Bookchat: Mark Powers, author of Spy Toys!

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Have you met the Spy Toys?! If not, Christmas might be a great time to introduce them to your children!!  There’s Dan, the super-strong teddy bear, Arabella, the doll with a serious temper, and Flax, the gadget-crazy robot rabbit.  Originally unwanted, now they’re part of a top-secret agency whose job it is to save the world – of course! In their latest hilarious and thrilling adventure Spy Toys: Out of Control, the trio do battle with a deadly unicorn and even a slightly jumbled up jigsaw. Complete with state of the art gadgets and daring deeds, brilliantly brought to life  by Tim Wesson’s fantastic illustrations, the Spy Toys series would be a fantastic addition to any young reader’s bookshelf!

Today, author Mark Powers joins me for a bookchat and shares some of the inspiration behind the adventures. Welcome to the blog Mark!

Congratulations on the publication of the second in the Spy Toys series! Tell us about the inspiration behind the stories. Thank you! I’d had the three main characters – a teddy bear, a rabbit and a rag doll – in my head for quite a while. I imagined them sharing a flat and bickering a bit like characters in a sitcom. Then I saw Marvel’s first Avengers film and it struck me it would be fun to turn this trio of toys into a crime-fighting team, to give each special powers and action scenes that would allow them to fire off snappy one-liners at the bad guys. I like writing about teams and how clashing personalities can sometimes get in the way of solving problems.

The Spy Toys stories are full of fun and it feels like you’re having great fun as a writer with the characters and the humour throughout.  Has your experience of writing them been as enjoyable as it seems?! It’s been enormous fun. I get a real kick out of writing for these characters. The fact they’re not human means I can push the slapstick a lot further than I’d normally be allowed in children’s fiction. There’s a cartoony aspect to it. If a major character in a regular children’s book got their head chopped off, it would be a pretty horrific thing. If it happens to one of the SPY TOYS, they can just have it reattached with a screwdriver at the end of the scene.

What were your childhood experiences of writing and reading and how have they helped inform your creativity? I loved reading and writing. In primary school I would often read fairly adult stuff like Ray Bradbury and Douglas Adams. When I got to comprehensive school, my friend Richard and I used to write and record comedy sketches on tape using BBC sound effects records. We did that for a good few years and it was fantastic practice at comedy writing. So much so, in fact, that by the time I was in the school 6th form, I was earning money regularly by writing material for comedy shows on Radio 4 and Radio 2.

The books include great illustrations by Tim Wesson. Did you always plan to have the stories illustrated and how do you work with Tim to bring the characters to life?It was always the plan to have illustrations. I had input and approval over how the characters looked but really the main liaison with Tim was done by the editor and designer at Bloomsbury. When I first started to write children’s books I imagined they’d be meetings with writer, illustrator, designer and editor sitting around a table (with cakes, preferably) and thrashing out between us what we wanted the illustrations to be. In reality, things are much more rarefied and most communication is via email.

The Spy Toys characters each have their own unique personality; I love the idea of the bear who hugs too hard and even the slightly less amiable rough and tough sunshine doll!! How do you go about creating the characters featured in the books?In any story, but particularly with comedy, you need contrasting character types. So a placid teddy bear, a spiky rag doll and a nerdy rabbit seemed a good combination. Again, I was lucky in having three non-human central characters. Kid heroes in books can be a bit bland and it’s the sidekick or supporting characters who tend to be the really funny ones. With SPY TOYS I have three fairly dysfunctional characters centre stage, so it’s easy to set them bickering with each other or anyone else they encounter.

Spy Toys has been described as James Bond meets Toy Story. If you could be any character – good or bad – in a spy story who would it be and why?! It might be fun to be a super-villain of the type you get in Bond films. To come up with some dastardly plan. Maybe I’d create a machine that zaps people if they talk during a film or open sweet wrappers noisily.

