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Building a new School Library - Charity work in Kenya

As many of you will know I’m a school librarian working at Stewart’s Melville College in Edinburgh. I am fortunate to receive financial support from my school which allows me to provide a vibrant and exciting range of books for our pupils, in a safe and welcoming environment. On a daily basis I see the impact that access to a well-stocked library has for the pupils in my school. It is with this knowledge therefore that I have become involved in helping to set up a new school library in Kenya.

Working with the charity ‘Children’s Literature for Children’
I am part of a team helping to develop a school library in the town of King'ong'o in Central Kenya. We must raise £12,000 in order to build the library and we must then stock the library with appropriate books and library supplies.

Can you help? Would you be willing to make a donation of books to the library?  Do you have some unwanted library supplies?  The children who will attend the library will be aged 5-14 and English will be their second language. Therefore we are looking for books in English, with an age range from pre-school to early teens. The books must be in good condition, although this does not necessarily mean they should be new. (Please note you would not be expected to ship books to Kenya as the books will be shipped centrally from Edinburgh.)

If you were able to provide any assistance with this project I would be enormously grateful. Please get in touch if you wish to discuss further.

Review: Over the Line - Tom Palmer

It’s 1914 and Jack is making his debut as a professional footballer. But the match is marred by a demonstration demanding that the players sign up to do their duty in France. It is not long before Jack is bound for the trenches with the Footballers’ Battalion

2014 is the 100 year anniversary of the start of the First World War. This period of History is a rich vein for storytelling with so many personal stories hiding amongst the bloody battles. One of these stories is told in Tom Palmer's new book 'Over the Line' which is based upon the true life of soldier and footballer Jack Cock.  Jack Cock scored England's first international goal after the end of the First World War yet his story remains almost unknown in the world of football.

As the First World War breaks out Jack makes his debut as a professional footballer yet this joy is short lived as talk of sportsmen's cowardice leads to the the formation of the Footballers Battalion and Jack swaps the football pitch for the trenches. Tom Palmer is to be commended for telling Jack's story and transporting us back to a time when that great British pastime, football, was overshadowed by the horror of War.

The book follows Jack from his professional debut with Huddersfield Town in 1914 to his England debut in late 1919. The book contains equal amounts of action on the pitch and the battlefield. As a member of the Footballers Battalion Jack and his team mates participate in the Flanders cup, a welcome distraction for soldiers, ensuring that football remains at the heart of the novel even when Jack is on the battlefield. 

Whilst writing the story Palmer visited the Somme, the scene of one of the Wars bloodiest battles, and stood beside one of his characters graves. There is no doubt that this has helped Palmer's writing as his novel is told in a authentic and sensitive voice. With Jack we live life in the trenches, go over the top and duck for cover as yet more German shells fall around us.  And when the action moves from the battlefield to the football pitch the authenticity remains. We can hear and feel the thud of boot on leather followed by the sound of the ball nestling in the back of the net.

There is no doubt that the perceived issue of sportsmen's cowardice was a big issue during the War. However many footballers felt pressurised by their clubs not to sign up for the War and footballers were often left to deal with difficult situations both on and off the park.  Protests and insults were common place and Palmer makes reference to these in the book. How would modern day footballers deal with this kind of decision? 

This is an important book by Tom Palmer because Jack Cock's story deserves to be heard by many people. Palmer tells the story in a clear and real voice with a strong narrative running throughout. 'Over the Line' is engaging, thought provoking and makes us think once again about the sacrifice made by so many in the First World War.  We will never know how many promising footballers gave up their chance of glory on the pitch to serve their country.  We must always remember Jack Cock and all the others.

For more information on Tom Palmer visit

For more information on Jack Cock click here

Review: City of Fate - Nicola Pierce

There was a rotten smell which usually only meant one thing, a body, though there was often more than one. They were a common feature now, part of any war-torn landscape; there were so many dead and not enough time nor space to bury them.

