Give the kid a book

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There was an article in the Independent today about how children are reading less nowadays, and how this is a bad thing, and giving suggestions on how things might be improved.

Well, I have to say, it was a breath of fresh air, because for once the writer was not demanding that schools, and teachers, take responsibility for yet another failing of parents. Interestingly, the author also recommended buying an ebook reader – because more than one person can read the same book at the same time, they’re easy to keep tidy, and you can adjust the font size.

I agreed with everything she said – reading is a habit that you have to get into, and children do have to be introduced to books.

But I would go a little further – let’s just have a look at the kind of books we’re introducing kids to, shall we?

Have a think about what books you were given to read at school in English lessons. Mine, as far as I can remember were:

Moonfleet, JM Faulkner.
Smith, Leon Garfield.
Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens.
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte.
The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde.
Macbeth, William Shakespeare.

All important literary books. All pretty heavy going, if you’re not a reader. You could say, yes, I was in the top set and could cope – but then, not being a reader is not wholly the province of the less intelligent. Are these the books that would persuade a child who was not usually a reader that reading was a fun thing to do? Personally, I don’t think so. My sister certainly didn’t think so. I remember her saying “If they picked a book that some people liked and some people didn’t, it wouldn’t be fair. So they pick books that nobody will like.”

What a comment on the education system’s book choices for children!

I remember the bottom set got to read The BFG (Roald Dahl). Oh, how I envied them. I remember thinking that it really wasn’t a great encouragement to work hard: work hard, get into the top set, and they’ll make you read Moonfleet. On the other hand, if you doss about and end up in the bottom set, they give you a fun book like The BFG!

If we have a problem with children not reading, then we should give them books that they’re going to enjoy. Yes, parents should be taking care of this, but, as usual, some parents won’t, so the only place little Josh or Molly is going to get books is school. And if they’re not readers, the only time they’ll read is when they’re made to, and that’s English lessons. In English lessons, they’re a captive audience. We can introduce them to reading books that say ‘reading is fun’; ‘reading is exciting’; ‘reading takes you to places and introduces you to people beyond your wildest imagination’.

So what do we give them? The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.

Now there’s a book that would probably put me off reading, and I’m kind of the definition of “I think, therefore I read”. Literary merit, yes, in spades, but is it the kind of book that says “You had fun with me… you could do that again – look, the school library’s just down the corridor”?

If you’re faced with reluctant readers, you need to give them something fun, something they’ll enjoy, something that’ll make them want to read more. Then once you’ve persuaded them that reading per se isn’t a bad thing, in fact, it’s fun, then you can introduce them to the more serious stuff.

Here’s my really quick list of kids’ books I think are good, in no particular order:
Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling. Say no more.
Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky, Wintersmith, I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett. All the best of Pratchettism, but for kids. And besides, the main character is called Tiffany.
The Changeover by Margaret Mahy.
Anything by Roald Dahl.
Anything by Diana Wynne Jones.
This Place Has No Atmosphere by Paula Danziger.
Noel Streatfeild’s children’s books – a little dated now, possibly, but she obviously understood children, and remembered what it was like to be a child. And that hasn’t changed.
Juniper and Wise Child by Monica Furlong.
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr.
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken. And sequels.

I think I’ll stop there. There are also authors who usually write adult books who are now starting to write for children: Simon Scarrow is one; if his kids books are as good as his adult books, they’ll be well worth reading.

OK, so what books would you recommend for schools?

Remember, it’s got to satisfy two conditions:
1. It’s got to be fun to read.
2. It’s got to be well written enough, and deal with enough important issues/concepts, that you could get some English lessons out of it.

Thieftaker by D.B. Jackson

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Thieftaker, by D.B. Jackson

Thieftaker, by D.B. Jackson

Thieftaker is the first book in a series by D.B. Jackson, introducing eighteenth-century Boston thieftaker Ethan Kaille. In the absence of a police force, if a citizen wants a thief, or stolen goods, found, then they must employ a thieftaker. Kaille, however, does not rely merely on traditional legwork – he can do magic.