What can we expect in the next Spy Toys mission ‘Undercover’?! I can’t wait to see who the villain is – how will you top the dastardly unicorn?!! Oh, the usual mix of action, adventure, laughs, high emotion and petty squabbling. Glad you liked John the Unicorn! He was a lot of fun to write. In Undercover we meet diminutive child genius April Spume, who’s leader of a SPECTRE-like evil organisation of super-intelligent kids (called SIKBAG!) In this book, our three heroes go undercover in an ordinary primary school. The first book concentrated on Dan the teddy bear, the second on Arabella the rag doll, so in this third the main focus is on Flax, the ex-police rabbit. Slightly to my surprise, he’s shaping up to be the most popular character of the three.

Thank you Mark! I’m looking forward to reading Spy Toys: Undercover!

 

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Find out more at www.spytoysbooks.co and www.timwesson.co.uk.

With thanks to Bloomsbury for sending me this book to review and organising this bookchat!

 

 

 

 

 

New review: Greta Zargo by A.F Harrold illustrated by Joe Todd-Stanton

It’s always exciting to read the first book in a new series – but even more so when the book is by A F Harrold, a fantastic writer of books and poems.  Greta Zargo doesn’t disappoint with a mystery to solve, lots of silliness, some helpful anecdotes and immensely likeable characters,  it really is just a great book for children to read.

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Greta Zargo and the Death Robots from Outer Space by A F Harrold illustrated by Joe Todd-Stanton

Greta Zargo doesn’t know it, but she is the only one who can save planet earth from the death robots coming to destroy it! But right now, she’s a bit busy finding out who stole all the cakes! Warning: this book contains robots, peanuts, squirrels, trousers, an eleven-year-old spelling mistake, baths and, yes, lots of cake!

There’s not much for an intrepid would-be junior reporter to, well, report on, in Upper Lowerbridge, to create an award-winning, summer holiday story.  So Greta Zargo has to settle for finding a cake-thief, little realising that the real scoop is the planet-conquering robots making their way towards earth.  Greta’s no ordinary eleven-year old having been orphaned and left to fend for herself since the age of eight. She is determined to discover the culprit, working her way through a list of suspects – some of whom are not impressed to find themselves being questioned!  Meanwhile, the strange silvery robots approach, intent on finding The Great Zargo to ask if they can have planet earth in order to add data to the Harknow-Bumfurly-Histlock Big Book of Galactic Facts.  A small spelling error puts Greta unwittingly in place to save Earth from a terrible fate.  Will she succeed?

Fun and full of imagination, Greta Zargo is a fantastic sci-fi mystery adventure.  The two narratives of cake thievery and death-defying space robots run alongside each other brilliantly; aided by quirky and humorous anecdotal notes at the side of the page. Greta is a feisty character, with admirable determination, encouraged by her very eccentric and rather wonderful Aunt Tabitha, who I loved. Greta’s journalistic efforts are put to the test by an amusing cast of characters – including a giant squirrel!  The space sequences are hugely imaginative and full of impressive technical jargon and madcap space names. Although comical, it’s somewhat bittersweet as various weird and wonderful aliens inadvertently allow the complete destruction of their planets – perhaps a lesson for us all.   Illustrations throughout capture the quirkiness of the tale and help to create a really engaging, warm-hearted story.  I won’t give away the ending, but how refreshing  – how very polite death robots can be…!

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Find out more at www.afharroldkids.com and http://joetoddstanton.com/

With thanks to Bloomsbury Books for sending me this book to review

New Review: You Can’t Make Me Go To Witch School! by Em Lynas illustrated by Jamie Littler

Em Lynas writes stories and poems for children aged 5 to 12 years. You Can’t Make Me Go To Witch School! is her fantastic debut novel, published by Nosy Crow and illustrated by Jamie Littler. A perfect combination of lively narrative and marvellous illustrations that bounce off the page, this was a thoroughly enjoyable read!

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You Can’t Make Me Go To Witch School! By Em Lynas illustrated by Jamie Littler

Daisy Wart is NOT a witch! She is an ACTRESS!  And actresses do NOT go to witch school! So when she finds herself at Toadspit Towers, sleeping in a swinging cauldron (surprisingly comfortable) and eating gloop (unsurprisingly disgusting), she vows to escape at all costs.  But how can she get past the TOADSPIT TERRORS that lurk in the corridors? And what if she REALLY IS a witch? Maybe even the WITCHIEST WITCH of them all?

