Monthly Archives: June 2009

Cousins removed and cute babies

The rather flooded witch was relieved to have a weekend away from her working holiday away. There has rarely been so much rain all at once in a few June days, as last week. So dark, so dismal. The little rays of sunshine consisted of seeing dentist – always lovely – and having assignations with both the plumber and the electrician. All three were very tanned, as usual. Wonder where they got the tan?

So packing laptop and other necessities she pondered the ridiculousness of taking a computer and a telephone to go and visit friends and family. What would we have thought of that, thirty years ago?

First on the agenda was GP Cousin, who on hearing of my approach had swiftly invited every relative he could think of, and not all were so put off the idea that they stayed away. In fact, a surprising number, for us, turned up. Daughter was furious when she heard, but what could I do?

Wolf grandson

The mind struggles to order cousins into first cousins and second cousins, with the once removed added in places. We rarely get together, and me being UK based doesn’t help, so it wasn’t just the 11-month-old grandson of my Wolf cousin who was new to me. After some baffled thinking, I concluded I’d never met Wolf’s youngest son, either, and he is 18. Years. I suggested he might want to befriend Offspring on Facebook. He thought he might.

Our hostess, Swiss Lady, struggled to keep track of anyone at all, often giving people new names. Didn’t matter. We nameless ones were too busy dealing with our jealousies and inadequacies while admiring her garden, where the sun was beating down.

Swiss Lady's garden

The next morning I took off for the next place, after giving GP Cousin a long lesson on blogging. He had asked for it. I left him with a copy of Dina Rabinovitch’s Take Off Your Party Dress, which will be a much better read for him than The Da Vinci Code. The third cousins had been sent off the previous evening with some English children’s books, which their poor parents will have to deal with, since even Swedish 6 to 8-year-olds don’t read foreign languages.

On the train ride on a minor train line, I got excellent service by the guard. She happily accepted three forms of payment from me and changed my prepaid plastic tickets into something fresher (they are going Oyster) without batting an eyelid. And handed out new timetables to all the passengers, seeing as it had just changed. That’s service.

Pizzabella and the New Librarian picked me up at the other end, which is so worrying. Being in a car without their mother School Friend feels weird. Babies grow up. It was Pizzabella’s 22nd birthday party, so another load of assorted relatives landed. Pizzabella doesn’t like cake, however, so in its place we always get a large plate of fruit. Lovely, but you can be too healthy, you know. She has recently learned to eat peas. About seven is deemed the right amount for a meal.

Kitten Saver's baby

New lot of cousins, but not mine. School Friend served up tea called Blåkulla, which is the place that witches fly to on their brooms. After that, I could only be grateful that the Cousin-who-saves-kittens-dumped-by-the-motorway let me hold the cutest baby of them all, the 34-day-old Italian Painter.

Aahhhh… Thank you, Kitten Saver.

This lot of people were left with Mary Hoffman’s The Falconer’s Knot in Swedish (thank you, Mary) and Gillian Philip’s Crossing the Line, and Pizzabella who does things with paper, got plain-ish paper. Poor Bird Watcher got nothing, but he’s probably used to it.

Varberg Railway Station

Reading their local morning paper, there was an article about the best friend of GP Cousin, which is an odd coincidence. We once studied literature at university together. Small world.

As she passed through Varberg again on her way back, the witch thought she caught a glimpse of herself, aged about three, on the platform.

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Adèle on the radio

Adèle Geras is on the radio today! ‘Quote Unquote’ at 13.30 today on Radio 4. Should be good. Except that being out of the country, I will have to hope that someone records it. Or possibly that I end up catching the repeat on Saturday.

And speaking of the Geras family, I was pleased to come face to face with the Swedish translation of Sophie Hannah’s Little Face in the bookshop in Halmstad the other day. Prominently displayed near the entrance, with hardback book and audio book side by side. And a copy of the book in the shop window.

One of these days I will have the sense to carry a camera at all times. I’m so old and weird that I still use a mobile from the year 2000. It’s purple, and simple, but has no camera. You don’t think I ought to move on, do you? I have seen there are purple phones out there now. In fact, I was on the train recently, and three out of four people where I was sitting had purple mobiles. Very pleasing to the eye.

Looking After Louis

I wouldn’t have found this picture book about Louis, who is autistic, without the suggestion from Julia Jarman a few months ago. Lesley Ely and Polly Dunbar have come up with a simple story about a boy and his school, and it really praises the role of the classroom assistant, whose importance is so often overlooked.

Nothing much happens in the book, except we slowly see how Louis spends his time at school, and what he is good at. But it’s the help he receives, which matters most. The other children need to learn that Louis can’t or won’t do certain things, but he can do other stuff instead.

Might be a very useful book to read in pre-school groups or in primary schools where they have children on the autistic spectrum.

Roman crime, everywhere

From one Roman detective to another, from child detective to adult detective – Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls is the first crime novel by Ruth Downie, or R S Downie as she calls herself on the cover. I found her over on Crime Always Pays last year, and was very impressed with her sense of humour. Always the busybody, I emailed her, and shortly afterwards we met up at the Bristol CrimeFest. She was the sole reason I sat through a rather dire session on historical crime. The less said about that the better.

Ruso. Yes, well. Ruso is a doctor, stationed with the Roman army in Chester, or Deva, as it was called in my youth. He doesn’t detect as much as he goes round stumbling over things. He stumbles over things that turn out to be a crime. Then he stumbles some more and finds the solution to the crime. Very absent minded but kind, always penniless but generous, and a little bit of an idiot. A sweet idiot, and he means well.

