Monthly Archives: May 2009

The Magic Half

If your older brother has a twin brother and your younger sister has a twin sister, and you only have yourself, then you will feel a bit left out. 11-year-old Miri, in The Magic Half by Annie Barrows, feels very un-special, and her parents are so busy they don’t notice.

The day Miri hits her brother with a shovel and is sent to her room, is when things change. That’s when Miri accidentally finds herself in her own room, only 75 years earlier. She meets Molly, who is her own age, and who believes Miri is a fairy, come to save her. Miri believes in fairies, even though it’s a childish thing to do, but she knows she herself is no fairy. So who is wrong here?

Molly leads an awful existence with her aunt and cousins, who all want to be rid of her.  It’s 1935, and this book provides an interesting contrast between the different ways of life in the same house. It’s rural America at the time of the Great Depression and times are hard. Miri also has to rack her memory for what is yet to happen, like World War II, and its possible impact on Molly.

You could see this book as a clever way of looking at the past and teaching young readers about history, and about friendship and helping people.

On the other hand, you could see the book as a fun adventure with time travelling and fairies and friendship. And when you come to the concluding chapter you realise that there was only one way Miri’s and Molly’s problem could be solved. Carelessness with frying pans should never be ignored.

Lovely story.



This is old news, but who says I have to keep up, when you can stick it in the fridge, and it will keep forever?

Reading with Dad

There was this competition a while back, to promote children reading with their fathers or male carers. Very worthwhile idea, and let’s hope it got a few new readers going. The winning entry was this photo showing us how cool reading is, which I’ve not felt ready to tackle until the recent rise in temperature around here. And around here is exactly where it is. The winning boy goes to the same school as Son did for sixth form, and they apparently win lots of books for the school library, which is nice. It is a very wealthy neighbourhood, though.

The lucky boy winner gets to travel to Sweden (where else?) to visit the European Space Centre. I know someone else who would like to do that.

And don’t some people have annoyingly tidy fridges?

When writers don’t get paid

The witch doesn’t always remember things. But sometimes my memory is very good, and with a visual mind, I can ‘see’ some things from the past exactly. So, nearly eight years ago, I see where I am standing and in which bookshop, and I see what I am buying. The memory may be stronger, because it was uncharacteristic behaviour for me.

I picked up hardback copies of the first Artemis Fowl and the first Pure Dead Magic. The former because all the PR had made me confused enough to buy a hardback, and the latter because the purple velvet cover was irresistible. The bookshop was – or became – Hammicks. It was a shop that changed names faster than I could keep up with, but as I said, I can see where I was.

So, last week I brought the purple velvet to its ‘mother’ to be signed at long last. When Debi opened it up, however, the name Ted Smart leapt out at us. But I did not buy it from his catalogue! Debi reckons shops sometimes get their books cheap from that place, and sell them on. 

Will have to keep my eyes open from now on.

“On waking

from an afternoon in bed with a migraine, the mother heard the little girl outside the bedroom door, asking her father where the cook was. ‘Asleep with a headache, I believe’. The mother had just spent an hour or so cooking dinner for an ever growing number of Lithuanians, wondering what on earth she could find in a stranger’s kitchen to feed all these hungry people.

Not only did the prospective diners multiply, but there was this odd, smooth talking banker type who wanted to hand her a cheque, in Euros. He was going to hand the money over the next morning, and would 8.30 be too early? She rather thought it was, so they settled on 80% after eight o’clock, whenever that may be. He wanted an explanation to the train load of Astrid Lindgren characters which travelled past, so she explained that Lithuania had sort of adopted one particular book as their own. Then he kissed her on the cheeks, and she counted the kisses to find out what was considered polite in these parts. Five times, apparently.

After frantically trying to feed all these people, it was almost a relief to find it was only the father and the girl who were hungry. And herself, which was considerably more important. An emergency piece of Emmental prepared her to face the dishwasher which needed emptying, the work surface and bread board smeared with some horrible, sticky stuff. Correction. Lovely home made plum jam, but still sticky in the wrong place. Second time that day. First time it was lovely home made orange marmalade.