Unlike many magic-is-real urban fantasy settings, this alternate 1767 Boston does not seem to have magic-users and magical beings all over the place. Magic-users – conjurers – are not common, and they risk being arrested and convicted of witchcraft by the church. Kaille understandably keeps quiet about his gift, although it’s clear that quite a few people know about it all the same. Obviously the church isn’t too zealous in hunting conjurers down, or he’d be dead.

The current case revolves around the seemingly senseless death-by-magic of a rich young woman who was, for reasons unknown, out in the street during one of the riots due to the Stamp Act. It’s clear that she was killed by a powerful conjurer, but who might this be, and why was she killed? And were other possibly-mysterious deaths related? And, again, why?

In the course of pursuing this case, Kaille gets repeatedly beaten up, kidnapped, threatened, etc. Although conjurers have the ability to heal themselves, the man must have a constitution of iron and the courage of a lion to make it to the end of the book without deciding to retire from thieftaking and take up some nice, safe, boring occupation like alligator dentistry.

The author is a historian, and he has consulted other historians in the writing of the book. The setting felt real; however, it is neither overloaded with unnecessary detail (meant to impress on the reader that the author Knows His Stuff) nor so lacking in detail that it felt bland. I was worried that the book might not make sense to someone who didn’t know the period, but I needn’t have worried. Although knowing what the Stamp Act actually was would have helped, just accepting that it was important to the characters was enough since it was only background, and not part of the plot.

On the down side, some of the dialogue was a little modern (I’m pretty sure people didn’t say ‘hi’ in the eighteenth century), but I’m against the use of deliberately ‘archaic’ speech patterns in novels – I think it causes more interference with the reader’s enjoyment of the book than it increases authenticity. I prefer to read dialogue I can just absorb rather than something I have to decode.

Although the book had a slow start for me, and I wasn’t sure whether I was going to like Kaille enough to devote my evening to his problems, in the end he grew on me. I read the book pretty much in one sitting, and did not find myself stopping reading to do something aimless. I even carried on reading through dinner, which is one of my yardsticks of is-this-a-good-book (you can keep any comments on my table manners to yourself, thank you). So I will definitely be looking out for the second one in the series.

If you like urban fantasy, with fairly low-key magic in a historically realistic setting, then you’ll probably enjoy this book.


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Today is September 22nd – the Autumnal Equinox. Today, sunset and sunrise are 12 hours apart, so we have equal day and night. Summer is now officially over, more’s the pity, since it wasn’t much of a summer to begin with – at least here in the UK. Unless you really enjoy rain.

Like probably a lot of people, when I thought ‘equinox’, I thought ‘druids’. You know, those chaps in the white robes who built Stonehenge. Or so they say. (Flanders and Swann did a fantastic monologue on Stonehenge which you can listen to here, along with a couple of their other monologues.)

Only, if you do a little bit of digging you find
a) We don’t actually know what the druids believed because they seem to have made a point of not writing anything down.
b) We don’t know what Stonehenge was for, but it probably wasn’t some fantastic multi-functional solar computer.
c) Solar worship as a main focus of a religion isn’t as common as you think (or as common as I thought, anyway).

Stonehenge seems to have been mostly used at midwinter – possibly the midwinter solstice – which makes a certain sort of sense since we do have evidence of the midwinter solstice being extremely important to ancient European cultures.

If you’re weird… act normal

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Today, Dr Una Coales is facing an unexpected media storm.

She wrote a book, three years ago, advising doctors who wished to pass their Royal College of General Practitioners exams (the ones you pass after you’re a real doctor, but before you can be a GP – which is a family doctor in the UK) that if they’re having trouble passing their oral/roleplay exams, something other than their medical knowledge might be the trouble.

She advised:
Gay students: act straight.
Women students: don’t wear a floral print dress – people will think you’re a nurse.
Ethnic minorities: if you’re in Scotland or Wales, try to sound Scottish or Welsh.
Fat people (male, presumably): acquire a ‘Santa Claus’ persona.

