Monthly Archives: November 2010

Saxby Smart’s Detective Handbook

I’d like a small pile of detectives on my bedside table, too. Just like Saxby Smart. He’s a detective who keeps other detectives nearby at night in case he needs them. Ah, no, I see now it’s books he’s got. Though I still quite like the idea of the detectives stacked up. As long as they can keep quiet.

Feeling vaguely Sherlocky today, after watching the Sherlock repeat on television on Sunday, so decided to tackle the detective handbook. I’ve not read any of Saxby’s own criminal adventures, but I suspect they are a lot of fun if this guide is anything to go by. It’s got everything. Or so it seems.

Most importantly it has a list of cons you can try, from phishing to dropping pigeons. Quite zoological. (I’d say, don’t try this at home. Just in case.)

Simon/Saxby explains the history of crime from body snatchers via the Lindbergh baby to Watergate. The difference between peelers and the FBI. Stuff on blood, and also why the butler did it.

The great names like Wilkie Collins and Edgar Allan Poe, Agatha Christie and hardboiled eggs all get a chapter. A DIY lesson in detecting, which I’m far too lazy to even contemplate, but would suit the younger reader.

Finally there is a guide to Saxby’s own bookshelves, with introductions to some of the best crime novels in existence. Not so necessary if you have a crime lover nearby who will initiate you to the ways of crime, but for everybody else this is an invaluable list.

Great to find such a humorous book which takes crime seriously. Apparently they have overcoats in Chicago. That’s good because I believe it gets cold there. But what does a mere dame know? Though I do wish he’d mentioned Knox’s Chinaman. Chinamen are amusing.

And there is information for those of you who need to know how to rob a grave. Which is not the same as snatching bodies, btw. One has come further than the other.



While on the subject of food (we are, aren’t we?) I may as well continue. Not that there is a single book in this. But, Mother-of-witch hated dates. So I hated dates. She couldn’t stand the colour blue. I disliked it too.

That would be the food kind of dates, btw. I’m not talking romance here. She was very fond of figs, and at Christmas she’d go through packets and packets of them. But if someone tried offering her a date at a Christmas party, she’d go quite huffy.

She said, kindly, that it was all right for others to wear blue, which made me feel OK with jeans, at least. We both steered clear of anything even remotely navy blue, in particular.

After forty years of this, I began warming to blue. I realised I didn’t really dislike it. I bought a few blue things, starting with smaller items and working my way up. Someone once remarked on how I had chosen only blue things, and I pointed out there was a lifetime of blue-deprivation to make up for.

And I tried eating dates, and found they are wonderful. Now I can’t be kept away from dateloaves and other date-y things. I buy chopped dates for my porridge. I did turn down the offer of a date at the greengrocer’s the other day, though, because I could see how I’d be walking down the street with sticky fingers and teeth glued together. Better to do dates in the safety of my own home.

And speaking of homes. I have painted Mother-of-witch’s house blue. Not totally, but there is blue where before there wasn’t. I imagine that if she could somehow come back, she’d look round and then she’d shake her head over that weird child of hers.

I’m sure she didn’t introduce the dislikes on purpose. Towards me, I mean. They just happened. But I’m sure I’m busy doing it as well.

What are my blue dates?


I did have to hoover up some of the ingredients for the ‘turkey’, but other than this annoying break in the cookery proceedings, I am pleased to announce I’ve made the turkey. (One thing less on the list of things to do.) Though scraping semi-ground cashews off the sofa is an unusual part even of my turkey assembly line.

This is an organic kind of home, where many unlikely foodstuffs are made from scratch. And from cashews. Our turkey is an almond and cashew nutloaf, complete with stuffing, and very nice. But the last thing you want to do is stand there on Christmas Day spilling powdered cashews all over the living-room, so it gets made in advance. ‘Advanced turkey’ as it might say in the ad.

But it was cookbooks I wanted to talk to you about. There are all these fancy recipe books, but they are nothing. Then you have those enormous basic cookbooks that cover everything you need to know. Almost. I have a Swedish one, and as you may recall, Daughter now has one, too. Picked up from the kebab place in Sweden.

And I have the British (or should that be English?) equivalent, for all those local specialities that I don’t know how to cook. The Good Housekeeping Cookery Book. But it has made me despair on occasion.