Since the dinner was half planned while asleep/in Lithuania, it was more a case of putting water on for the pasta, finding that the vegebangers weren’t where she thought they’d be, and mentally adjusting how to serve up two kinds of peas. Frozen for the oldies, and tinned for the little one.

At this point the little one appeared and judging the situation accurately, proceeded to empty the dishwasher. Amazingly, the father only showed up when the pasta was ready. Elk pasta shapes from Ikea, if you want to know. After the beautiful dinner had been demolished, the girl offered to watch the remaining episode of Monk with the cook. Then she played Christmas carols on the piano.”

Maybe there ought to be an emergency list on what to do in these circumstances. Cook your own dinner, and have some pasta standing by for when the cook falls out of bed. That kind of thing. Or toast with sticky stuff on. Lovely and home made. (By the father, she hastens to add.)

Earl Grey, just the right strength, right amount of milk, and properly hot. Please.

Big Beat From Badsville

The witch is pleased to announce that Donna Moore, of Go To Helena Handbasket fame, has yet again taken up blogging. It’s really very, very annoying when amusing people don’t blog moore. Donna did some blogging while she was being eaten alive by Alaskan bears, carting her vast shoe collection and far too many packets of crisps round that large American state last year. And then she stopped. Pah.

Dinner Friday Night

I heard from her recently, just after the CrimeFest in Bristol, and she told me they’d been back for dinner at the place that did my birthday tealights last year, and they’d even sat at the same table. There was a blogger from Philadelphia sitting on ‘my’ chair, and I’m still waiting for an explanation.

Anyway, Donna has taken the plunge with a Scottish crime blog so now I finally have moore to read. Hopefully there are fewer bears in Glasgow.

(I think I may have stolen the photo from Declan Burke. Thanks, Dec!)

All at sea

Or Båtsalongen, as ‘Vi’ calls its annual literary event. ‘Vi’ being the Swedish magazine I read every month, and Båtsalongen is – I think – 24 hours at sea with authors and books. You board the ferry to Finland in Stockholm one afternoon, and dine in style. There are talks by authors, dancing in the evening, and the next morning after breakfast there are more author talks. And there is lunch. Smörgåsbord, I suspect, since it’s at sea. Book signings, obviously, and lots of books for sale. And then in the afternoon you’re home again.

It’s a very popular event, and I gather that you need to book for next year now, just after this year’s trip ended. There are two things that would make me hesitate. One is that I don’t fancy vomiting over any authors, let alone my favourites. The other is that ‘Vi’ never say who they have coming. So in theory you could end up with a boat load of writers you hate. It’s what Swedes call ‘buying the pig in the sack’.

Other than that, the idea has merit. What they do when the authors turn green mid-speech is another matter.

Writing – how hard can it be?

I had a slight setback a couple of weeks ago. I found out I can’t write. I always suspected there was more to this writing business than just sitting down in front of the baby laptop and press the keys in an intricate and varied pattern. There is.

I applied to do something. Which something is not important, but I was found wanting. Hardly surprising, seeing as I’m bold enough to think I can get away with communicating in my second language.  

‘An assessed score of 80% or above is necessary for acceptance. Your assessed score was :   70 %.  Applications are assessed on … communication skills (good written English, spelling, grammar etc) presentation and layout. The test revealed that your spelling, grammar and punctuation were below the required standard.’

It grates a little that this was from filling in a form riddled with spelling mistakes. But as you can see for yourselves, I have a fondness for incomplete sentences and sometimes use made-up words. But I do it on purpose. 

I’m reminded of Mary Hoffman’s recent moan about lolspeak. I don’t speak lol myself, but try to understand it when it appears. That in turn reminded me of Son’s toddler years when we regularly went to the local hospital to check a suspected squint. Tests were of the kind where the poor child was handed a dotty black and white picture and told to point to the ‘pussy’. As he failed, I said to staff that they could try asking him if he could see a cat. I had never used the word pussy, so how could he know?

