Monthly Archives: August 2012

The Suitcase Kid by Jacqueline Wilson

The Suitcase Kid by Jacqueline Wilson

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

For younger readers, #181 The Suitcase Kid deals with a common family drama. Andy’s parents have split up and they’ve both created new families – leaving her shuttling back and forth between the two houses, feeling like a fifth wheel.

A friend in need
I don’t think anyone has ever suggested that divorce is easy for kids and I think that this book would be a friendly, comforting read for kids going through the process. Wilson handles the subject matter with her trademark tact, empathy and consideration – the Happily Ever After she proposes is totally plausible, and offers an alternative to the fantasy that a broken marriage can be put back together, just as it was.

Writing with style
Wilson has an apparently effortless, almost invisible writing style which helps me get so absorbed in the world that I rarely notice her technique. It’s a difficult trick to pull off, and the fact that I don’t notice the writing is a sign that she’s very good at what she does.

In The Suitcase Kid, each chapter title starts with a different letter of the alphabet, in order. It’s a little thing – something I imagine she did for her own amusement – but it reminded me to look out for her technique and I’m impressed. The Suitcase Kid is clearly aimed at a younger audience than Dustbin Baby but I couldn’t tell you why I think that – the language is clear without being colourless and simple without being simplistic, but that’s true of her other novels. All I can say is that the narrator – Andy – just sounds younger. And as I don’t spend that much time around kids, and struggle to guess their ages in person, I can’t help but – as I mentioned earlier – be impressed.

Is it simpler living in a caravan?

Is it simpler living in a caravan?

In general, paring down makes things simpler. A library of eight books is much simpler to manage than a library holding over 11 million items. But at some point, as you strip away the excess, you start to strip away features – which is why, whatever you want to learn about, I suggest you visit the Bodleian’s book collection, not ours.

Our van is a stripped down, simple, version of a house. It wasn’t really designed for long-term occupation, so while some things are simpler, others are rather more complex as we have to find new ways to do them.

Cookingsimpler but limited
K – who is the better cook – might not agree, but having only two pans, no gadgets and llimited storage space makes cooking less intimidating for me. I know what everything does and I know what everything in the cupboard is, and where everything goes. As we’re shopping more often, we’re eating more fresh food, which is lovely too.

However, the downside is that we’re missing a few mod cons – like a microwave and more than a pint of freezer space – and a lot of specialist equipment, so a lot of things take longer or just aren’t the same. We can’t make muffins or Yorkshire puddings or freeze anything for later.

Washing - much less simple
Washing – dishes, clothes, yourself – is simpler in a house. In our last house, say, I could get up, wander to the shower in a towel, use as much water as I liked, stroll back (still in a towel) to brush my teeth, then (dressed) go downstairs, throw a load of laundry in the machine, switch the dishwasher on and forget all about both devices for a couple hours.

Now, washing up is done by hand, either in the van (limited water, carried by hand) or at the site sink (lots of water, sometimes falling from the sky as well as the taps), showers, ditto (plus you may need exact change or have to queue or have to share, depending on the site).

Laundry is even more faff: you need exact change, the options are limited and not necessarily trustworthy (don’t risk your delicates!), there are sometimes queues and you can’t go far for the whole time you’ve got washing on the go – at least a couple hours for a typical wash and dry. If we’re lucky, we can borrow a friend’s machine and do the whole thing in comfort, ideally with the use of their WiFi. Bliss.

Movingmuch simpler
We’ve lived in half a dozen flats in the last five years, which is one of the perils of renting. And moving is so much easier in the van, whether it’s popping away for a weekend or an international move – or both at the same time.

Cleaningmuch simpler
There’s so much less to clean that we hardly need to do more than spot clean things as they get dirty. But we do need to clean more things – like the water system – and we’re quite slow at these new chores.

Yard work – outsourced!
We’ve had a lovely view, a smooth lawn cut twice a week and plenty of space at the site in Cambridge – and done none of the work. Definitely simpler for us.

Home maintenance - totally different
Instead of hassling a rental agency to fix something or check something – or possibly leave us alone and stop bugging us about something – we’re in total charge of making sure our home is safe and clean. I can honestly say I’ve never had to clean pigeon poo off the roof of any house we’ve lived in, but we need to do that for the van soon.

Fewer mod cons, more time
Over all, the time we’ve saved by not doing things (like yard work and cleaning) is eaten up by things which take rather longer, like washing. I’m not saying that any of these things are hard or bad or wrong or even a particularly difficult way of doing said task (it’s not like I’m paying £2 to use a mangle and bucket) but they are less simple than the way we did them in the house.

So far, living in the caravan has been easy because we’ve got time to do laundry at lunchtime on a Tuesday and go to the shops three times a week. It would be much harder with lots of family responsibilities or a long commute like I used to have. It’s simpler like washing by hand is simpler – fewer chemicals, more elbow grease!

Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach

Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

I read #179 Jonathan Livingston Seagull in a single sitting one morning, and the kindest thing I can say about it is that it’s a quick read.

Like The Little Prince, JLS is an allegory. It’s a ‘fable about making the most of our lives, even if our goals run contrary to the norms of our flock’, according to the blurb. It’s also about seagulls learning to fly – not in the hatchlings learning to flutter by jumping off cliffs sense but in the stunts, aerobatics and speed records sense. I didn’t enjoy it and don’t recommend it – I found both the sociology and the bird watching frustratingly unrealistic.

Not a nature program
Both the book and the title character, Jonathan Livingston Seagull himself, create a very odd view of seagulls. Having watched a few nature programs – and been to the beaches near Torquay – I’m aware that I know very little about them. I’m happy to believe they’re bright birds and excellent fliers – hard not to when you seen them mug a toddler for chips –  but I’m pretty sure that (a) they need to eat and (b) they don’t measure speeds in miles.

These two apparently trivial details sum up my problems with the book. The author and main character ignore any and all physical, social or emotional needs in pursuit of the dream and, frustratingly, this has no effect on either the main character, his charisma or his ability to suceed at his goal.

JLS is a super-gull, and it goes beyond the physical. He has the power to inspire and lead, to change his society. He is, as one character says, a gull in a million. And possibly the son of the Great Gull as well. He is also really, really lucky – and doesn’t have to face any of the usual challenges which dog the search for physical perfection.

Frankly, this golden-spoon maverick trope is tired and not a path I think anyone should emulate. While it’s true that some rules are arbitrary and even cruel, others are there for the protection of others. And while some people can survive outside society, hunting and fishing in a wild land, most can’t, so you better learn to deal with people. And while it’s true that a great idea will find many fans, it will also find many critics – and if the idea’s strong, it will meet them head on. And if it’s physical perfection, ballet, football, or skiing, for example, then physical changes and dealing with growing old is an important part of adjusting and fulfilling your dream.

Soon be over
The copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull I read comes in at under 90 pages, about half of which are grainy black and white photos of seagulls, so it is a very quick read. That it’s so simple to get through was a blessing for me as I have little patience with thinly veiled saviour stories and heros who are good and pure and beautiful without flaws or frustrations. To my mind, The Little Engine That Could – with the 1970s illustrations, natch, because girls can be blue, especially if they’re trains – is a much better fable for modern times.

I don’t understand why people love this book, so if you do, I’d love to hear why. Perhaps I’m 40 years too late, and it was much more exciting in the 1970s? Perhaps I’m too cynical?

In the Caravan – the first month

In the Caravan – the first month

It’s been a whole month since we picked up the van. We’re settled in, but it hasn’t really been a normal month – we had a bricks and mortar house for half of it, and got rid of half our stuff. I’m even writing this from Switzerland – and the van is still in the UK. Still, I think it’s a good moment to take stock and see how the honeymoon is going, what we’ve learned.

Outdoors is great
Walking back from the loo at night, the stars are spread out like spilled glitter and I can understand how the Milky Way got its name. At dawn, the wood pigeons wake up and coo (and practice high jump on the roof of our van). In the afternoon, I sit outside and am visited by our local robin, a parcel of blackbirds and a squirrel.

Twywell caravan in green field with sunshade extended

I love spending time outside, just being, and now I not only can – many British flats don’t have any outdoor access – but I kind of have to, so I’m not so picky about the weather. And I can dive back inside when it rains.

Weather is important
Luckily, the weather has been good, especially for a wet British summer, so we’ve spent lots of time outside. But we’ve already learned that the weather is important – we’re outside every day, and rain makes little things less pleasant, like walking to the loos, and keeps us trapped in what is, for modern Britain, quite a small space. And when it’s hot – again, British hot – the van traps the heat like a car, which isn’t ideal either.

Emotional weather is important, too
The only time the van has felt too small so far is the day when I was in an absolutely foul mood. Luckily it wasn’t raining as poor K might have wound up reading his book in the car while I banged pots around making dinner.

Same same but different
There are so many things which we just can’t do the same way as in a house – like cooking. The counter space is the space on top of the stove and sink, so you have to clear everything off, open everything up and then start chopping and cooking in a small space. We also don’t have space to store much in the fridge, the pantry shelves or the utensils drawer.

Cooking area with gas hob, small sink and draining board, all of which are covered by flip down countertop surface when not in use

The plus side is that I’m buying fresh and cooking on the day, mostly, which means we can eat what we feel like eating and have lovely fresh things, too.

We also don’t have internet access at the van – we’ve got a dongle, but the signal strength is so poor it’s not worth it – and I really miss being able to surf, chat, answer emails, update the blog, all without leaving the house.