When I discovered parkin for bonfire night over twenty years ago, I thought it’d be good to make. But could I find a recipe in the GHCB? Nope. It’s there, though. After years of frustration I became more methodical, and found it under O in the index. O for oatmeal parkin.

I had encountered trifles even before meeting the Resident IT Consultant (I’m not saying he is a trifle, btw!), but never had much interest in them. Then Esperanto Student informed me that trifle is something you ‘must’ eat at Christmas. Which I had omitted to do for years, so I looked up the recipe with a view to making amends. And trifle. Not there.

It also turned up under O after some searching. That would be old English trifle.

Fish pie does not have pastry in it. That was another thing I never knew in my alien past. So, recipe for fish pie. Traditional fare. Not under F. Older and wiser I now knew to go straight to O in the index. It’s called old-fashioned fish pie. Why didn’t I guess?

I have a perfectly good Swedish recipe for scones, but wanted to check something in the GHCB. Do you want to have a go at suggesting what they are? Oven scones.

The treacle tart is also old-fashioned. And have you heard of the One stage fruit cake? You have now.

Bookwitch bites #33

The Edgar Allan Poe Awards have seen the light, and will be handing the next Edgar to Sara Paretsky. The announcement came at a particularly suitable moment, because Sara had blogged about how she felt a bit down, because she has difficulty typing right now, due to an old injury. Easy to understand the impact this has on an author. Ever the modest writer, Sara doesn’t seem to feel she deserves the Edgar. She can be so wrong sometimes. But not often.

From not deserving an award to ‘not deserving’ an event. I’m on the email list for bookshop events, and one recent listing was for an event that’s ‘exclusively for our customers’. I’m still wondering what that means. I can’t see how I wouldn’t qualify, but deep down I feel that I don’t.

I have now had two guest blogs published on The View From Here, and despite the editor suggesting I make my latest offering slightly more American-friendly, it didn’t take long before someone was offended. But why be bland? Readers here know I tend to be a little on the weird side, but for readers of  TVFH it can be easy to take irony at face value.

My calves went shopping last week. Bet you didn’t know I keep calves! I have two, one on the right and one on the left. Leg. Anyway, I needed a silver pen for use on dark coloured Christmas cards. Into WHS I went. I was overwhelmed by all the displays, and I can find it hard to see what I’ve come for at the best of times. I found the pens eventually, and I found that there was so much writing on every single piece of packaging that it was almost impossible to efficiently skim the display. By sheer luck I spied something down at knee height, but as I bent down – stiffly – I noticed the description for the knee-high goods was down at calf height. I could neither read it, nor bend down far enough.

I know I complain all the time. But I fail to see (I did, didn’t I?) what they are doing, selling things down on what’s virtually the floor.

And I love Americans. Obviously.

Daughter of Fire and Ice

I believe I’ve said that too many books about Iceland bring me out in a rash. By that I mean too much stuff about old gods and fairies and the like. I have no objection to a good old-fashioned historical romance. And that’s what Marie-Louise Jensen has written.

There are gods in Daughter of Fire and Ice. But only in the way of being prayed to in times of distress, which is fine. Set in Viking times, Thora escapes Norway on a ship bound for Iceland. She does so in the company of a rather goodlooking slave who’s just murdered the man who intended to force Thora to marry him.

This is all right, as Thora is both a healer and a seer, and she has seen the two of them heading off for a new life in Iceland. Although, not all the things she sees happen or are totally right, so has she been wrong about this?

Things don’t all go according to plan, with quite a few spanners thrown in. And did you know that Norway and Iceland are full of rather unpleasant people? Apparently, some disagreements can only be solved by one party dying, which is not nice. And if you don’t die from disagreement, the plague – or even a plain flu – will get you.

The Norwegian settlers have never come across volcanoes, and they find Iceland cold and barren. Will they even survive their first winter?

If you like romance, this is for you. And I do.

From garret to glamour

‘You’re going to have to take my necklace off’ is what Cathy MacPhail said within seconds of meeting me last night. And I tried. I really did. But that necklace went nowhere. Very glamorous it was, but perhaps not the thing for showering in.