Daisy Wart is furious when her Granny leaves her at Toadspit Towers boarding school for witches. Adamant that she is not a witch and determined to escape, so she can prove her thespian abilities in her school play, Daisy hatches an escape plan. And another, and another….all of which are doomed to fail! Stuck in a dormitory with the irritating Dominique, Best and Brightest Witch in the school, the longer Daisy spends at Toadspit, the more the mystery surrounding her ancestry unfolds.  Not only this, the school has a few mysteries of its own and it seems Daisy’s escape is tied up with the fate of Toadspit. With two new friends to help her, Daisy gathers all her courage and ingenuity to once and for all prove she is not a witch….!

You Can’t Make Me Go To Witch School! is a fantastic story, full of humour and original, fun magical details that will delight readers.  I particularly liked the school reward system – magical ticks giving students the ability to ‘buy’ treats (I’d love to be able to do this at my school!) A lively cast of characters include Mrs Toadspit the resident ghost and headmistress; Mrs Thorn, a teacher with looks that cold ‘shrivel’; Jess and Shalini, Daisy’s friends; and of course a variety of magical creatures from hooting owls, carnivorous plants to magical wooden cats! I particularly enjoyed Ms Lobelia the singing/gardening expert (wonderfully drawn by Jamie Littler).

Daisy who is a loveable but somewhat feisty girl has to quickly learn how to fit in at her new school and make friends, something many readers will identify with – although I don’t imagine many readers sleep in swinging cauldrons! Jamie Littler’s fantastic Illustrations bring to life the humour and magic of the story and as the plot thickens, there are some brilliantly described edge of your seat moments. There is a slightly unexpectedly gruesome moment as the story climaxes to watch out for with younger readers, but I’m sure You Can’t Make Me Go To Witch School! will be a hit with all who read it and they’ll be clamouring for the next in the series!

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Find out more at www.emlynas.weebly.com.

With thanks to Nosy Crow for sending me this book to review!

 

New review: Alex Sparrow and the Really Big Stink

Alex Sparrow and the Really Big Stink is the debut novel by Jennifer Killick, published by Firefly Press. Jennifer studied Creative Writing at Brunel University and having always loved stories, has achieved what she thought as a child would be impossible: having a book with her name on it in the shops!  It’s a fantastic middle grade debut and has been chosen as one of the Reading Agency’s Summer Reading Challenge titles.

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Alex Sparrow and the Really Big Stink by Jennifer Killick

Alex Sparrow is a super-agent in training. He is also a human lie-detector. Working with Jess – who can communicate with animals – they must find out why their friends, and enemies, are all changing into polite and well behaved pupils. And exactly who is behind it all. This is a humorous tale full of farts, jokes and superhero references. Oh, and a rather clever goldfish called Bob. In a world where kids’ flaws and peculiarities are being erased out of existence, Alex and Jess must rely on what makes them different to save the day.

Alex Sparrow is a boy whose mission in life is to be a superhero of the secret agent variety (think Nick Fury). He doesn’t share this too much with the boys at school, for fear of losing his ‘friends’.  But Alex’s idiosyncrasies become more obvious when his ear becomes a human lie detector causing horrifically smelly results! Little does Alex realise he’s not the only one who’s been ‘gifted’ a superpower. Jess, a girl at school who he’s never had much to do with, has her own unique power; she can talk to animals with equally odd results.  Together they make a hilarious team. Whilst the rest of the school kids, including Alex’s so-called friends, shun them for being ‘weirdos’ Alex and Jess set about uncovering a dastardly plot led by an evil teacher. Who knew the hidden lives teachers lead?! As you can imagine, this leads to some unusual and action-packed scenarios, featuring everything from a brave and noble goldfish to a fairly irritating pigeon – and lots of twitching and farting.

I particularly loved – and laughed at – Alex’s voice overs narrating their every move, fully immersing himself into a secret-agent-come-superhero guise. Even more amusing was Jess’ reaction to this, given her straight-talking personality and refusal to be anybody’s sidekick!  The banter between Alex and Jess is brilliant and brings each of their characters bouncing to life. The barmy plot keeps you guessing and laughing out loud all the way through. With twists and turns galore, Alex Sparrow is a school comedy caper perfect for kids – and I think lots of grown-ups will enjoy it too. It also brilliantly reminds us that being different is what makes us human and true friends are often found when we least expect it.

