Monthly Archives: March 2007

The Roman Mysteries

Don’t play sad music to Caroline Lawrence. It apparently makes her want to kill people. Her thirteenth Roman Mystery, The Slave-girl from Jerusalem, out this week, has just given me a bit of a Sirius Black moment. Caroline has killed off one of her characters. Daughter14, who snatched the book from me when it arrived, was left crying on her own without the comfort of an understanding mother. Well, I didn’t know what to comfort her about, did I?

Daughter was given the first three Roman Mysteries for Christmas some years ago. I reasoned that she liked crime and she liked history, so these would be perfect. She didn’t read them. The Resident IT Consultant read and liked the books. So we forced her to read the first one. As you’ll find, there’s a fair amount of book forcing going on chez bookwitch.

Then I found Caroline was coming to Daughter’s school, and hurriedly bought the next five books. So now we had eight, seven of them untouched by Daughter’s hands. That summer holiday she dutifully started on number two. Then there was a frenzied movement as Daughter gobbled up all eight. I read them after her, reasoning I’d have plenty of time being second. No. Daughter started re-reading them, coming closer and closer to my book. Then we read in tandem, taking turns, before she overtook me the second time. There’s been no looking back.

Caroline has been here three times, so Daughter and the rest of us have lunched and brunched with her, and read plenty more books.

It’s not very proper to admit to a general lack of interest in the classics. I blame my school. But I find these books provide an excellent way to get a bit of a classical education. In fact, I’m amazed that Caroline can manage to fit in so many real dates and people into her plots. I’d never even considered the possibility of feeling close to Pliny the elder or any of those boring old Roman emperors, but I do. I couldn’t have cared less about Roman latrines, despite my enormous interest in toilets.

It’d be easy to dismiss the Roman Mysteries as light reading and just another series. Caroline herself admits to being inspired by the Famous Five and by Nancy Drew. But these books are great. They entertain. They educate. There’s another five to come. What shall we do after number eighteen..?

I’ll leave you with the opening sentence of The Slave-girl from Jerusalem. “Someone was going to die; of that he was perfectly sure.”

Hope you are halfway down the road to your nearest bookshop by now.


Harrogate here they come

More good news as the local bookshop is regional winner for the North and Scotland, so now it’s down to just five of them fighting it out in Harrogate on the 1st of May. Or whatever it is they do to find a winner. They only heard the news yesterday, but it seems that Jacqueline Wilson, who is one of the judges this year, spilled the odd bean when she saw Sue and Andrew at the British Book Awards on Wednesday night. So I’d say that Radio Manchester are spot on with their timing for tonight’s live show with Sue. I feel the glamour is almost rubbing off on the rest of us here. Though I believe I might draw the line at being photographed with Gordon Ramsay. Daresay he’d feel the same about me.

Radio for Mancunians

Radio Manchester in their wisdom have invited one of the owners of the local bookshop to do a one hour programme for them, which I’ve just been told will be on at 22.00 on Friday. Listen to it. I’ve got no idea what Sue will do, but I do like the fact that bookshops are being recognised for their work. The message was rather hasty as Sue was running to catch a train to London for the British Book Awards thingy. So maybe a glimpse on television even?

Feeling younger still

Cathy Hopkins’ rejuvenating talents are still at work on me. Her latest books to be published next week are aimed at the 8-12 age group. Though I must say I feel they can and should be read by older girls too, without seeming too young for them. Zodiac Girls is Cathy’s new series, and as the name suggests there will be twelve books, published two at a time. I only got hold of one proof so have just read From Geek to Goddess. But as Cathy had the good taste to start with a Gemini girl, I’m more than satisfied.

This is about Gemma (Gemini…) who gets sent to boarding school in Year 8 and has to learn to make new friends. It’s a nice mixture of real life problems and a bit of Zodiac fantasy. The Greek Gods keep popping up in lots of books these days, but I was a little surprised to find them at Gemma’s boarding school as well. I must admit to having joined the ranks of those who fancy Hermes, even though I don’t normally go for the really handsome type. Must be my new age, again.

The other Zodiac Girls book out is Recipe for Rebellion, and I wish I knew what it’s like!

Listen to this

Don’t miss Open Book at 16.00 on Radio 4 Sunday 25th March. And you will if you’ve forgotten about summertime. So don’t forget that either.

Mariella Frostrup will be talking to two favourites of mine, Caroline Lawrence and Mary Hoffman, on the subject of history in children’s books. They both have new books out in early April.

Someone else with a book out that week is Derek Landy, but for him it will be for the first time. I have only started reading his Skulduggery Pleasant this afternoon, and it’s fun. Really fun. Will report back later when I’ve finished the book and met Derek. Glow-in-the-dark pages…

Open Book is repeated at 16.00 on Thursday 29th on Radio 4. That will be a busy day radiowise, as you really shouldn’t miss Philip Pullman and his teacher that morning, at 11.30 on Radio 4. I’ll have to tie knots in my hanky.

Fresh Armadillo

Introducing Armadillo Magazine for those of you who don’t know it. Author Mary Hoffman obviously doesn’t have enough to do “just” writing very good books for children and teenagers. So, some years ago she started a magazine about children’s books, which now has turned into an online magazine. And it’s only £5, so everyone subscribe please! Mary’s good at networking, and if you take a closer look you’ll see that most of her book reviewers are other authors.

