Monthly Archives: November 2010

Bookwitch bites #32

Nick Green

The revamp of Nick Green’s website has vamped even further with this very fetching photo of the leather-clad author of the cat-power adventure books. Can you resist?

Mary Hoffman couldn’t resist Firebrand by Gillian Philip. Review hot off the presses here.

Random House have come up with an application for changing nappies and burping babies, based on Malorie Blackman’s Boys Don’t Cry. As I’m really quite ancient I’ve not totally got my head round this yet. But I think it’s a ‘game’ for iPods and things where you can learn to look after a baby.

It’s possible to learn almost anything. Michael Rosen reviewed School Blues by Daniel Pennac in the Guardian. It’s about French schools and how to educate ‘dunces’. You’re never hopeless. Anyone can become a someone, and good teachers are important.

Also in the (Education) Guardian, an article by Jonny Zucker about how worthwhile author visits to schools can be. For the children. I know we discussed the comfort of the visiting author a few weeks ago, but it’s always worth keeping in mind who schools are actually for. The teachers. No, that’s not right. The children. They matter.

In actual fact, Jonny lists things to do to make the author comfortable, but he does so with a view that the author will then be good for the children. And I love his idea that schools should splash out and book an author in for a full week. It’d be great. Probably very improbable for 99% of schools, but a wonderful idea nevertheless.

Rats with fluff

Autumn deck

I sit in my reading chair and swear as I see the ghastly squirrels scampering back and forth on the deck, a few feet away. They were never this forward before. They are probably hungrier, and there are more of them. They are really nothing but rats with a slightly fluffier tail.

My thoughts get this far every time, and then I think that since I know how squirrels reason, I should be more sympathetic. Because they are nice creatures, only wanting to stock up on food for the winter. After which I pull myself together and tell myself that I do not know anything of the kind. I just happen to have read Kate Thompson’s Switchers series. Tess, the main female character, can switch and become an animal. She often chooses to become a squirrel, and you can read about life as seen from the squirrel’s point of view.

That does not mean it is real. I mean, it’s not as if Kate actually tried being a squirrel before she wrote the books. I hope she didn’t.

To Tess, in her human form and as a squirrel, rats are horrible. That’s why she’s so reluctant to switch into a rat when she meets another switcher. But she does, and she discovers rats are also quite noble creatures.


The Switchers trilogy is one of those lucky finds. If it didn’t seem too nerdy, I’d tell you that it was ten years ago when Red Fox celebrated some anniversary or other by selling (some of) their books on a bogof offer. Ever the frugal reader I stocked up on as many books as I liked the look of. And once I’d read Switchers I had to go and buy Midnight’s Choice and Wild Blood too. I bet Red Fox knew that would happen.

It’s a fantastic trilogy, and it got me started on all Kate’s other books. But as for her ‘relevant experience’ before writing these books, I don’t believe she switched into an animal at all. Though, you never know, do you? When I think of rats, I try to think of her noble ones.

Squirrel highway

But as for squirrels, I’m afraid I’ve had enough of them. When we first moved here I was taken by the way ‘ours’ travelled through the ash trees, but now that I can’t put down bulbs or bedding plants without them coming along and digging everything up again, I don’t think very fondly of them.

The difference here is that these are grey ones, and I grew up with red ones. We didn’t have them in the garden, but I used to see them a lot on Gallow’s Hill, which was (and still is) a lovely place. Named after people doing you-know-what there in the olden days. Somehow red ones seem nicer. Is there a scientific reason for this?

Future tulips

Nowadays I use chicken wire. We once had a squirrel proof bird feeder. They actively ate the wood! So what chance do tulip bulbs stand? I’m just concerned I’m being lulled into a false sense of security.

Funny Girls

I drank my tea and ate my toast while watching some breakfast television show with Philip Ardagh doing his utmost to avoid mentioning that the Louises had won the Roald Dahl Funny Prize. I kept thinking he’d slip up. (Sorry, P.)

Glad to hear that many children’s authors are both short and funny. Like their books. Which would make a certain person’s books extremely long… (Or is that a tall book..?)

Last year’s winner (that’s Philip again) looked quite presentable (this is turning into some lowlife glossy magazine) with freshly trimmed beard and hair and he seemed to have the tickling of small children down to a fine art. I don’t know where they could have found quite such tiny and cute children. And getting them out of bed even earlier than I had crawled downstairs. The little boy favoured Where’s Wally, which was not on the shortlist, but if you ask a child a question, you get an answer.