Find out more at www.jenniferkillick.com.

With thanks to Firefly Press for sending me this book to review.

Marge and the Pirate Baby by Isla Fisher

Marge and the Pirate Baby by Isla Fisher with illustrations by Eglantine CeulemansMarge

Yo ho ho, me hearties, Marge is Back! This time there’s a baby on the loose. Meet Zara, the naughty little cousin who never sleeps and loves to steal treasure. Marge thinks she’s a pirate and maybe she’s right. 

But will the imaginative babysitter be on her best behaviour? And can Jemima save the day at her Uncle’s wedding?

Jemima and Jake are delighted that their colourful, larger-than-life (but small in stature) babysitter, Marge, is coming to look after to them. But they’re less than delighted that their baby cousin Zara will be there too.  She does nothing but cause trouble, making playtime hazardous and far less enjoyable.  However, with Marge in charge, they soon realise that perhaps there is hope for fun even with Zara getting in the way and generally causing mayhem.  From playing pirates in the garden to swimming in the local pool and even at a wedding, Marge soon shows them who is boss! Even with Marge’s eccentric ways, everything that needs to be done gets done and more importantly to them, Jemima and Jake have a great time!

Featuring three stories in one, Marge and the Pirate Baby is a great read, perfect for younger middle grade children.  The second in the series and told from the point of view of Jemima, the eldest child in the Button family, expect some laugh-out-loud moments and wonderful surprises.  Who wouldn’t love a babysitter who insists she has links to royalty and rainbow coloured hair?!  Marge is quite possibly the best babysitter ever – helping the children build camps and giving them ice cream before lunch, with lots of freedom to be themselves but making sure they do as they’re supposed to. I love her eccentricities and madcap way of doing things.  Marge shares her experiences as a pirate, an intrepid explorer and member of the royal household throughout, inspiring her young charges. Isla Fisher perfectly captures the mayhem that can surround looking after children –as well as the delight children feel when a grown-up behaves in an unexpected way!  And the illustrations brilliantly bring to life marvellous Marge and her young charges.

These stories cleverly reflect real situations that children can feel worried or nervous about like learning to dive and being a bridesmaid, with Marge coming to the rescue and giving just the right encouragement when needed.  Young readers will be inspired to be brave, look out for each other and perhaps not be so quick to judge a situation. I love the fact the Button parents think Marge is a totally ‘normal’ babysitter, which couldn’t be further from the truth. I think every family should have a Marge! I would thoroughly recommend these stories; great for reading aloud or enjoying independently.

Find out more at www.piccadillypress.co.uk and www.eglantineceulemans.com.

With thanks to Piccadilly Press for sending me this book.

 

23 December: Jo Franklin

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Help! It’s  Jo Franklin!

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Jo Franklin went to a boarding school, which was nothing like Hogwarts. She did however, have plenty of time for reading and making up stories in her head. After ten years of making camps in the woods with her own children, Jo wrote Help! I’m an Alien and like all true aliens, she is aiming for world domination with two more titles to come in the Help! series

Name three things on your Christmas list this year! Chocolate Cherry Liqueurs – I ate five boxes last year, because I kept buying them ‘for Christmas’ and eating them before December. So this year I’m going to put them on my list and not buy any cgj3bc8w0aalu6cmyself. Hopefully that will limit me to one box only. A signed print by Chris Riddell – no one in my family would ever have thought of buying me this, so I have cheated and bought it myself. It’s currently at the framers. ‘Set the Boy Free’ Johnny Marr’s autobiography. Johnny was the guitarist with The Smiths – my favourite band of all time so I can’t wait to read this.

Christmas is a time of family traditions – what are your best (or worst!) family traditions? We don’t do Christmas in a big way, but we always have pancakes for breakfast and a roast dinner. I’m vegetarian so I will have cauliflower cheese instead of the meat. I love Brussel sprouts, parsnips and roast potatoes, so I really enjoy Christmas lunch.

