Pirates in Classroom 3 by Alison Donald and Ben Whitehouse Book Review – 3 Stars

Classroom 3

Not all of us were the child that paid attention in class.  Some would look out of the window and let their minds wander.  Why be stuck in a stuffy room when you could be in space or on the high seas?  Sometimes you do not need to seek adventure as it may just find you.  It makes perfect sense to me that if the teacher leaves the classroom there is ample time for a pirate to enter and ask all the children to help him find some lost treasure.  Who could possibly give up this opportunity?

In Ms Bitsy, the children of Classroom 3 have a strict, but upstanding teacher.  However, once she leaves the room it is open season.  Rather than cause havoc themselves, they instead meet a pirate named Captain Calamity who has a map to some buried treasure hidden somewhere in the classroom.  Can the children, with the aid of the Captain, find the loot before the mischievous Pirate Bloodloss gets it first?

There is a definite charm to ‘‘Pirates in Classroom 3’’ by Alison Donald and Ben Whitehouse and it is down to the book’s sweet nature.  This is a world in which a pirate can enter a classroom and rather than scream their heads off, the kids decide to help find the treasure.  What entails is an adventure that blurs the reality of the classroom with some imagination.  Do you really know what is under your classroom floor?  For some people it may be another classroom, but for others it could be a hidden beach.

Donald provides several flights of fancy, but is all a little haphazard; a lot of different things happening to a bunch of kids in a short space of time.  There is a lack of defined structure to the book and the characters feel like they are going nowhere; physically or narratively.  You get the sense that it is just meant to be a bit of fun with some pirates.  This is a reasonable thing for a child to enjoy, but it does not have the story to keep all kids coming back over and over again.  What is nice are the little hidden asides, like the relationship between Ms Bitsy and Captain Calamity.  Their blossoming romance will be lost on kids, but does give adults something to smile about.

Whitehouse’s illustrations do a good job of bringing colour and fun to proceedings.  Each double spread is packed with bright images that catch the eye.  It is just a shame that the story seems to randomly trundle along and Whitehouse cannot do much about that.  ‘‘Pirates’’ is a fun book and children that love salty adventures will enjoy it.  However, for those none-to-fussed about Pieces of Eight etc. the slightly directionless story will mean that it loses its appeal more swiftly than with some titles.

3 Stars

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Rooster Wore Skinny Jeans by Jessie Miller and Barbara Bakos Book Review – 4.5 Stars @pigknit @barbrabakos

Rooster

One of the best things about modern online shopping is the knock on the door and the parcel arriving.  What was it I ordered again?  It could be something as exciting as a new toy, or something as boring as a new mixer for your shower.  The anticipation of opening the box is as close to the feeling of Christmas that an adult is going to get (except perhaps for Christmas).  Rooster has ordered something online and it arrived quickly.  Will his farmyard pals appreciate his buy as much as he does?

Most animals walk around in the nude, but not Rooster.  He has ordered a pair of skinny jeans off the internet and he is ready to wow the other creatures.  With some fine stitching and wonderful blue denim, everyone is going to love them, or will they?  It turns out that the other animals don’t think he looks good, in fact they think he looks a bit daft.  Can Rooster find it within himself to not care what others’ think?

The lesson of teaching kids to be themselves and not bow down to peer pressure is a great one, but a little heavy.  Never has it been done in quite the way that Jessie Miller and Barbara Bakos’ ‘‘Rooster Wore Skinny Jeans’’ has.  The book is colourful, hilarious and in places a little outrageous.  It makes no sense that a Rooster would want to buy a pair of tight fitting clothing, but it works as the entire exercise is done with joy.

Miller’s writing is perfect; a light tone, but still getting the message across.  The story is told in rhyming couplets and scans brilliantly.  There are plenty of funny sentences, as many for the adults to enjoy as the kids.  The sense of knowing means that this book works for the parent whist the children can enjoy the animals and story.  We all like to buy things online and reading about a fashion conscious cockerel is amusing.

Bakos also plays an important part as the illustrations are great.  The colours are vibrant and you get the sense of a lovely farm somewhere out on the plains.  There is also lots of things to spot all over the page.  A particularly fun game we played was to count how many chicks were on each page.

The idea behind ‘‘Rooster’’ is so odd that is works, but only because Miller and Bakos both set the right tone.  Any darkness would have made you feel too sorry for Rooster and you want to end the book punching the air and saying good for him.  This is exactly what you get in a story that should not really work, but does magnificently.

4.5 Stars

A Treasury of Songs by Julia Donaldson Book Review – 3.5 Stars

Song Treasury

Some people have all the skills, not only is Julia Donaldson one of the most successful children’s authors, she can also carry a tune.  For the past few years she has adapted many of her most popular stories into songs and plays them during open readings, or releases them as part of a song book.  For the first time ‘‘A Treasury of Songs’’ brings together several of her books in one omnibus and it also has a CD too of Donaldson singing the songs.