When picking up a Second a World War novel there is a certain amount of trepidation on my behalf as it can be difficult for an author to tell an original story, a story that captures the horror of war and yet at he same time entertains us as a reader. In 'City of Fate' Nicola Pierce blows my fears out of the water with an superbly written novel which does all of the above and quite a bit more as well.

'City of Fate' is set in one of the Second World Wars more unusual battlefields, the city of Stalingrad. Described by many as the most important battle of the Second World War Stalingrad was unlike any other part of the War. The fighting took place on the streets of the Russian City and amazingingly nearly 10,000 citizens were still living in the city when the battle was finished. The novel centres on some of these people; teenagers Yuri and Tanya who live with 5 year old Peter and Vlad and 3 of his classmates who are ordered to leave school to fight the Nazis.

It is clear that Pierce has meticulously researched her novel and she has captured what it must have been like to live in Stalingrad at this time. The sights and smells of the city envelope us as we follow Yuri and Peter's constant struggle for survival. Food, water and shelter were in short supply and there was the constant threat of violence. The brave souls of Stalingrad were fighting a bigger enemy than just the Nazis. They were fighting death.

It is hard to comprehend what happened in Stalingrad. Almost 2 million soldiers and civilians died in the battle including 150,000 Germans and their allies. Some of them may well have been killed by teenage soldiers like Vlad, who Stalin forced to join the ranks of the Russian army. A reluctant recruit Vlad is scared and ill equipped and must lean to deal with the full horror of War as it unfolds in front of him. Pierce portrays this in a thoughtful manner as we see the indelible scars War leaves slowly form on him.

Pierce does not shy away from the horror of war in her story. One particular scene focusing on the massacre of a Jewish village is particularly harrowing. She is to be commended for being brave enough to share this monstrosity with a teenage audience. Despite the darkness of the book in places there is also humour to be found. The scene where Peter spies on some Nazis in order to get a sausage brings some light hearted relief to the storyline.

The stories of Yuri and Peter and Vlad are cleverly brought together by Pierce as the book progresses. As we read the final chapters of the book the desolation and desperation taking hold in the City becomes ever more apparent. However nothing prepares us for the heartbreakingly sad climax to the story. The innocence of youth and the finality of war are smashed together in an amazingly powerful scene which will leave readers with a tear in their eye.

There is no fairy tale happy ending to this book which only adds to it's authenticity.  It's a richly evocative story which will stay with the reader long after the final pages. 

Watch Nicola talking about 'City of Fate' and her previous novel 'Spirit of Titantic'...

Feature: The Steven Camden Playlist

Steven Camden's novel 'Tape' (review here) is heavily laced with musical references which is unsurprising given how much music has influenced his career. It's provided inspiration for his writing as well as providing the soundtrack to his life.

In the novel 'Tape' lead character Ryan sets about making up a 'mixtape' of music which he plans to give to Ameliah. In an era where music is predominantly digital the art of the mixtape has been somewhat lost on today's generation. I myself remember spending hours preparing tapes for friends and, more commonly, girlfriends. As a shy teenager I liked the idea of the music doing the talking instead of me.

After reading 'Tape' I approached Steven and asked him what he would put on his mixtape. The tracks the he has selected are those that he played heavily during the writing of 'Tape' and that have been influential in his life and career to date. And although it doesn't quite have the same aesthetic quality (not to mention painstakingly neat handwriting on the inlay card) there is a Spotify playlist embedded in this article which will allow you to listen to the songs whilst you read why they are so important to Steven.

St. Etienne - Only love can break your heart

This song was playing as I arrived at a Halloween party I went to when I was fifteen. The drums thumping as I walked in feeling like Fonzey and it turned out to be the first amazing night of my life. One of those nights when you feel like you’re speaking to people without even opening your mouth and it seems you’re gliding rather than walking. It all felt like a film and I remember walking home on my own and singing this song, giving it the Gene Kelly swinging round lamp posts.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard it since and not wanted to go out dancing. That kind of romantic coolness was in my mind as I wrote TAPE and I hope anyone who reads it gets a sense of that.