There are wonderful stories shared at Christmas time. What is your favourite story to read at Christmas? I make a point of reading two books every year between Christmas and New Year. They aren’t exactly stories but gear me up for the new year – On Writing by Stephen King and Bird by Bird by Ann Lamott. They both give their view of being a writer. I find them totally inspirational.

If you could have Christmas dinner with anyone (alive today or person from history) who would it be and why? Morrissey – he is the reason I became vegetarian 30 years ago so we could share a vegetarian feast and talk about books and music.

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In ‘Help! I’m an Alien!’, Daniel has some very unique best friends, Gordon the Geek and Freddo. What gift would he give them at Christmas?  Freddo is easy. He would like a life time’s subscription to Walker’s Crisps. Daniel would probably buy Gordon a new tie, but instead of using Christmas wrapping paper he would have it sealed in a sterile atmosphere to ensure that there was no chance it was contaminated.

(*Laughs out loud*)

You do loads of brilliant author events! If you could plan the perfect author event to celebrate Christmas AND reading, what would it be like and who would be there? I love to spend time with other writers and enthusiastic readers. My idea of heaven would be to spend a day in a massive log cabin, cut off from civilisation by heavy snow. The cabin has a roaring fire with an endless supply of logs. Each person reads out a chapter from their favourite book and gives a copy of that book to everyone else at the event, so at the end of it we all leave with a massive pile of books to read. Sharing a passion for reading and writing is a great way to make friends.

(This sounds perfect!)

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Reader’s question from children at the Inkpots Writers’ Hut; do you write in silence or do you need some noise around you? I like to listen to music. At the moment I have put my whole catalogue of music on shuffle and am working my way through it. Right now I’m on track 1183 of 3248 which is by The Pale Fountains. I love guitar bands, mostly from the Eighties but also up to date bands like the Arctic Monkeys.

Turkey or goose? Cauliflower cheese – see above!

Real or fake tree? Real. I wouldn’t bother if I couldn’t have a real tree.

Mince pies or Christmas pudding? Christmas pudding with brandy butter AND brandy cream.

Stockings –  end of the bed or over the fireplace? End of the bed although we leave mincepies, beer and a carrot by the fireplace.

Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve? I’ve never understood the joy of New Year’s Eve. I’m not a great fan of parties and don’t like getting drunk, so I prefer to stay in reading a good book. Christmas Eve is usually a frantic wrapping frenzy.

Thank you or taking part in our festive Q & A! Merry Christmas! 

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Find out more about  Jo on her website www.jofranklinauthor.co.uk and follow her on Twitter @JoFranklin2

 

16 December: Paul Gamble

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Paul Gamble & his Christmas jumpers on 16th December!paul-gamble

Paul Gamble’s debut novel The Ministry of SUITs was published earlier this year.  He was born and brought up in Belfast. Paul currently works in the Department of Communities, working closely with arts and cultural institutions throughout Northern Ireland. Over the years Paul has written and worked on a number of local and national television and radio shows. He has also worked with a range of stand up comedians. Some of the most recent shows he has worked on have included BBC NI’s The Blame Game and Eureka!the Big Bang query for RTE. l.

Name three things on your Christmas list this year! Well if I could have anything I wanted? I’d love one of the new Mac Book Pros – but I refuse to buy a new one until my old computer dies and heads off to silicon heaven. I love P G Wodehouse’s books and I’d love a signed edition of one of the early ones featuring J4db6a0f025a812125ae576eb95726b13eeves. Unfortunately a lot of other people would like that as well, so they’re very expensive and I don’t think I’ve been good enough this year for Santa to give me one! (Frankly in order to get one I’d have to be the nicest person in the world all year and I’m not sure that it’s worth the effort. And I know it sounds silly, but for a third thing I’d just like to get to spend a bit of time with my friends and family over Christmas!