Anyone who has had a child or grandchild in the past ten years or so will be well aware that The Gruffalo has turned out toes.  He also has a wart on the end of his nose.  They may also know about Superworm, Stickman or Room on the Broom.  All of these stories are Donaldson classics and were written in a rhyming style.  With a little massaging Donaldson has created songs based on these books and has added them to loads of new action songs written by herself.

Trying to create new nursery rhymes in this day and age is very difficult as the likes of Humpty and Baa Baa are not going anywhere soon.  However, the fact that Donaldson has so many strong stories to work with means that she is starting with an advantage.  The book is split between songs that are based on her books and those based on new ideas.  Surprisingly, both areas are as strong as one another.  The Gruffalo song etc. has instant appeal, but the action rhymes also make a nice alternative to the same old Grand Duke.

On paper some of the rhymes are not that easy to pick up straight away, thankfully the books comes with accompanying CD.  Here the author sings her own songs and the production value is of a decent level.  Donaldson does not have a voice that will feature on Top of the Pops anytime soon, but it has a soft lilt to it that is perfect for children’s songs. It took me a little while to get over the slightly cringey feeling of listening to someone sing children’s stories, but kids love it.

An important part of many of Donaldson’s most familiar works is the illustrations of Axel Scheffler.  It has to be said that in this Treasury his impact is lessoned.  The illustrations are dotted around the page and are often taken from the original books, although there are plenty of new dancing children and animals to enjoy.  It is just that this is a song book first and not a traditional children’s book.  Fans of the duo will love being able to immerse themselves even deeper into the stories, but any adults will have to prepare themselves to listen to over 20 new songs over and over again as the CD is required to learn the songs.

3.5 Stars

Places in the Darkness by Chris Brookmyre Book Review – 4 Stars @cbrookmyre

Places in Darkness

Living in 2018 has me longing to live in some sort of futuristic Utopia, in a world of free thinking and no major crime.  Perhaps in a Space Station high above the Earth were the greatest minds have traveled so that they can build a vessel that will send the next generations of humans to populate new planets.  You know that as soon as you arrive it will be the same old problems.  You can’t really have a Utopia with people in it, can you?

The Space Station, Ciudad de Cielo, has too sides to it; the one that people on Earth think and the reality.  Alice Blake has been sent up from Earth to investigate corruption on the Station, but whilst she thinks she may see a few backhanders, she was not expecting the likes of Nikki Freeman.  Freeman is a corrupt individual who breaks the law during one cycle, then upholds it the next.  Scratch the surface of this city in the sky and you reveal a rotten core.  A city that claims that they have never had a murder, but why are there so many bits of person floating around in Zero G?

Using a crime story to give your science fiction world some sort of structure is no new thing.  Science fiction writers seem to believe that writing crime is easy; that may be true, but writing good crime fiction is not.  Someone who should be able to do both is Chris Brookmyre, best known as a crime writer, but has dabbled in other genres.  ‘‘Place in the Darkness’’ is his most obvious science fiction book to date as it is filled with high concepts such as Space Stations, mind meshes, AI and androids, but it is also an odd couple crime thriller about a by-the-book rookie and a corrupt veteran.

‘‘Place’’ takes a little while to warm up as Brookmyre decides to preload the story with all the sci fi ideas.  The first 85 pages are mostly exposition that will hold you in good stead for later.  After this the narrative switches to a crime thriller and it bombs along nicely.  The fact that Brookmyre felt the need to spend so much time explaining the Space Station and the science that goes on there was not great, the best sci fi integrates this stuff into the story itself.  Indeed, after page 85 Brookmyre does this himself, gifting the reader glimpses into the underbelly of life on the station, without having to dwell.

What makes the book fun is the action.  There is a lot going on in ‘‘Place’’ once it gets going.  Alice soon realises that the picture postcard portrayal of the city is a lie.  Not only do we see it is a lie, but it is pretty debauched.  Brookmyre paints a very good unsavoury picture of the city as poor people are forced to work more than one job to be able to afford to leave one day.  There are several good ideas about the society, such as the closed nature of it as the companies pay the workers and then force them to spend all their money on company goods.

It is a little hard to understand what ‘‘Place’’ is; cyberpunk, crime, space thriller.  It is all of these at once.  The grungy world that Brookmyre creates feels like something of tomorrow, but you can also see the cities of today in it.  If the first act of the book had been integrated better into the narrative, this would have been a must read science fiction book for those who like their tales a little pulpy.  As it stands, some people may not get past the intense start.

4 Stars

Minecraft: The Nether and the End Sticker Book Review – 2.5 Stars

Minecraft Sticker

Minecraft certainly has a distinct look to it and the ‘Minecraft: The Nether and the End Sticker Book’ aims to capitalise on this.  The book is essentially a sticky activity book that follows a loose story around one of the Minecraft worlds.  I am not an expert on the subject and after reading this am no more the wiser.  The book is aimed at the Minecraft fan and younger spectrum at that, 6-7 perhaps.  The book has plenty of stickers, but not all of them are well used.  Some are for the activities in the book, but a lot are miscellaneous.