By hand
We have to do more things by hand – like hauling water – which is making us more mindful of what we use. Which is probably a good thing, but the novelty may eventually wear off.

Less privacy
Privacy is a social construct, and it’s even more obvious in the caravan than in a flat that it’s partly an illusion, people simply choosing not to hear – or not to mention they heard. But life is also more public on the caravan site so we have to be more aware that we’re in view and make sure we’re decent – by which I mean both dressed and behaving appropriately!

A place for everything
We really don’t have space to leave things out – if this doesn’t teach us to be tidy, nothing will. So far, it’s fun but eventually it’s probably going to be really annoying before it becomes a habit. But right now I love having everything tidy.

Caravan seating area, two sofa-benches face each other (left and right) with small table and large windows at back (top)

I call this tidy!


Not quite enough

Not quite enough

A wooden table with a blue plate and bowl, plus a metal knife and fork

The downside to having just enough and only what you use is that if something breaks, you don’t have a spare! We didn’t want china plates in the van (stuff moves around a surprising amount when you’re towing), so we chose a pretty set of melamine plates and bowls.

Unfortunately, they turned out to be faulty, so I returned them. I stepped out of the shop, refund receipt in hand, and rummaged around for my grocery list. Looking at my meal plan for the evening, I realised that we couldn’t really eat sausages, new potatoes and peas straight from the saucepan – or cereal, or pasta and sauce, or anything beyond a sandwich.

Buying new plates suddenly became a priority, and as I needed them in a rush, I spent more time and money than I would have liked. It turns out that summer is already over, at least in Cambridge shops, and plastic crockery is seasonal. Oops!

It was a frustrating afternoon, but I found what I wanted. And actually, I’m glad I didn’t keep a few extra china plates or a set of disposable ones around – the time crunch meant I spent a bit extra, and now we’ve got an eco-friendly, biodegradable bamboo set. And K enjoyed the dinner I made, too, although I think he would have preferred it without the side-order of frazzled and grouchy which I picked up on my impromptu shopping trip.

Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman

Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Another YA novel, #61 Noughts & Crosses is set in a world much like ours – except black is white.

Same racism, different world
Blackman’s world is much like ours but with a twist: instead of the modern wave of industrialisation and global colonialism originating in the Europe, as it did in our world, in hers it originated in Africa. As a result, while her version of Britain has flushing toilets, fast cars and fast food, it’s social system is different. Instead of being a hallmark of a marginalised minority, black skin is a sign of power, of membership in the ruling elite.

Sephy, black-skinned and the daughter of a leading politician, is high up in Cross society. Her friendship with Callum, the white-skinned son of her family’s housekeeper, is socially and politically unacceptable in an era of apartheid.

Blackman tells the story of what happens next with great skill. It’s the of two young people struggling to stay friends when society, family and custom tell them to part.

Advantages of SF
Setting her novel in an alternate version of our own world, Blackman creates a fable which is detached from its time and setting. While it’s incredibly relevant in modern Britain where racism is still alive and well, it will never be possible to read Noughts & Crosses as history as long as there is hate between two groups of humans.

The details of the story are specific, gripping and enthralling, but the messages are general. One example is the use of language. Blackman makes it very clear that words can be damaging. And yet, as the slurs are brand new, invented for the novel, it’s impossible to be complacent, to think ‘well, I would never say that‘ while ignoring the equivalent words – perhaps aimed at a different group – that one does say or think or let slide.

I can see why people love this book – I love this book. It teaches without preaching, shows without showing off and also – importantly – tells a brilliant tale.

More with less: caravan edition

More with less: caravan edition

Last year I mentioned that I’m really interested in minimalism. Having just enough appeals to me for many reasons including that I don’t like things being out of place, I don’t like looking for things, and I don’t like spending a lot of time tidying up!

I haven’t talked about it much since, but transitioning to the caravan has meant some tough decisions about what we keep in the van, what we store and what we get rid of. We made a rule that we wouldn’t get rid of anything we love, and our families have been incredibly generous with letting us use their storage space but we still got rid of a lot of stuff over the last couple months.

There’s plenty of storage in the van – as long as we only take what we need. So I only have a few balls of yarn, K only brought a few pairs of shoes, and we’ve agreed to ban DVDs and dead-tree books unless they’re on loan.

It’s great. It’s easy to find things and easy to put things away. There’s hardly anything to clean or dust or tidy. The shared house we lived in had a chore list on the fridge with a dozen tasks per person – now we’ve only got a short list of things to do beyond ‘buy food – prepare food – eat food’.

One reason our lives are simpler and our cleaning process is more streamlined is that we’ve outsourced a lot of it. We have to haul our own water, but someone else scrubs the site’s toilets and mops the floors in the shower block. We don’t have to mow the lawn, remember when the trash collection is, call out the washing machine mechanic or deal with a backed up septic tank.