Philip wrote in the Guardian on Saturday about the trials (and the odd bit of fun) of judging the prize. It’s a relief to learn that not all funny books are funny. And just because you think you are Julia Donaldson and believe you write like her, doesn’t mean you are or that you can.

Louise Rennison

Louise Yates and Louise Rennison can. Write funny, if not necessarily Gruffalo style. Louise Yates won the younger award for Dog Loves Books, inspired by one of the other shortlistees, Quentin Blake. And Louise Rennison triumphed with Withering Tights, which is such a delicious title.

I have adored the Rennison (here I thought it was going to be labour saving having two winners with the same name, whereas I now have to resort to surnames…) titles for years. I’ve never read her books, but each time I spy a new one I pause and enjoy the sheer wittiness of the title.

As a girl who likes humour, I’m more than satisfied with this double female win.

Halfway Angel

Dear – young – Postman,

Contrary to what you might think, I don’t actually stand just inside my front door all day long. I know I should really, in case you come scratching. (What’s wrong with the doorbell? The sound of it carries further than that scraping sound on wood.) Knocking impatiently does not enable me to move faster.

I’m a slow mover at the moment – as you noticed – and due to my dodgy knee I’ve sort of rationed my journeys in-house. I save up several things I want to do upstairs, or in the basement, before I change floors.

So I had just made it down below when I had to dash as fast as I’m currently capable of dashing. I thought I wasn’t doing badly up those stairs, but I arrived finding something halfway in and halfway out, with you pushing and pushing to get it through the letterbox.

I opened the door explaining that I was unable to run any faster, only to be told you didn’t need me to come because it was halfway through. Yeah? So maybe not bother scratching next time? Although I sincerely hope my usual postman will be back when the next book arrives.

That was my eagerly awaited Angel you were shoving through my door. She’s quite nice and fat, which will be why she only went part of the way through.

And this morning I will not be in at all. I’ll be doing things to envelopes elsewhere.

Best wishes from the old witch at no. 20.

A long way to the library

I reckon it’s about six or seven miles as the crow flies. But I didn’t give birth to a crow, so it had to be a journey by train instead. And yes I know I’m being petty. And grumpy. But how hard can it be to ‘make’ a library card? When you’re a library.

We live near(ish) a large university. Six or seven miles as the crow flies. As I said. Daughter’s sixth form college somehow arranged for sixformers to apply to have library cards at the renowned university library. Goodness, even the Resident IT Consultant has one. They’re not that special.

With EPQs (don’t ask) on the horizon it was deemed quite a useful thing to have. College library isn’t so well stocked with specialist books. I’m not sure how many weeks ago the application was made from college. But quite a while.

(Btw, did I mention Daughter will kill me for this? Goodbye people, it’s been nice knowing you.)

Anyway, EPQ crawling ever closer, Daughter phoned renowned library on Saturday to find out about her card. They had received the application. But they didn’t know where it is. But if she came in Monday they’d sort it. Mondays happen to be the only day of the week Daughter has anything like spare time for travelling six or seven miles. So despite feeling rough, she caught the train, walked the 15 minutes to the library, found they had no idea where the application is, but they’d look for it and she could come back at a later date. She walked back to the station, got on her three trains and came home again.

That was a mere two hours and twenty minutes out of her life. Plus the train fare. Not much. But she could have used both time and money better.

They were very nice, though. She could have looked at the books when she was there. Not take them out, obviously.

Maybe you can only apply once, and even a lost application means there is nothing that can be done. Otherwise I feel, simple soul that I am, that they could have done a new one while she was there. She was there (necessary for photo, apparently), she had about six different types of ID, so why not do it there and then? Could there be some special ‘hotline’ direct from Daughter’s college to renowned library that somehow guarantees her status, and which can’t be arranged any other way?

Now that Daughter is actually – yes! – of age, I don’t feel I can write and complain on her behalf. So I’m resorting to the kind of writing I can do. It really is not a big deal. But it does seem very lame, that a library in this day and age can’t fix something like a card on the spot. At least when it’s they who have lost it, and not the customer.

Meanwhile I’d be awfully grateful if someone could fix photographs of Jupiter’s moons, taken at regular intervals by some fancy telescope on Gran Canaria. It’d make the lack of library card more bearable.

Huck Finn with a cell phone

Unhooking the Moon by Gregory Hughes is a true journey book, and were it not for the fact that mobile phones are used and that Ground Zero gets a mention, I’d have wanted to place it much earlier in history. That’s the kind of timeless feel this novel has. And it’s the most fantastic book! I don’t know why I didn’t read it earlier. Well, I do actually. It was because I had no inkling it could be this good.

