Book review: Mog the Forgetful Cat by Judith Kerr

It wasn’t until Judith Kerr’s death this year that I put together the author of the classic picture books The Tiger Who Came to Tea and the Mog series with the author of When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, a book I was captivated by as an older child. While I still remember parts of Pink Rabbit vividly, I’ve got only the foggiest recollection of any of Kerr’s picture books and no conscious memories of experiencing these for the first time. It was a delight to rediscover Mog the Forgetful Cat with my own daughter and although much of it was far beyond her comprehension at fourteen months, there’s a lot here she appreciates even now. 

As for me, I consider Mog a masterpiece in narrative structure. Kerr’s plot and pacing is impeccable, each word and illustrative detail purposeful. Mog’s forgetfulness is not incidental but is rather the crux of the entire story, which romps along to a satisfying conclusion. I’ve read umpteen books on how to write a novel but next time I attempt to structure my WIP I’m just going to come back to Mog and try to follow exactly what Kerr does.

Mog is the wordiest of all the books E owns so far, and unlike most of them the story here requires a certain level of intelligent deduction. There are several pages where the words alone don’t explain what’s happening  –  we are told that Mog falls asleep on a chair and dreams she is a bird, and then when she wakes Mrs Thomas is annoyed. The reader also has to consider the illustration, which shows Mog sleeping on top of Mrs Thomas’ hat, which is then squashed and torn.  (Is it strange that even as an adult it feels gratifying to work out what’s going on by connecting the words and the pictures? I’m sure I’ve read some thrillers recently which have been less intellectually taxing than this.) I imagine that the different levels to the book will give us lots to discuss even when E is a few years older. 

The language is simple but the sentence structure is almost poetic, with considered repetition of key words and phrases, such as the charmingly retro ‘Bother that cat!’ There’s a nostalgic feel throughout – this is a universe of clunky black and white TV sets, milkmen and policemen in proper hats. After being thwarted in his robbery attempt – SPOILER – the burglar even enjoys a cup of tea with the Thomas family and the bobby. Perhaps more incredible is that he was stealing an alarm clock and some cutlery. I do realise that proper, actual adults own silver, or did in the 70s anyway, but I still can’t fathom how this thief could possibly be making a decent living wage if this is the extent of his typical takings.

The illustrations are lovely – E likes each and every drawing of Mog, and the double-page image of Debbie’s dream, with the tiger and the monkey in the tree. She always wants to skip over the page where Mog is sad and alone in the dark garden, which I fondly imagine is because of her sensitivity to this powerful moment of despair.

 I do worry about Mr Thomas. I can’t help but feel that darker truths could be lurking beneath the comfortable veneer of this happy landscape. Mr Thomas appears careworn, with bags under his eyes and a distinctly dishevelled mode of dress. His cheeks surely are a bit on the red side – the effect of excessive alcohol consumption? Could his insistence on watching the fight on television and his extreme reaction to Mog’s tail over the screen be a clue to what is going on? I suspect gambling addiction and spiralling debt. Even his reaction to the burglar is suspect – we are told that Mrs Thomas acts immediately to call the police, while the children rally around Mog. Mr Thomas seems immobilised, either too enfeebled by his previous night of drinking, or perhaps even in league with the burglar, in some complicated insurance scam….

There really is something for everyone here. We don’t yet own any others in the series, but I feel compelled to buy the next. Check in again to read more thoughts on Mog’s future adventures and the fate of Mr Thomas. 

Ally bally, Ally bally bee: the disturbing nature of nursery rhymes

Can we all acknowledge that the world of nursery rhymes is as grotesque and barbaric as that of Grimms’ Fairy Tales? We’ve got Humpty Dumpty, broken beyond repair. There are blackbirds which peck off noses, and did you know that the woman who lived in the shoe with all those children resorted to whipping them all soundly and then packing them off to bed? 

I worry about how to explain this universe to my daughter. She’s obsessed with nursery rhymes at the moment, and with trying to finding a context for them in her own life. She already searches for her own stuffed sheep after we read about Bo Peep’s desperate search; surely it’s only a matter of time before she’s brainstorming military strategy in the manner of the Grand Old Duke of York. 