Christmas is a time of family traditions – what are your best (or worst!) family traditions? These days everyone seems to have a ‘Christmas Jumper’. Way back before that became popular I noticed in films people always seemed to have awful Christmas jumpers, although it never happened in real life. That year I decided to ask my mother to hand-knit me a festive jumper…and since that year I’ve got a new one every year, made by her industrious hands. When I started I was the only person doing it, but now everyone seems to have one. (Although I’m especially proud that mine are hand made. I’ve included photos of a few from the past decade or so!)

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(Do you think if we asked really nicely your Mum would knit one for us?!! They’re brilliant!)

What is your favourite story to read at Christmas? Well the classic answer is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. It really is a brilliant, scary and heart warming stothe-muppet-christmas-carolry. For years people felt that it was a perfect story and couldn’t be improved.…and then the Muppets made a version of it – and they made it a little bit better. (I love Charles Dickens, but I have to say he didn’t have enough song and dance numbers in his books.)  So it isn’t a reading-story – but I’m answering ‘The Muppet Christmas Carol’. (The Muppets improve everything, and the sooner they do the definitive version of Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, the better. Just think about it, Hamlet’s very sad in the play, but a few dance numbers and a ventriloquist act with Yorick the skull would cheer him right up.)

(*tears of laughter*…)

If you could have Christmas dinner with anyone (alive today or person from history) who would it be? Another great question! I was thinking Shakespeare, Socrates, Isaac Newton. And then I realised that you don’t want to have very serious intellectual conversations over Christmas Dinner, so I think I’ll probably have to go for P G Wodehouse (see answer one!) because I think he’d be funny, interesting and delightful company.

Your book The Ministry of SUITs (which I loved!) has some wonderful, fantastical characters. How would you feature Santa Claus working at the Ministry of SUITs?! Funny you should ask… Book two in the series explains the business model that Santa Claus uses so that he can afford toys for everyone. Needless to say he knows the Tooth Fairy. Although I don’t want to tell you whether they get on with each other or not – I’m afraid you’ll just have to read the book!

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You’ve created some fantastic characters in The Ministry of SUITs.  What would some of their New Year’s resolutions be and why? Well as you know, Jack’s curiosity is always getting him in trouble so he’d probably make a resolution to try and avoid investigating potentially lethal situations. Trudy would probably make a resolution to stop punching Jack in the arm. Naturally neither of them would make it past the evening of New Years Day.

winter-1027822_1920Reader’s question from children at the Inkpots Writers’ Hut: when did you start writing? Did you go to anything like the Writers’ Hut (a creative writing club for kids)? I started writing when I was at school and I’ve never really stopped. I’ve given everything a go in my time, poetry, radio shows, televisions, jokes for stand up comedians and now The Ministry of SUITs.I never went to a writing club, but I think they’re a brilliant idea. I wrote tens of thousands of words before I came up with The Ministry of SUITs. If I’d had a few people around me to give me some advice, I might have got it done a lot sooner. As it was I had to wait until I found my brilliant agent Gemma Cooper before I got that assistance!

Turkey or goose? Turkey.

Real or fake tree? Fake, I like the idea of real. But it comes with a lot of hoovering and I’m not prepared to make that commitment. Come to think of it tinsel involves a fair amount of hoovering as well.  So maybe I’ll ban tinsel as well this year.  (I do insist on real tinsel though. But I make sure that it’s real tinsel that is grown on sustainable tinsel farms.)

Mince pies or Christmas pudding? Christmas pudding. Although I think it’s unfair that you’re making me choose. How about a Mince pie that’s coated in Christmas pudding. (If any of you steal this idea and sell it to Tesco and make a fortune, I’m expecting 10% of the profits – or at the very least you could buy me one of the items from question 1 – see above.)

Stockings –  end of the bed or over the fireplace?  End of the bed, socks can smell unpleasant at the best of times, warming them up just means that the pong can spread further…

Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve? New Years Eve, although I don’t actually go out! I always reserve that day of the year to have a quiet night in by myself reading a book that I’ve specially selected and saved up all year for a treat. This year I’ve saved Books 4 and 5 of Leonard Wibberly’s “Mouse that Roared” series….really looking forward to them.

Thank you for your brilliant festive answers! Have a Merry Christmas!

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For more information about Paul visit www.littleisland.ie.  For a review of The Ministry of SUITs visit the Bookshelf.