Souls of Mischief - 93’ til Infinity

This track just sums me up at a time when I was falling completely in love with hip-hop. That sense that I’d found the music that felt most like ‘mine’ and the importance of drums and rhyming. I tried to pour the sense of that into Ryan and the book is set at the start of the summer holidays, because that was always the most hopeful time for me.

My older cousin and his friends used to break dance on flattened cardboard boxes outside his house and us younger ones would wait until they’d all gone inside, then have a go ourselves. I was rubbish.

When I first started writing rhymes and playing with words I remember my cousin gave a me a taped copy of this album and the title track was my favourite. I regularly blast this when the flat is empty and throw some of my amateur shapes on the living room floor, then I catch myself in the mirror and stick to rhyming along to words I’m pretty sure are etched into my brain.

The Stone Roses - Shoot You Down

This one is all about timing. I went to stay with my uncle and aunt for a weekend and slept on their sofa. I couldn’t sleep, so I started looking through their music collection and found a cassette tape with lemons on the cover and splattered paint and liked the name of the band so I plugged in their headphones and put it on, and completely fell in love. It sounded to me like guitar music influenced by hip-hop and Ian Brown’s voice and lyrics just made perfect sense.

I remember thinking how special it felt to have found a band this way and that it was supposed to happen. The ideas of ‘fate’ and ‘the universe’ and trusting that things would work out for the best were very important to me when I was thirteen and still are to this day.

The Cardigans - Carnival (acoustic)

This is another one from University and was a b-side to a single I’d bought a while before and never played. One night I was up late talking with a girl I properly fancied, trying to play it cool and she saw the single and put it on as we were still talking and then this track came on and we stopped and looked at each other and it felt like somebody was sound tracking the moment perfectly and it’s been one of my favourites ever since.

Toots & The Maytals - Funky Kingston 

This one is all about the relationship I had with my nan. Because my parents worked far from where we lived, my grandparents were a massive presence in my upbringing up until the age of 11. I used to hear this song coming from downstairs and I remember thinking about how sound moves through walls and floors and water and doors and how no matter what music it was, it always made me picture what was happening in the other room.

Ameliah’s relationship with her nan in TAPE is based on the dynamic between me and my nan. The arc of their relationship in the book is me trying to get them to the point of comfort, respect and love that I felt existed between me and my nan. I wanted Ameliah to have that.

Aesop Rock - Zero Dark Thirty

I love words.  More specifically I love playing with words, and even more specifically, I love when wordplay, craft and the musicality of speech patterns all combine to communicate something that feels like it’s got you and you can’t fully explain why.

Aesop Rock is brilliant. I still listen to music of his from over ten years ago and find new things in his lyrics and the marriage of those lyrics with the musical production. I love that feeling of lying in bed when everyone else is asleep and hearing something in a song and telling myself that only I have discovered that, that I’m connected to the person who made this music in a really simple yet magical way.

In my own, smaller version of that, I really hope that what I write gives anyone that feeling.

James Brown - Super Bad

TAPE is about a lot of things for me, and one of them is parenthood. I’m a father and I spend a lot of time thinking about how things get passed along through generations. Some of them are good and some bad, but they all carry weight. Something that makes me very happy, is the importance of music to both our children and how it feels like music is central to our lives. Words, lyrics and sentiment are important to me, but sometimes it’s just about a feeling and letting the music take you wherever it wants.

The main characters in TAPE all have this connection to music and the rhythm of the story and dance between the present and the past is, in my head at least, kind of musical and writing it felt like juggling the balance of the two worlds, whilst also showing how connected both of them were.

Broadcast - Tender Buttons

I listen to music mostly on the move these days. Journeys between meetings or walking around supermarket aisles trying to choose healthy food, are all sound tracked by whatever is in my Walkman. This album gets played a lot and this song always seems to play while I’m sitting on the train opposite someone who looks interesting.

It’s become my perfect song for people watching in the busy city. I’ve always been a watcher of people, not just grown ups, but everyone and I think that the details you take in all filter through to anything you write, especially when you’re creating characters.