There’s something which feels very ritualistic and almost occult about these rhymes which have endured for generations, often coming alongside a set of prescribed actions. The turns of phrase used are odd, and I find that we recite them blindly, without stopping to consider the meaning attached. Is ‘Ring-a-ring of roses’ truly about the plague or is that just apocryphal? Is ‘Mary, Mary quite contrary’ actually an allegory about the Tudor court? 

In Scotland, all toddlers get given a free CD of nursery rhymes from the Scottish Book Trust. This is a genuinely lovely initiative and my own toddler has had great fun dancing to these. And yet there’s one in particular which stands out for me even amongst the weirdness of all the rest. I don’t think it’s well known outside of Scotland, so here’s the first verse below:

Ally bally, ally bally bee,

Sittin’ on yer mammy’s knee,

Greetin’ for a wee bawbee,

Tae buy some Coulter’s candy.

If the Scots language has bemused you, this is indeed about a child crying for money with which to buy sweets. I’m not musical so I can’t talk about keys or anything like that, but this nursery rhyme is intoned soft and slow, at odd with the rather harsh meaning. I didn’t first come across this on the CD we received. This is a mainstay of baby groups here in Scotland. I’ve heard it at every single free library Bookbugs music session we’ve attended, as well as at other music classes, including a lovely guitar rendition by a well-known local folk singer. 

But what is Coulter’s candy and why are we singing about it? This little ditty is in fact an advertising jingle from the 19th century. Robert Coltart wrote it to help sell his aniseed flavoured confectionary, at least according to wikipedia. Apparently the recipe has been lost to time, and Coltart’s songwriting must have been better than his pastry work, as seemingly he died penniless, buried alone in a pauper’s grave. 

Generally, I’ve only heard the first verse repeated at groups, which makes sense although the song does go on beyond this. There are more bossy extortions to children to emotionally blackmail their parents to obtain candy, or failing that to go straight to the next obvious solution of running away to sea to earn some money to be spent on candy. It all gets a bit grim in the second verse, with the description of a child as ‘A rickle o’ banes’ covered over with skin’. Candy comes to the rescue and gives ‘Poor wee Jeanie’ a double chin, but that’s perhaps almost as problematic in this time of childhood obesity. Coltart couldn’t resist some more self-aggrandising in later verses, including the line ‘Coulter he’s a affa funny man’. As this turned out to be his only legacy I suppose we can’t really blame him. 

There’s something so tragicomic about all the solemn recitations of this song at playgroups across Scotland, not to mention the fact it’s survived when both its author and the product it’s selling have not. I can’t help thinking of a post-apocalyptic society where our children’s lullabies are variations on the McDonald’s jingle, long after the golden arches have crumbled to dust and we’ve all forgotten what McFlurries taste like. 

Book review: The Woman in Our House by Andrew Hart

The Woman in Our House is one of those thrillers which are to literature what Five Guys is to food. It’s a notch upscale from McDonald’s, so you kid yourself it’s not that bad for you, all the while knowing it’s really just junk. The reading experience is hurried, even furtive. Just as you keep on eating fries because they’re there in front of you, you can’t stop reading, impatient to get to the end. The pleasure is in part because you know it’s trashy, but it definitely is pleasurable. In the moment, it seems like exactly what you need. The problem only comes upon reflection. I never want a salad as much as when I’ve just finished a burger, and after tearing through a book I know I won’t remember in two weeks I always resolve to read more Proust. 

The protagonist of TWIOUH, Anna, feels burnt out and bored by life as a stay at home parent to her two small children. She tells her husband she wants to go back to work as a literary agent, and hires a live-in nanny. The reader knows before Anna even meets the nanny that she is in fact an imposter, rather than the woman with the sterling references Anna thinks she’s hiring. 

