my phone and my nano with no problems at all.

The sound quality is adequate and it looks attractive. My only niggle is that I find the reset buttons for the clock a bit awkward to use - they don't seem very responsive. But overall, a nice straightforward device at a reasonable price. In fact, I'm about to get a second one for my ironing corner downstairs so I can finally catch up on all those podcasts I keep meaning to listen to. Given the price Apple charge for their charging units, it's almost worth picking up for that function alone.


Dicota N28178P BacPac Casual 14.1 inch Notebook Bag with Cushioned Notebook Compartment and Separate Document Pocket - Black
Dicota N28178P BacPac Casual 14.1 inch Notebook Bag with Cushioned Notebook Compartment and Separate Document Pocket - Black
Offered by AVIDES u.k.
Price: £24.99

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars No frills, 24 Feb. 2011
This is a plain, no-nonsense backpack. It's adequately finished and would blend in nicely with office wear or school uniform. Adjustable straps make it comfortable to wear; the handle on the top is rather small and not all that strong, but since the main compartment isn't large enough to hold more than a couple of files as well as the laptop and accessories, that's unlikely to be a serious problem.

The laptop compartment is well made and adequately padded. I felt that to call the fold-down flap on the front a workstation was somewhat misleading - it's basically just a fairly small pocket for a mobile device, a couple of cards and a pen. No pocket for a memory stick, and only one pen holder seems a bit mean - I always like to carry at least two in case one runs out.

I suspect this is aimed at people who want a backpack that looks like a briefcase. But the straps are a dead givaway, so if that's the idea, there should be an extra pocket somewhere to tuck them out of sight.

If this was an entry-level pack retailing for about £12.99 it would be good value, but the price tag of almost £30.00 really puzzles me. Even within the same range, there are similar backpacks offering more in terms of capacity and facilities. So I can't really recommend this one, particularly with so many competing products out there already. It's not particularly sturdy, imaginative or stylish, so why pay this much?


NERDS (National Espionage, Rescue, and Defense Society) (NERDS - book 1)
NERDS (National Espionage, Rescue, and Defense Society) (NERDS - book 1)
by Michael Buckley
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.99

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars When is a book barely a book?, 14 Feb. 2011
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
There's a school of thought in children's publishing (and librarianship) that the best way to get kids who don't want to read for pleasure to do so is to make their books as similar to cartoons as possible. This has been taken to its logical conclusion here. NERDS is written by a seasoned creater of shows for Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network, and the art director deserves equal billing with the writer because the two lock together into a highly professional package. It's fair to say that the result will apply to a certain type of eight-year-old, and that's not me. I enjoyed it - it's slick, fast-moving and funny, and I especially relished The Hyena, an eleven-year old beauty pageant queen turned hired assassain, who scours Help Wanted ads in the criminal underworld to feed her addiction to designer boots (they keep getting wrecked when she has to run from people with weapons - don't you just hate it when that happens?)

David Tennant's triumph as the bespectacled Tenth Doctor was probably the British zenith of geek chic - bullying kids who happen to wear braces and use inhalers is so last year now. So in a way, the book's plea for tolerance of diversity is preaching to the choir, but it's great fun. I wonder if the writer would have used Egypt as a setting for his espionage romp if he'd had a crystal ball? Anyway, this is an extremely professional and enjoyable romp - so much so that it almost begs the question, what is the point of reading a book that so closely resembles watching a hyperactive cartoon channel? Presumably to get through the institutional torture of the silent reading hour in school, and keep adults like me off your back. I can't see it starting anyone off on a journey that will culminate in Shakespeare or War and Peace, but then what do I know? I'm just a school librarian, and not even the kind that turns out to be a secret agent in disguise.


Mozart's Ghost
Mozart's Ghost
by Julia Cameron
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Finding a spiritual connection, and all that stuff, 21 Jan. 2011
This review is from: Mozart's Ghost (Paperback)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Julia Cameron wrote one superb book about 20 years ago - "The Artist's Way", a rather new-agey guide to connecting with your creative life. It seemed to catch the mood of the time, before the economy tanked and the slightly edgier style of chick lit became fashionable, when there was a whole sub-genre of women's novels about women fleeing their routine, domestic lives, renting little cottages in pretty places and making a last-chance attempt to write, paint, or whatever talent they felt had been stifled. Like most sub-genres, it became a little predictable.

Cameron has a lovely, encouraging style and some really powerful strategies to get stalled creativity moving again, but I don't think she's repeated the initial success of The Artist's Way since - instead, she's repeated The Artist's Way. This book, though fiction rather than self-help manual, is really very similar. Maybe that was why I found it tedious and predictable.

Or maybe it's just too similar to a certain kind of romcom. Anna is a thirty-something teacher in New York City with two problems - (a) it seems to put potential partners off when she mentions her sideline as a medium and (b) her new neighbour constantly plays the piano, ruining her attempts to channel the spirit world. It doesn't take a psychic to figure out that solving (b) will probably fix (a) as well.

It's not a badly written book, but it feels like a caramel latte with a side order of chocolate truffles. Yummy, indulgent, relaxing, and we all need that from time to time. I probably take myself too seriously, but reading it just didn't seem like the most worthwhile use of my time. Unlike The Artist's Way, it didn't make me think, or make much of an impression. So, nice for a long flight or a rainy Sunday afternoon, but not a keeper.


Discover Science: Whales and Dolphins
Discover Science: Whales and Dolphins
by Caroline Harris
Edition: Paperback
Price: £4.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Another winner from this excellent series., 30 Nov. 2010
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
Having already reviewed another title in this series (Senses) I'm pleased to say that the standard of this companion volume is equally high, making it an excellent choice for primary school libraries and parents.

Children aged around 5-7 often develop an interest in cetaceans, particularly dolphins, and the winning picture on the cover will certainly appeal to them. The whole book is well illustrated, being both attractive to look at and easy to read. One of the hardest things to get right for this age group is the right balance between stimulation and information, with many titles cramming too much distraction onto each page. This mistake is avoided here. The layout of each spread is beautiful and both the typography and the presentation of facts is kept clear. I particularly liked the insets showing the bone structure of flippers and the anatomy of a whale's mouth, and the clear map of migration routes.

It's easy to sentimentalise dolphins; this book doesn't go out of its way to undermine their attractiveness but it makes the point that they are highly adapted and sometimes ruthless wild creatures whose primary name is survival - they aren't just there for us to swim with them! As enthusiasms acquired at this age can eventually influence career choices, I liked the inclusion of information on how we find out more about cetaceans and what it's like to do the research.

In a school setting, teachers will appreciate the helpful guidance on curriculum links and extension activities. However, there's a lot that a child reading at home could also learn from this volume. The final pages include resources like a simple quiz, a glossary, an index and, as already mentioned, craft projects and experiments. Some of these would need adult help, but I think Kingfisher get the balance of independent discovery and guided learning about right here. A very worthwhile purchase.


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