Apart from my lack of necklace-removing skills, I had a new modus operandi going yesterday. I waylaid the winners of the Stockport Schools Book Award at their hotel, which conveniently is only a few minutes away from Bookwitch Towers.

So, I started with Cathy, whose novel Grass won the Key Stage 3* group. I admitted to Cathy that I had looked at her book lots and lots of times, and every time I had chickened out. She thought that was shocking (and possibly other more unprintable thoughts), but I have since gathered Cathy likes horror films, so I’m sure my instincts were right.

We sat in the bar discussing all the other book awards Cathy has won, which is quite a few. They are all different from each other, but Cathy has also won in Stockport before.

As we chatted, Rachel Ward appeared, suitcase in hand and looking very film starry straight off the train – having narrowly missed missing her connection down south – and she was immediately roped in to remove Cathy’s necklace, which she did. They’d never met before, either. Then Rachel ordered some tea, which I would guess the situation required by then.

Rachel won KS 4 with Numbers, and she hasn’t won quite as many awards as Cathy has, but then Numbers is her first book. And, I’m sorry, but this will be a necklacey sort of blog, because she was wearing a really interesting necklace, too. Just like last time I met her.

Stockport Plaza

The two ladies decided to share a taxi to the Plaza later, and Cathy went to change while Rachel and I talked about her poor, ill dog. And children and universities. Then she too went to get dressed in her finery, while I waited to snap them both getting into their pumpkin.

From Cathy I gathered that the Early Years award and the KS 1 award were both won by Julia Donaldson, but that Julia was heading directly to the Plaza without passing Go, which is why I didn’t see her.

That just leaves the KS 2 award, and let me tell you how much time I’d spent googling and trying to second guess who the winner would be and checking author’s photos online so that I might be able to tell who it was, if I ran into them. And as I was sitting there, I did see a couple dressed up very nicely and thought they could be KS 2. Except she didn’t look like any of the faces I’d seen in my search.

Easily explained by the fact that she turned out to be Jane Norriss, wife of Andrew, the author of Ctrl-Z. So, some back-to-front sexism here. I was expecting a woman… Andrew was really pleased to meet Rachel (well, who wouldn’t be?), and they were all three extremely keen to be photographed together. I’m not used to that. Normally one has to struggle with these garret types.

Rachel Ward with Andrew and Jane Norriss

Worried pumpkin driver turned up, but Cathy didn’t. She eventually sauntered in ten minutes late. So, hurried photo session with her while the others fled out the doors to calm the driver down. They weren’t going anywhere fast, though. Still trying to cross the A6 when I hobbled home.

Cathy MacPhail

That’s Frockport for you.

This morning, or even all day today, they will be singing for their supper by going round the local schools. Two for Cathy and three for Rachel.

* KS 1 = ages 5 to 7, KS 2 = ages 7 to 11, KS 3 = ages 11 to 14, KS 4 = ages 14 to 16.

Four Tales

Tell me I’m not too late! It can’t be that no one needs to buy any more Christmas presents. Surely you’re not that well organised.

Whatever. You will need to buy Four Tales. You will even want to buy Four Tales. You’ve probably read the tales, or some of them, before. Doesn’t matter. This is a very Christmassy book, just right for children. And for the purposes of this book, we are all children.

To be fair. When I asked to se a copy of this re-issue of Philip Pullman’s four ‘fairy tales’ I expected just that. Four smaller books put together in a larger book. A blue book, as I could see from the press release. But it’s so much more. The cover alone is of the must-stroke variety. Dark blue with silver, and a little bit soft.

Four Tales

The stories are The Firework-Maker’s Daughter, I Was a Rat! or The Scarlet Slippers, Clockwork or All Wound Up, and The Scarecrow and His Servant. They are illustrated by Peter Bailey, although I think it’s just the first one that Peter hadn’t illustrated before. They are of that nice, old-fashioned kind that you remember from your childhood books.

Clearly Philip’s publisher needs to publish something, and while he dithers (or whatever it is he does) over the Book of Dust (come on; it was almost finished five years ago!) they are getting the store cupboard stuff out. But what a store cupboard!

The tales are truly wonderful. The Scarecrow is very very good, but I think for me nothing beats the former Rat. The fireworks story is uplifting, and Clockwork is pretty scary.