My opinion of this book depreciated steadily in the hours after I finished it, as I had more time to reflect on all its absurdities. Even while reading, there were several things which niggled at me. The book is told through alternate viewpoints – which was actually a bit pointless and did little to add tension – but these switch between first person for the main character and third person for the other characters, which felt rather jarring. Why not all first person, since the chapter is headed with each character’s name? Or a close third person narrative throughout? Most egregious of all, at one point the narration mistakenly jumped between the two perspectives, within a few lines on a single page. If this had been some kind of avant-garde experiment in representing Anna’s dissociation from her own life I could probably have handled it, but no, it was just an unforgivable error. 

I was hoping for more of a sense of looming menace from this book – on the hired help scale from Mary Poppins to Mrs Danvers, the fake nanny here felt disappointingly tame. Probably best not to analyse the reasons why too deeply, but I really wanted Anna’s kids to feel at serious risk, which they didn’t much, up until the climax. That ending was another big issue I had with the book; it was dependent on a vague neo-Nazi subplot, which felt shoe-horned in as a ready motivation for the true villain, who was little more than a cartoon character. 

There was another subplot centred around Anna’s husband’s job, which was so boring and irrelevant I’ve already forgotten the details. Disappointingly, the book focussed on this rather than on plot threads which I did want to read about. I would have loved more about Anna’s inner conflict between her identity as a mother and as a person. As race eventually became a thematic concern in the book, it would have been interesting for this to have been explored more throughout and for Anna’s sense of displacement in this predominantly white enclave to have been developed, alongside her growing sense of displacement in her children’s lives. 

I did come to the realisation while reading that I have developed some sort of parental Stockholm syndrome. Such is my fixation with the small dictator who rules my own life, that I kept feeling frustrated that the children weren’t more central characters in this book. I appreciate that this is more symptomatic of the current paucity of my own interests and worldview rather than any actual fault of the book, but I did spend most of it wondering what the baby was thinking about it all. I was both annoyed and highly sceptical about the fact that this baby slept through almost the entire plot, aside from one scene where she conveniently exhibited some highly precocious speech. Note to the author: this is not a typical nine month old, and certainly not a fussy one as per your description. This is not the way you win over parents! 

I know this review makes it sound as if I hated this book, and I really didn’t. I actually enjoyed it quite a bit whilst actually reading it, and initially rated it four stars, before eventually downgrading this to two. However, if you want something quick to read on the beach, you could do a lot worse. Just don’t expect to feel good about it the next day. 

Travelling with a toddler: is the answer just not to do it, ever?

E’s first flight, a deceptively calm affair.

People warned me about travelling with a baby. More than twenty minutes in her car seat would surely be instantaneously fatal, if the forums I read were anything to go by. Bus and train trips were equally perilous, fraught with all manner of unknown risks, such as broken lifts, closing doors and Other People. When she survived these journeys with a minimum of screaming, when I successfully forayed outside with her, I was congratulated on my abilities as a parent and as a navigator of the world. I bought it all. I felt proficient. I became complacent. Nobody warned me about what came next. 

Did they truly believe that handling an inanimate lump which just needed to be attached to a breast occasionally was harder than wrangling a fully fledged human being? No, I think rather that they couldn’t bring themselves to discuss with me the horror which is any journey with a mobile child, any child between say, one and an upward age as yet unknown to me. (I’m hoping four, but I suspect this is wildly optimistic.)

The car incites bouts of screaming, interspersed by short periods of calm. A constant parade of entertainment must be kept up, but nothing keeps the peace for longer than a few minutes. She wants to bury her face in my hair and hold my hand. I want to stare silently out the window and attempt to not vomit. (I’m yet to grow out of my own childish foibles. Moving transport has always been problematic for me.) Our needs are mutually exclusive, and of course hers always come first. 

Short journeys on the local bus are manageable, except that E has recently learnt to ask for a ‘nack’. What she lacks in precision of language she makes up for in forcefulness of will. She inevitably ends up plastered in crumbs and I am the recipient of baleful glances from disapproving pensioners. 