This could be modern Britain, or it could be New York. The disreputable bar feels quite American, but the builders are definitely British. Ruth makes some very nice observations on humans everywhere, at any time in history. That sense of humour I mentioned permeates the book.

The disreputable bar ‘employs’ slave girls to serve and entertain, and they keep going missing and turning up dead. Poor Ruso accidentally ends up buying a slave girl for himself, which he really can’t afford.

It’s just one thing after another, but he soldiers on treating the bar girls decently and looking after sick and injured soldiers. There are puppies, an abominable hospital administrator and a rather adorable assistant for Ruso.

I’ve developed a fondness for these people – the nice ones only, of course – and will want to see how life in Deva goes on. Ruth has two more books, so I can.

So can you.

The Man From Pomegranate Street

Caroline Lawrence brings back one of Flavia Gemina’s old boyfriends in the last book of the Roman Mysteries, and then she adds old Floppy for good measure. We have known for a long time that Flavia was going to get married off in the last book, but to whom? Two suitors make for more complications than one, and besides, Floppy was engaged to someone else when we last saw him. Or might Flavia find a third candidate for marriage?

Whatever happens on the romantic front, Flavia decides she isn’t very good at this detecting business, after all. So, seventeen mysteries on, she hangs up her detectrix hat. In The Man From Pomegranate Street the child detectives look for Emperor Titus’ murderer, and bark up a good many trees. They also need to clear their good names with Domitian, who has been known to double cross before. There is quite a lot of double crossing in this story, and you just don’t know where you are with anyone.

Nubia needs to find happiness, too, but her beloved Aristo has had his eye on so many women, that it’s hard to know what will happen. And now that some of them have found Christianity, will they be any happier?

Back in January Caroline promised me that she’d tie up as many lose ends as possible in this book, and she has tied pretty well. I hope that she can continue tying a little more in her planned trio of books, set in the future, relatively speaking.

Caroline has taken the reader from Enid Blyton to Mills & Boon in seventeen steps, and I mean that in the best possible way. Few authors claim to have been inspired by romantic fiction, whereas many crime writers do mention Blyton as an early inspiration. Add a good dollop of history, and you’ve got the whole series of the Roman Mysteries. Personally I have learnt a lot about the brief period that the books cover, and I was never one for Roman Emperors. My geographical knowledge of the ancient Mediterranean countries has improved, too.

If I didn’t have Caroline’s new series to look forward to, now would be a good time to howl with frustration. I’ll just hold on for a bit and see.

Gentle gorillas?

Between you and me, I find Anthony Browne’s gorillas a little frightening. To look at, you understand. I like cute, and they are not cute. Not that I know them terribly well, because yet again I seem to have omitted something important in Offsprings’ education. We did not read Anthony Browne’s books. We obviously should have, and then I would have known something about our new Children’s Laureate.

What struck me when reading about him in the Guardian on Tuesday, was how young he is. Second thought was that at that age he isn’t all that young, but he looks it. The other thing that worried me was all the talk on Facebook and everyone seemed to know who to expect as the new laureate. I didn’t. Who have I not buttered up? I could think of lots of good prospective laureates, but in my gorilla-free state Anthony was not one of them. 

I’m glad, though, that another illustrator has been chosen, because it makes for a nice mix of interests. And it’s good that the reward has gone up to £15,000. It’s still not a lot, but any improvement is an improvement. We should be grateful that anyone at all wants to do the job. Why would authors/illustrators give up a lot of their time for very little money? Though it seems as if Michael Rosen enjoyed himself. Or perhaps he was just being his normal sweet self in saying so.

Come to think of it; in my impoverished state £15,000 isn’t bad. If I didn’t suffer stage fright I’d say Bookwitch for Children’s Laureate next time. Hmm. No. I seem to recall a need for some minimum of published books. Oh, well.

A modern Dickens

Child abuse in children’s homes feels like a subject made for Melvin Burgess, and it’s good that he felt able to take it on. It’s not good that it exists (or existed), but reading Melvin’s fictionalised tale of abuse in a Manchester children’s home 25 years ago, brings the subject a lot closer than any newspaper story would. I knew about this before reading Nicholas Dane, but I see now that I didn’t really know anything.

I reckon Melvin does, since he told me last year about all the research he did, talking to former children from homes like Meadow Hill. In the last week I have (I think) annoyed Melvin a little on Facebook, by asking if he’d been glossing over a lot in his book. I didn’t mean that the book felt too light, or the story too sunny. It’s anything but. I just wondered if the truth was even more awful than the dreadful story he had to tell.

Fourteen-year-old Nick Dane is orphaned when his single mother dies very suddenly, and despite the good intentions of his mum’s best friend, he ends up at Meadow Hill, the supposedly model children’s home. The social worker is appalling, being both stupid and a stickler for the rules. But she is nothing compared to the men who run Meadow Hill. Or their friends, who are policemen and other ‘good citizens’.

The shock for Nick and the reader at what goes on in the home is considerable. What’s almost worse, is the ripples of cause and effect that grow and never entirely go away. You don’t escape ‘it’ by getting out, or when you grow up. You can’t talk about it. It most likely affects what you do for the rest of your life.

This is a book that needed to be written. Let’s hope it won’t be necessary to write more books on subjects like these. I hope people – children – will learn they can talk to adults and that they will be safe.