The book even partakes in the worst sin that a sticker book can; that of producing countless bland stickers all squashed together so that they can claim there are loads of them.  There may be plenty, but many are not that fun.  I also had an issue with the darkness of the book.  Minecraft images don’t always look pleasant on the page, but with the muddy and dark images here they look awful at times, even the stickers cannot help too much.

Despite reservations on this particular Minecraft book, for a fan it will still provide plenty of fun.  The games on offer may be a little opaque to some, but for a fan they will make perfect sense and they can start playing straight away knowing who the characters and locations are.  Just make sure the child you are buying this for is a true Minecraft fan before buying it as the appeal of the book will not cross over to the non-fan.

2.5 Stars

Only When I Laugh by Paul Merton Book Review

Only When I lAugh

One of the things that I like about comedy is that there seems to be a taste that suits everyone from Mrs Brown’s Boys, all the way to something that is actually watchable.  Some people enjoy puns, others slapstick.  If you are willing to look for it, the chances are that something will make you laugh.  The ease in which you can discover comedy was not always as simple as the internet and in past years access was dominated by The Footlights and other educated fellows.  However, in many cases it is the oddballs that managed to sneak through that provide the best laughs.  Paul Merton may be an established and quite safe pair of comedy hands, but if you think about him, he is a bit of an oddball.

‘Only When I Laugh’ is a pleasant and intelligent autobiography that in perfect keeping with the man himself.  Merton’s humble background, combined with his love of old comedians meant that he never really felt like he fitted in with the raucous crowd.  It did not really enter his consciousness for a long time that someone like him could get paid for being a comedian and that is why the book is so interesting.

The path between Merton and fame is not actually filled with that many pitfalls and in the grand scheme of things he did well for himself at a decent pace.  The book works through his childhood to the present day and like with many lives it has its ups and downs.  The best comedy autobiographies are often as funny as the person writing it, but also have a little pathos.  ‘Laugh’ certainly has both of these.  I actually think that the book was a little safe at times and Merton’s voice is a little standoffish, just like the straight man persona he uses on ‘Have I Got News for You’.

The book really comes to the fore in the darker times in Merton’s life.  I knew little about him so read about his time being sectioned and the death of a partner had impact.  Merton seemed to take these things in his stride in the same way that he also takes his successes.  This makes for a methodical and detailed book, but does lack a little passion in places.

4 Stars

What Was I Scared of? by Dr Seuss Book Review

Scared of

All Hallows’ Eve is upon us once more and that can only mean that we are soon to be surrounded by all types of monsters, ghoulies and manifestations.  Fear not, as many of these unsettling creatures will actually be children dressed up on another adventure trick or treating.  But what about that pair of seemingly malevolent trousers that walk by themselves?  That is no child, but a pair of haunted kecks.  Run, run, run, but perhaps if you have them a friendly hello these pants may be nicer than you think?

On a dark night, as our hero travels along a long and lonesome road he passes the most oddest of all sights – a pair of disembodied trousers walking themselves.  Like any sane person, the hero runs off, but he keeps seeing the trousers.  There is only one solution for a situation like this, buck up the courage and go and say hello.  What’s the worst that could happen?

Dr Seuss always specialised in crazy flights of fancy, but the trousers in ‘‘What Was I Scared Off?’’ are actually amongst the most bizarre things he invented.  This is because this book is one of his most grounded pieces.  It is set in his usual Seussian world, with his usual Seussian prose, but the actual narrative is quite dark and spooky, with few twists.  This is certainly a Halloween type of book as our hero is a little terrified of what the trousers represent.  It is just very odd (and so like Dr Seuss) that the monster in his horror story should be phantom pants.

To reflect the darkness of the tale, this is one of Dr Seuss’ darkest illustrated books.  There are lots of greens and blacks; none of the bright colours you will be used to.  It has the effect of making this silly story a little bit unsettling.  Thankfully, the finale shows that you should not judge a pair of trousers by their coveralls.  What makes this particular special edition special is the glow in the dark technology.  Some of the white elements glow if you store some light into them.  To get the best of the effect you need to read the book in the dark though, which you can imagine if a challenge.  Therefore, the glow in the dark is a fun extra, but not that easy to use.

For fans of Dr Seuss, ‘‘What’’ is a curio.  The prose is as good as ever, but the story is a little too linear to be a real classic.  The narrative betrays the books roots as part of a collection.  As one of several spooky and short outings it would work brilliantly, on its own it feels a little like an anomaly.  But, what an anomaly.  Even when being a little too bizarre by his own odd standards, Dr Seuss books remain fantastic.

4 Stars