And for this, she appears to be being witch-hunted through the halls of the Royal College of GPs.

I wonder if this is because it’s very, very embarrassing for the RCGP to have it revealed that a) someone thinks that they don’t assess students wholly on competence and b) it has taken them three years (and someone posting on Twitter) to notice?

Dr Coales is being portrayed as racist, discriminatory, demeaning, and a whole lot of other nasty things. But let’s actually take a look at this.

Gay students – act straight
OK, do we think that there is no prejudice against gay men? Let’s all think about our acquaintances, shall we, particularly those with a Y chromosome. Do we think those possessors of a penis will be more comfortable talking to a straight or a gay GP? Ideally, it should make no difference – doctors aren’t supposed to make the moves on patients, and that’s the only time someone’s sexuality should matter – but I don’t think we’re quite at that Utopian state of tolerance yet.

So we if acknowledge that some patients might be happier (and some examiners, says Dr Coales) with a straight-seeming doctor, surely amending his body language is something our aspiring GP ought to at least consider? And, of course, this also applies to those chaps who will chase anything in a skirt but just act camp.

Women students – don’t wear a floral print dress or they’ll think you’re a nurse
OK, we’re in the twenty-first century here. Girls are allowed to be doctors, and it’s been that way for more than a hundred years. But while less than half of junior doctors are women, more than 90% of nurses are. The statistics are against us, ladies.

Also, nursing is traditionally ‘girly’, and if you wear a girly dress, people will think you have a girly job. Doctoring is more traditionally male, is certainly seen as a higher class of job (something to do with not having to take people to the loo, I think) and is more traditionally linked with ‘power’ dressing. Dr Coales may have overstated things slightly, but she does have a point.

Your clothes say something about you, people. Make sure what your clothes are saying is what you want them people to hear.

Ethnic minorities, if you’re in Scotland or Wales, try to sound Scottish or Welsh
Well, duh.
This also applies to everyone else. Your voice says all sorts of things other than words. Just you look at the internet pages on ‘most trusted accents’. Some accents, which I shall not name for fear of having my windows broken, sound like they’d steal the wheels off your car as soon as look at you. I don’t know about anyone else, but I find my voice changes depending on circumstances. Normally I don’t have much of a regional accent, but if I’m faced with a difficult conversation, my old accent comes out. And you know what? It works. I’m one of the lucky people with a ‘trustworthy’ regional accent, and I find that people calm down and are more likely to listen when I use it.

But this was not what Dr Coales was on about. Although she is being vilified for being against ethnic minorities’ accents, and for telling them to talk with a Scottish or Welsh accent, she actually only says to do this if practising in those areas. Presumably, she would also advise an Indian student practising in Liverpool to try to develop a Liverpudlian accent.

This is nothing to do with the desirability, or otherwise, of having an Indian (or other) accent, and everything to do with your voice saying I am someone like you; I am someone you can trust. It also aids understanding. I can’t imagine a consultation getting very far if neither understands the other’s accent. I used to work up in the North East of England, and I’ve encountered accents up there that were impenetrable even to me, and I used to have family up there so I was used to that particular accent. I’ve also got an elderly aunt (possessor of a strong regional accent) who changed her doctor partly because she couldn’t understand anything he said.

Fat people – develop a Santa Claus persona
This plays right into our expectations. It’s OK for Santa to be fat (in fact, can you imagine a thin Santa?) but it’s not OK for anyone else to be fat because it’s unhealthy. We are happy with fat-and-jolly because it’s a stereotype we know and with which we are familiar. Once we’ve stereotyped someone, we can stop thinking about them and get down to business. Probably quite important if you’ve got to sort out someone’s health in whatever the standard consultation length is.

Maybe we shouldn’t be vilifying Dr Coales. Maybe we should be thinking about what she’s actually saying, and why she’s saying it. We need to accept that people are different, yes. We need to not discriminate against people who are different in whatever way. But those of us who are different also need to acknowledge the effect our differences have on others.