Half an hour seems to be the acceptable limit for train journeys. Longer than that, and it all descends into anarchy. God forbid the train be busy. Now that E knows how to walk she isn’t content to be held any more. She doesn’t understand how to do anything with crayons except eat them, and no toy or book we own can compete with the lure of the hair of the person sitting in front of us. What she wants to do is play with an open bottle of water, bang seat rests up and down, and scrabble for other people’s crumbs on the floor. Several months ago, before she was mobile, I endured a four and a half hour journey holding her all the way, whilst vomiting into a plastic bag. It was hellish at the time but now she can climb and throw I can only assume I’d still be cleaning vomit out of various crevices. 

I’m yet to experience plane travel with a toddler, having only just recovered from flying when she was four months old and screamed with harrowing force for the first thirty minutes of the flight. I imagine it will be equally horrific. We’re thinking of flying long-haul next year, and my vague plan is to hold off allowing her screen time until then, and then park her in front of a tablet for the entire flight. I’m thinking that the effect of sudden unbridled children’s TV on her neurotransmitters and dopamine receptors will be akin to a benign atomic bomb in her head, an explosion of colour and sound which will hopefully render her mute and motionless the whole way. Scientific? Probably not. Effective? Watch this space. 

Fluffywuffy by Simon Puttock: a review

I chose this book at the library in a state of incipient panic, grimly determined that the outing would bear tangible fruit, whilst juggling an increasingly enraged baby. I knew it was several reading levels above her ability to comprehend, but I thought the name was cute and the cover looked charming! You would think after living over thirty years and reading many books both for children and for adults I would have grasped that the old adage exists for a reason. Covers mislead. And what’s more, even blurbs can be outright deceptive. The back of Fluffywuffy claims: ‘Kids will love this darkly funny story with a brilliant mischievous twist!’

Well, yes. That description’s accurate, as long as out-and-out murder is your opinion of a hilarious surprise in a book for toddlers. To backtrack, Fluffywuffy is a small pet of indeterminate breed, owned by the rather wishy-washy Mr Moot. The first page obliquely warns of Fluffywuffy’s nature by telling us that ‘Mr Moot lives a quiet life’ and showing various bothersome people running from the house. (In keeping with many great works of literature, the sinister undertones of this opening can only fully be appreciated in retrospect.) Mr Moot has a cousin who turns up unannounced for a visit and who proves to enjoy noisy nocturnal activities*, to the enragement of Fluffywuffy.  *Not a euphemism, part of the insanity of this book is the way it remains child-friendly up until that afore-mentioned twist.

As with many horror novels, the terror creeps up on the reader. Repetition is utilised to build up a sense of dread: the sentence ‘Fluffywuffy said nothing’ reoccurs on each page, as the cousin becomes more and more irritating. The illustrations of Fluffywuffy add to the ominous tone by showing his/her eyebrows progressively lowering, the only hint as to the darkness within his/her soul. 

The climax is truly unexpected. Mr Moot awakes to silence from his cousin, and a missing Fluffywuffy. The penultimate illustration shows Fluffywuffy in monstrous silhouettes – his mouth, which has until this point been pursed shut in a moue of disapproval, wide and gaping with dreadful teeth.  The cousin has disappeared, leaving behind him his half-eaten belongings. The book ends with Fluffywuffy resplendent on a pile of nibbled clothes, grinning an enormous, eerie grin. It’s remarkable how little ambiguity there is here. It’s abundantly clear that the cousin has been eaten – there’s not even the option of diplomatically discussing with your child whether another interpretation is possible. 

That blurb continues to amaze me – I love the blithe use of the phrase ‘brilliant mischief’, as if rather than drawing on the floor with crayons, my child might in act of naughty playfulness kill somebody instead. I do think there is something darkly compelling about this story, and perhaps if I had an older child with a robust outlook on the world and a well-developed sense of irony my take on it would be different. Maybe my reaction is too prudish, driven by a desire for my precious firstborn to experience only nice stories, the tales which are truly fluffy. Even so, having already traumatised her with Scarface Claw, I’m not taking any risks. Fluffywuffy has gone back to the library and there it will stay.