To tell the truth, until recently I had avoided Mary’s Stravaganza series, for the poor reason I didn’t feel the covers were my kind of covers. Once I ignored that ridiculous idea, I found some very enjoyable books. Even the Resident IT Consultant reads them and likes them.

As Mary won’t blow her own trumpet in Armadillo, I’ll just say that she has a new book out in early April called The Falconer’s Knot. It’s a romantic murder mystery for teenagers, set in medieval Italy. It’s great. Read it.

Brownie points

On the train home Stephanie Calman ate her children’s chocolate Brownies. I had been prepared to stand up and say she’s not a bad mother, for all her writings on the subject. But now I don’t know.

Stephanie had dragged herself north for a Mother’s Day night with the girls, at my watering hole. The Brownie recipients had given her a cold and she wasn’t feeling well. It was strictly aspirin and water and no pink cocktail for her. Though I’d say Stephanie doesn’t require a drink to party. Even with a cold she fizzes.

Earlier that day Meg Rosoff had tasked me to ask Stephanie if she remembered lunch at one-legged Mary’s apartment ten years earlier. Wow. I wish I had unusual topics of conversation like that. Though in a way I did of course, as I got to borrow Meg’s conversation starter. Thanks. Turned out Stephanie had a lot to say about Mary, who sounds very interesting.

Just as well. Stephanie’s husband was meant to come along, but the aforementioned colds put a stop to any romantic ideas. Which at least meant that our gathering could concentrate on the subject of men and husbands and their possible uses. (No apology to the lone male who strayed into our midst – what were you thinking?)

Stephanie kept fretting about her doggy bag of Brownies for the children. I thought it was rather sweet. And now it turns out they didn’t get any. Mind you, I’d have done the same. Low blood sugar is no laughing matter for a tired bad mother.

Which boys’ book?

The government want boys to read more. Good idea, but how do you do it? Setting a good example at home would be a start, but I wonder if it’s been left too late. A lot of parents don’t read.

And what to tempt the boys with, should they be willing to give reading a try?

Among the books recommended by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals was Bloodtide by Melvin Burgess, which is an incredibly good book. But hardly for the reluctant novice reader. It’s rather like suggesting Wagner for someone’s first go at opera.

The adviser at the Reading Agency recommended Marcus Sedgwick’s The Foreshadowing. Also a really good book. But do boys want to read about a girl’s attempts at going to France as a nurse in World War One?

Having grumbled and complained this far I ought to whip out the perfect solution, but I don’t have it. Something by Tim Bowler, possibly. Or Terry Pratchett’s children’s books. The Gasfitters’ Ball by Philip Pullman, or the Missing Link trilogy by Kate Thompson.

Any suggestions?

Googling the bookwitch

I’m sorry. I honestly don’t know how to do this. As Meg Rosoff commented the other day, I’m hard to find. Which ought to make success that much sweeter if and when you arrive here.

I have tried googling myself. The word bookwitch isn’t enough, and adding words or names produces varied results. When it does work the googler always ends up with one of the earliest posts that mentions none of the search words.

One search combination takes you to a site for Betelgeuse. Should have realised there’d be one.

And how Son eventually became a footnote

A year after the level 13 episode I bought Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights as holiday reading. Son was still mainly on a diet of Blyton and Dahl, except for me forcing him to read the first two Harry Potter books, or be disowned.

I can still picture Son in the armchair where he read Northern Lights in just two days for the 400 pages. He didn’t do anything else. He just sat there. Talk about life changing events.

I didn’t realise for a while quite how much Son loved His Dark Materials. He read lots of other books. He became a library helper at his secondary school. Thanks to an enlightened school librarian who invited authors to school, he met quite a few, and read all their books too. But Philip Pullman and HDM must always have been with him. He’d sit in front of the computer every day and nerd with all the other Pullman nerds on the various fansites. I thought it was a pathetic waste of time.

At sixteen he persuaded the family to travel the 250 miles to London to see all six hours of HDM at the National Theatre. When we returned home he secured the last ticket to go and see both parts of the play again, so I accompanied him to the National Theatre and waited in the foyer. Having caught the madness bug I jokingly suggested we go to Gothenburg that autumn, as I’d read that Philip Pullman would be there. We went. And by some fluke the opportunity to interview Pullman fell into our laps only days before. So we met him. Did the interview, which was published on the fansites.

Son went on to read the books recommended to him by Pullman. He started travelling to London to meet up with his new friends from the fansites, and he joined in helping to run them. They made global podcasts together, working to find a time when they were all awake.

When we returned to Gothenburg a year later he went round and asked the authors there for a Philip Pullman quote for the website. Authors like Sara Paretsky, Eoin Colfer and Jacqueline Wilson were all happy to oblige. Back home a package arrived from Alabama. An academic called Laurie Frost had written a reference book on HDM, called The Elements of His Dark Materials. She asked him to review it for her. Closer inspection of this rather wonderful book revealed that Son even made it into one of the footnotes.

At Son’s sixth form school the Oxbridge expert taunted him with his immature literary interests, but when he went for his interview Philip Pullman was the first subject that came up. Son is now involved in the new film project on Pullman’s The Butterfly Tattoo. It’s another of Son’s pals who’s in charge and who managed to raise £100,000 the first day the shares were offered. And this morning Son returned from a 24 hour outing to Dublin to see both parts of the HDM play at a Dublin college. A jesuit run college, just to make it more interesting.

On the whole I think learning to read was a good move.