Yes, you have a right to be yourself. But equally, you need to realise that if you do not fit the box marked ‘normal’ you will pay a price for it – justly or unjustly.

You can either be different and damn the consequences, or you can consider whether there might be any little changes that you could make without compromising your identity and individuality that might make your life easier. Also, if you are in a position of trust and responsibility, dealing with the vulnerable (and also the ignorant, and the stupid) – such as a doctor – you need to consider that some people are just not as enlightened as you are. If you’re going to deal with them profitably, and if you are going to be able to give them the help that they need, then you need to not scare them.

We find strange things frightening; and to some people, gay, ethnic minorities, even women in positions of authority, are all strange and therefore frightening. There is a time and a place for campaigning for the rights of oppressed minorities, but while dealing with someone who is only reacting badly to you because you’re just outside their comfort zone, rather than because of anything specific, is not it.

Fit Tab A into Slot B… or Slot C?

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There was an article in the paper today about homophobia in German football. My interest in German football (or English football, for that matter) is zero, but it was an interesting article. Germany is one of the most tolerant countries in Europe (as you’d expect from a nation known for its logic and Vorsprung durch Technik); as the article said, one of its cabinet ministers and the Mayor of Berlin are openly gay. Yet its footballers must stay firmly in the closet, to the level of feeling that they have to choose between their sexuality – and therefore their chance of having a loving sexual relationship – and their career.

What kind of choice is it, what kind of world is it, where someone has to sacrifice their partner or their dream because of other people’s prejudice?

Yesterday, there was another article, this time about Milan, where the first gay couple have just registered their civil partnership, to predictions from the Church that this will cause the End Of Civilisation As We Know It.

Good news – a long way to go, but a journey of a thousand miles and all that.

Makes me think. I mean, why?

For centuries, in Western Europe, society has regarded male homosexuality with horror and revulsion. (Interestingly, in Ancient Greece, homosexual acts were not only not regarded as bad, but was a normal part of society.) Why is that?

Why do we feel the need to despise and/or punish someone for something they do in private, with another consenting adult, and that we will never see, hear, or be expected to participate in?

A friend of mine – he’s a great guy, but he’s practically the definition of parochial white working-class male – is a case in point. We were at an event the other weekend and these two guys came over to talk to us; we had an innocuous conversation and then the two guys went on their way. After which my friend said words to the effect of “I’m glad they didn’t admit they were gay, or I’d have said something rude.”

What I have to ask myself is:
1. If you go somewhere with a companion of the same sex, why do people assume you must be sleeping with them? Is this why car-share schemes aren’t more prevalent?
2. If you are sleeping with your companion, what business is it of anyone else’s?

It’s mostly men who are this homophobic (if my friend had made his comment in the hearing of his wife, she’d have hit him with a skillet; which I’m far too polite to do, and besides, she had the skillet) and, guys, why is that?

Is it because you just don’t like to think of a man being on the receiving end – being the hunted rather than the hunter?

Is it because you think you might end up being pursued yourself? I did ask my friend this, pointing out that while naturally I consider him to be one of the most desirable men I know, some people have strange opinions and do not consider being on the wrong side of fifty-five, balding, and twenty-five stone to be necessary qualities for sexual irresistibility.

He said that just thinking about it made him feel ‘icky’. Since I considered that I’d been pointed enough already, I didn’t ask him whether he always pictured everyone he met having sex, and if he didn’t like the picture he didn’t pursue the acquaintance.

I know all about the it’s-not-natural argument, but neither is the internet and here we all are. Besides, there’s evidence of homosexual behaviour in non-human species, which pretty much disposes of that. If you’re going to quote Thomas Aquinas, and his argument that any sexual activity not resulting in conception being unnatural and therefore wrong, then if we accept that then we should not allow infertile people (that includes all women after the menopause, by the way) to have sex at all.

I know about the the-Bible-says-it’s-wrong argument, and quite frankly, the Bible also says we shall not wear polyester-cotton (Deuteronomy 22:11, if you don’t believe me) and I don’t see the Church up in arms about the increasing incidence of drip-dry shirts. It’s hardly consistent to only pick out the laws you like the sound of and discard the ones that might result in personal inconvenience, like having to figure out how to use spray-on starch without getting white bits everywhere.