Ameliah is a watcher of people in the story. The kind of person who will watch rather than speak, until she is ready to. I’ve become more like that as I’ve got older, but when I was younger I remember always wanting to be more like that, instead of running my mouth off which I invariably did.

Mos Def - Next Universe

This song makes me want to jump out of my own skin and break stuff. In a good way. It’s the beat. The specific snare sound and the groove of Mos Def riding it like some kind of genius jockey. The build up to when the beat drops gives me shivers every single time I hear it. That feeling of being that moved by a song is essential to both Ryan and Ameliah in TAPE and is the first point of connection between them and myself.

Basically, every now and then it’s important to shock out, and no matter how, where or when you do it, you should try and do it at least once a day. I do. And the days where I don’t get the chance are much greyer.

This is one of my top shock out tunes and while I was writing the book I often pictured Ryan and Ameliah, and anyone else from the story who was up for it, all shocking out to this, upstairs on a bus, like wild gorillas going to a party.

Adem - Statued

This song has sorted me out many times. The space and the time and the words, but mostly the feeling of it. It’s a song for journeys. For staring out of the window and trying to make sense of stuff.

Strange as it might sound, I’ve never been a big talker when it comes to personal stuff directly. I’ve never really been someone who goes to somebody else for advice, or confides doubts or fears and stuff. These days I have someone I could tell anything to, but before I found her, I would work things out through music. And it works.

By the time the right song finishes, you’ve either figured something out, made a decision, or at the very least, gained a slight sense of perspective on what’s going on and in some way things are better.

Both Ryan and Ameliah have things to deal with that can feel quite isolating, even from people close to them, and this song would make me remember what that’s like.

Review: Tape - Steven Camden

Ameliah feels the thick play button depress under her fingertip. The crackle starts immediately. She turns the volume down, making the sound just audible, and stares at the stereo. 

The cassette tape is probably a mythical object to most of today's teenagers.  Possibly glimpsed in the attic when accompanying Dad on one of his forays to the upper echelons of the house or occasionally surfacing in a mysterious box of junk it was once a prized object. Capable of holding everything from a number one album to the latest top ten recorded directly from Sunday afternoon's chart show it's fire was extinguished rather abruptly by the arrival of the CD.

Steven Camden's novel, where a casette tape is central to the story, is a remarkable book which centres on the lives of Ameliah and Ryan, separated by 20 years but connected by grief. Both have lost their mothers. In 1993 Ryan uses a cassette recorder to record his feelings on the death of his mother. When Ameliah moves in with her Grandmother following the death of her own mother and father in 2013, she finds the cassette and begins to hear the voice of teenage Ryan. 

What follows is a clever and entertaining novel where Camden slowly unwinds the connections between our teenage protagonists, separated by time, yet in the context of the book, both having to deal with the horrors and heartaches of teenage life, including first love. With the narrative of the book split between our two main characters Camden gives us just enough information on each to keep us hooked on the two characters. 

This book has many strengths including being extremely readable. I could have easily read it in one sitting were in not for family life intruding. Camden conveys the emotions and feelings of teenagers really well. The relationship between Ryan and his stepbrother is conveyed with a sharpness that one would except whist he is able to show Ameliah as a sensitive young girl trying to come to terms with the death of her parents. 

The flitting between 1993 and 2013 works well and for readers who grew up in the early 1990's there are lots of amusing cultural references. (Jurassic Park, Monster Munch, Shake n Vac and Eric Cantona to name a few).  Indeed as someone who used to 'tape' songs from the radio onto cassettes there was a certain a degree of nostalgia to this book. However for the young adult readers that this book is marketed at much of this may be somewhat lost on them. 

This book will take you on a veritable mix tape of emotions. It will make you laugh, make you think, will have you close to tears and will ultimately leave you with a feeling of hope.  Reading this book is akin to discovering a classic album for the first time. You never want it to end as you know you what you have discovered is something very special. 

Steven Camden introduces 'Tape' in this video...

You can follow Steven Camden on Twitter at @homeofpolar