We can do less because someone else is doing more.
We can have less, because someone else has more – and shares.

There’s a strong argument here for communal living, and a lot of the extra work is being picked up by people who are paid to do it, but not all of it. We’re relying more on public services, like libraries, and the kindness of strangers (like the folks in The Burleigh Arms pub who have very kindly let me use the internet although I’ve been nursing one drink and a sandwich for an hour). And our friends and family are already stepping in – letting us use their phones, their showers, their wifi. We’re glad and so grateful to have such a great group around us – I’ll let you know how we get on when we step off into the unknown and don’t have a warm, bricks-and-mortar house to run to!

The next adventure

The next adventure

K and I have been really busy the last few weeks. The house we were renting has been sold, so we had to move out. Instead of renting another house or a flat, we’ve bought a caravan.A white caravan in a green field. Trees and other vans faintly visible in background.It’s a Swift Archway Twywell and nearly old enough to vote. It’s old, not vintage, but we love it anyway. It’s a five-berth end-bedroom layout, which means we can have our bed set up permanently and still have a sitting area but it’s shorter and lighter than a fixed-bed van.

It’s a good size but light. Light enough, in fact, that we can do this:Picture of me, a tall white chick, standing in front of a white single-axel caravan hitched to a silver folding-hard-top car with the top downYep, that’s K’s little car towing our van. It’s totally safe – the car is surprisingly heavy, being a folding hard-top and the van is surprisingly light.

That might give away what our next adventure is – travelling! We’re settled in Cambridge for a while, but after that we’ll be heading off, following the open road and our whims. It’s going to be grand.

Dustbin Baby by Jacqueline Wilson

Dustbin Baby by Jacqueline Wilson

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Raiding the library again, I snagged #176 Dustbin Baby. Another Wilson book, another book about a kid with an unusual life story, on the margins, in and out of care.

Not as good as Tracy Beaker
April, the Dustbin Baby, isn’t as appealing as Tracy. She isn’t as sparky, as strong-willed or as determined. She’s a different character altogether, and while I don’t find her as appealing or her story quite as plausible, I’m glad she exists.

Abandoned in a dustbin the day she was born, April has spent her life in care and foster homes. As her birthday approaches, she decides to go looking for her past, tracing the various people she has cared for and been cared for by.

The book is a quick read, and April’s journey rattles along. It’s a good level for older children reading on their own – April turns 14 as the book progresses, and the novel deals with several serious subjects.

Books about back stories
I’ve read several Wilson books which aren’t on the list, and I’m starting to think that these are books about backstories. It’s a truism in kid lit that you have to get rid of the parents, which means that many YA heroes are orphans, either literally or effectively, so that parents are on the fringes and out of the picture.

But where do all the orphans come from? And what happens to the ones who don’t turn out to be werewolves, vampires or superheroes? Wilson’s stories answer these questions, reminding us that for every Mozart, hot-housed and a prodigy, there are kids who burn out at age 8. And for every Piraticia, there is a Dustbin Baby.

The Dare Game by Jacqueline Wilson

The Dare Game by Jacqueline Wilson

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

A sequel to The Story of Tracy Beaker, #116 The Dare Game picks up some months or maybe even a year or more after the first book ends.

Spoiler free
It’s nearly impossible to properly review this book without letting slip something which may spoil the earlier books for you. Suffice it to say that I enjoyed The Dare Game and thought it was well worth reading and an interesting follow-up to the previous book. It’s aimed at a slightly more mature audience, I think, and the problems are a bit harder to solve and a bit sharper.

That said, it’s still very much a children’s book and I wouldn’t hesitate to give it to fans of the first book.

Spoilers ahead
While Tracy Beaker dealt with problems faced by a child in a group home, The Dare Game deals with the challenges Tracy and her foster parent face now that she’s in a more traditional home setting.

In many ways, this is a book about dreams coming true – two of the things Tracy has been wishing for most come true, but they are incompatible and neither is quite what she thought it would be.

I mentioned when reviewing The Story of Tracy Beaker that I kept thinking of her as a kid to deal with, not a character to be. I identified with her more in The Dare Game and sympathized with her struggles. She spends a lot of the book trying to find a way to deal with problems which have flummoxed far older people, and her choices and coping methods aren’t always those which society (parents, teachers, e.g.) approve of.

One of the strengths of the book is that it humanizes the ‘bad’ children who are annonymized by hoodies, school uniforms and a tendency to go round in gangs and demonized or reduced to statistics by the press. Reading Wilson’s books is helping me realise how many stories there are which children and young adults are living every day which don’t make it into the big kids lit and YA novels. I’m particularly glad her books are so good – it’s especially disappointing when the only ‘like me’ character is badly written, steretyped or a caricature.