I cannot think of a single argument against homosexuality that stands up to logic.

Why should we interfere in who a person chooses to love? Surely the world could do with more love, not less? And if two people want to do the horizontal tango, in private, then who are we to interfere? It doesn’t affect us in any way. And then, if they want to marry, to make a public commitment to each other, then surely that’s a good thing? Stable relationships, happy people, all that kind of thing.

OK, rant over. See you tomorrow… same time, same place?

Clockwork Angels

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Clockwork Angels

Clockwork Angels book cover. Authors: Kevin J. Anderson and Neil Peart.

Clockwork Angels is the companion book to the new Rush album of the same name. It’s a steampunk fantasy describing a young man’s dissatisfaction with his safe, ordered life in the Watchmaker’s precisely ordered realm (even the rain arrives on time) and his embarkation on an impulsive adventure that rapidly spirals out of control. Through the book, the hero – Owen Hardy – changes from a naive boy to a young man.

However, if you are expecting complex plotting and multi-layered characters, you will not find them. Clockwork Angels is an allegory; Owen’s physical journey represents his (and everyone’s) journey to maturity, with the inevitable disillusionments and discoveries along the way. As you travel with him, you get to think about the virtue of balance, and the fact that extremes of either order or chaos can be equally undesirable; the nature of life and death; the purpose of imagination; and freedom – the freedom to choose, and the freedom to fail; and more. Some of these concepts occur as themes throughout the book (such as freedom) and others as vignettes covered only in one scene or part of a scene.

Anyone with an interest in philosophy or French literature will recognise a strong resemblance to Voltaire’s Candide; in some ways, Clockwork Angels might be regarded as a retelling of Candide for a modern audience; the authors – for I include Neil Peart, Rush’s drummer – say in an afterword that Candide ‘was an early model for the story arc’. For Rush fans, there are also plenty of references to Rush’s previous work.

So in conclusion, you can read this just as a steampunk fantasy and enjoy it, but by doing so I think you would miss out on the best bits. Read it slowly, and allocate it the brain space and time for some good thinking. You’ll be glad you did.

Will we see an ebook price drop?

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The European Commission (and the Department of Justice over in the US) has been investigating ebook price fixing by Apple, Hachette, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins and Macmillan. You remember that ‘agency model’ that went into operation a while back, and wasn’t supposed to increase ebook prices (but did anyway)? Well, this appears to be – hopefully – the end of it. If the EC gets its way, retailers will once more be able to set the prices of the books (published by these guys) they sell.

Authors naturally don’t want prices to go too low, since of course they get paid on a share-of-the-profits basis, but hopefully they realise that prices that are maintained artificially high are doing them no favours either.

I learned it in Economics at school. If you have a commodity, then you can draw a graph of how the demand works in relation to price. There is a line where you maximise your profit – if you increase your price you will reduce your demand, but the two factors balance out and your profit remains the same. If you move off the line in either direction, you will reduce your profits, either because you’re working like stink but selling too cheaply, or you’re so expensive that nobody wants your product.

You’re pretty much OK if what you’re selling is essential and nobody can do without it – like petrol. Prices have gone up over 30% since I started driving, and have I stopped buying petrol in protest? Unfortunately not. Even if I leave the car parked outside, it will still not run on sunlight.

But ebooks are not only not essential (no, they really aren’t. You can get by without books if you have to, it’s just difficult) but they’re easily pirated – as we all know. So if you price your books too high, people don’t even have to do without – they just go and get a pirate copy for free!

Let’s watch this space. Will ebook prices fall significantly? Will we see less piracy with the reduction in incentive? I hope so. While writers undoubtedly write because they want to write, being able to devote lots of time to it (and therefore produce lots of good stuff) depends on making it financially viable. You probably can’t get much creative writing done if you’re doing a 40-hour-a-week-plus-commute office job to pay the mortgage.