Anyway, back to my other failures. I have calculated that I seem to be writing around 175,000 words per year. If they were good ones, that could amount to a book. Us 70% types shouldn’t aspire so high, though. Just think if I was Mma Makutsi, with 97%.

Which brings me (almost) neatly to my other obsession; namely you. As soon as I think of my readers I get very nervous and don’t know what I’m doing. It’s like riding a bike; you wobble a lot less once you stop thinking about it. But when people I admire write to me to say that they think this blog is good, I am pleased and nervous in equal measures. At least we now all know I can’t write. So nothing to worry about.

Back with more rubbish tomorrow.


The older of us grew up with the idea of the United Nations as something good and natural. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was also a very obvious thing to believe in. And to belong to Amnesty International was more or less expected. At least where I came from. So, what happened?

Here is a new anthology to mark that it’s been sixty years since those rights were put down on paper, and things are still not right. They are not right, somewhere worryingly close to home. Because it’s quite natural that things can be bad somewhere else, somewhere far away, isn’t it?

In Free? fourteen writers give us stories, each connected to one or two of the rights on that list. Some are set in the recent past, but most are from the here and now, and things are not good. Hopefully young readers will learn from this collection.

There are some very big names in the children’s fiction world on the list of authors, but as with many anthologies, it’s not always that the best stories were written by the people you know. That’s what I like about collections. You find new people who write very well indeed. I may not be able to pronounce their names, but we all speak the same language.

I was interested to see that Malorie Blackman’s poem, set in the future, echoed the ideas that she mentioned in the interview in November. And I can’t help but mention the story by Sarah Mussi, about the boy scout from Ghana who accidentally stole the Crown Jewels. Your Crown Jewels. That story belongs in my Aspie list, whether or not the adorable Prometheus Prempeh has AS.


2009 Guardian longlist

It’s that time of year again; time for the longlist for the Guardian Children’s Fiction prize. The only reason it feels strange to me, personally, is that I’d expect to be on a plane going away for half term. But those blasted GCSEs have moved my plane experience. Don’t worry, I’ll be going away later.

So, this is what they have chosen:

Bernard Beckett, Genesis

Siobhan Dowd, Solace of the Road

Sally Gardner, The Silver Blade

Morris Gleitzman, Then

Julie Hearn, Rowan the Strange

Mal Peet, Exposure

Terry Pratchett, Nation

Marcus Sedgwick, Revolver

I have read four of these. I’ll leave it to you to use my search facility to find which ones. That way you get a lot more for your money today. Two more are quivering on the front row of the TBR book arrangement. And one I have heard of, and one I haven’t.

You’ll be wanting a prediction for the shortlist, won’t you? Hard. Three of them will be Siobhan, Sally and Morris. The fourth will be either Mal, Terry or Marcus. I’m not seeing clearly enough for more detail.

And if you are very young (hah), you can compete here.

No StregaSchloss

We seriously overstayed our welcome, Son and I. But that’s what will happen when people are nice to us, serve us lovely food and are generally very pleasant. Visiting Debi Gliori and her family can be highly recommended, but don’t all go at once.

Comfrey 'brew'

On arrival we found the head gardener busy soaking Comfrey in big tubs, but it turned out that it wasn’t lunch. I’m so ashamed that Debi had to worry for weeks about what to feed me, but luckily her sensible gardener said that soup would be good enough for a bookwitch. It is. Lovely red pepper soup, with a dash of something out of a gin bottle, which I think was not gin. Crumble for dessert, accompanied by home made ice cream. Think best Italian ice cream. 

Witch menu

The youngest Gliori was there, having had her school wall collapse and getting sent home, so she had to witness the lovely lunches the old people get up to when her back is turned. The second youngest also turned up, having climbed on walls with her school.

Speaking of the young, Son was there to take pictures, but had a secondary use in being First Dog Tummy Tickler. Their Waywoof is very fond of tickled tummy.

That shed is no shed, Debi! Far too lovely for mere shed-ness. The view from the shed is so stunning Debi has blinds to make it go away. Lovely garden. Lovely everything.

View from shed

After some late gossip about JKR, and something about Russian princesses, we took our leave. But a bit on the late side, as I said.