Excuse me while I go off to gaze at my copy again.


This is not a novel featuring time travel. Or perhaps it is. Hard to say. At first I was worried it would be, and then I was relieved that it seemed to escape the need for inexplicable transportation to another era. And then, well maybe, or maybe not.

I heard so much good about Jennifer Donnelly’s A Gathering Light, but never got to it, so this is my first. And it’s great. I hated the beginning, but put it down to me having a bad night and returned to the book the following day. And soon I could barely put it down.

Revolution may be about the French Revolution, but it’s a very American story. So American that I wouldn’t have objected to the UK edition having the odd extra piece of information, like how old Andi, the heroine, is. She’s doing – or rather she’s doing her best to avoid doing – her senior thesis. And the main part of the book is set during winter break, which I took to mean Christmas. There is however no sign of Christmas in the novel, so I double-checked with an American friend. Yes, it should be Christmas. Hmm. The time of year when the sun in Paris rises soon after 4.30.

I suspect the reason I hated the beginning is that to set the scene for Andi’s state of mind and the problems with her parents, you need a dark start. Her younger brother died a few years earlier and she’s still suffering from guilt. Hence her willingness to throw her future away by misbehaving in school and trying to skip the senior thesis.

Dad – the Nobel prize winner (and don’t get me started on that one!) – drags her off to Paris, where Andi is able to talk and read and generally understand everything, because she is bilingual. Yes. She has to work on a proposal for the thesis, which is to be on Amadé Malherbeau, the famous composer. Music is the one thing Andi cares about, and she is an accomplished guitarist.

Staying with friends, she accidentally comes across a diary from the time after the Revolution. It’s written by a girl her own age, and through reading the diary Andi learns much, both about the Revolution and about France, as well as about herself. She also meets a boy who is a talented singer and falls in love.

The background to the Revolution is fascinating, Alexandrine’s adventures in the 1790s really pull you in, and Andi’s romance is satisfying and rings true.

It was at this point when I felt secure in the knowledge there would be no time travel, that things develop. Did the iPod end up in 1795 or didn’t it? It’s powerful stuff, regardless.

So, take no notice that I’ve been griping about details. I loved the book.

Although, the comment about ‘purple menopause clothes’ was hitting below the belt, surely? I know it’s Andi saying it, but Jennifer has had the thought, or she wouldn’t have written it.


Monkey Photo

For the child – or parent – who has tired of pale and cute picture book illustrations, a change of scenery can be found in Monkey Photo. This extremely colourful book by Gita Wolf and Swarna Chitrakar, is about a monkey who is always photographed by tourists.

Until one day he grabs a camera and goes out to take photos of the other animals. What follows is a series of exotic and vibrant pictures of snakes, painted elephants, birds, stripey and spotty ‘cats’ and many more.

Tara Books is – I believe – a small publishing house in India, and it’s so easy to forget that other countries have their own English language books, not to mention their own styles.

If plenty of colour makes children intelligent, as I’ve heard said, then this monkey and his pals should raise a few IQs. And I would guess the book might get children started painting their own exotic animal pictures.

Monkey Photo

(Sorry about the glare-y photo. And the blurriness. I suspect the monkey did a far better job. On the other hand, I didn’t steal my camera.)

Mother’s helper

An author was ‘boasting’ on facebook recently about her lack of household skills, which reminded me of a friend I used to have at school. And her parents.

The mother went away, leaving the father to deal with necessities such as watering the houseplants. He was a man, so he forgot. He forgot until soon before the mother was due to return. So he overdid things slightly. He watered rather enthusiastically. Which wasn’t good, either.

Even he realised the plants were soggy beyond belief. As a last-ditch attempt to de-sog, the poor man put them in the oven to dry out.

Luckily my friend arrived home from school and found them baking away. She was furious with her father and hastily removed the plants from the oven.

She then proceeded to chuck them in the fridge to cool off.

Oh well.

The school fair potted palm

Lucky they didn’t have this pot plant to deal with. This is the puny little thing Daughter carried home from the school fair one year when I had – inexplicably – not accompanied her. Didn’t have the heart to tell her it wouldn’t do well, the way it looked.

Good thing, or I’d have been busy eating my words now.

We’ll be looking at making a hole in the ceiling next.