Unhooking the Moon

It’s been shortlisted enough, and it won the Booktrust teenage prize just the other week. Now that could be where I don’t agree with what others have said. It was described by Tony Bradman as ‘managing to explore the kind of themes teenagers will find engaging’. It’s a much younger book than that. Bob is 12 and his sister Marie Claire, aka the Rat, is ten. Their view of life is very much what children that age will have, except possibly most are slightly less outrageously exuberant and a little more ‘normal’.

We know that Bob and the Rat take to the road because their father is dead, which is good to know, or we would be far more upset when the lovely man dies. They set off from Winnipeg in Canada to New York to find their uncle Jerome, whom they don’t know. The Rat is rather crazy, but very very charming, and she is the brains behind this. Bob comes along because he needs to protect his sister.

There is very little Marie Claire can’t do. She sings and acts and has the most tremendous memory for unimportant facts by the shovelful. They know uncle Jerome is a drug dealer, so look in the shadiest places for him. They meet small crooks and hustlers, and some bigger crooks too. There are Irish doormen and famous rappers. And paedophiles. Luckily the Rat has a sixth sense and she knows what will happen before it happens.

Unhooking the Moon would make a great film, as long as they can catch some of the love both children have for each other and their Dad and for many of the strangers they meet en route to their drug dealer uncle.

A lovely, lovely book. I could go on all day.


OK, I’ll go now.

Boys Don’t Cry

This is an interesting concept, discovering you’re a teenage Dad when you’re planning your future at university, and finding your whole world has turned upside down. Malorie Blackman’s new novel Boys Don’t Cry had me racing through it to get to the end. And for those of you who know me, it will come as a surprise when I say I felt it could have been 100 pages longer. I somehow think there could have been more meat on some of those bones.

There are questions posed by Malorie at the back of the book, with a number of ‘what if’ type of scenarios, which is one way of making readers look at a problem from different angles, but I’d have liked more in the actual story. Thoughts I had at the beginning, which I felt certain would be addressed by the last page.

Malorie never says, but I take for granted that Dante is black, and the scene where he is accused by (I think) a white woman of being a benefits scrounger brings home the idea that it’s seen as worse or more typical for a young black male to have become a father, than it would a white teenager. At least I think that’s how it’s intended.

Having a hitherto unknown baby dumped on your doorstep would be disturbing to anyone, but for Dante who not only has plans for his life, but who knows nothing about babies, it’s catastrophic. His widowed father is furious and his gay younger brother is delighted.

I’m not convinced by baby Emma, who at times is made to look very tiny and at times is far too old for her age, but it’s hard to get what you want to happen without her. And the gay sub-plot is a little stereotypical, but Dante’s brother Adam is a lovely boy, if a little naïve.

The social worker made my blood freeze; much more so than the actual violence in other parts of the story. It says on the cover that the book isn’t suitable for younger readers. While people feel that way, this kind of early, accidental parenthood will keep happening. It’d be good if many more teenagers read Boys Don’t Cry. It’s what this country needs.

Bookwitch bites #31

The biting isn’t going too well, but hopefully my dental ordeal will be forgotten soon, and I will bite just fine again.

For the eagle-eyed participant in the discussion about the nominees for the Astrid Lindgren Award a few weeks ago, I have unearthed some more information. Well, not me personally. I took the shortcut of emailing ALMA and asking, and someone has been slaving away trying to ascertain the reason for the Stock Exchange of Thailand to be on that list of book-worthies:

Personal finance for youth program: ”…educates students about personal financial management and economic life skills. The SET developed textbooks and instructional materials to promote understanding of basic financial ideas, enhance financial discipline and develop learning and reading skills.”

Reading club. ”Participating students are encouraged to read any kind of educational or entertaining books and report their reading record to their teachers and advisors.”

Business and Entrepreneurship program: “The program provides participating students with knowledge about entrepreneurial qualities and business operations. Through activity-based learning, students were encouraged to show their creativity and develop a positive attitude towards business and entrepreneurship.”

Book donation project.

Plearn Library: “Play” + “Learn” = “Plearn”, “provide children and their families in a nearby slum district with a learning center”.

I’m afraid the colours were my idea of fun. At least we now know why the Stock Exchange is involved, although I don’t feel it’d be right to hand over money to a foreign stock exchange, however much they encourage reading.

Involved is what you need to be to apply for the job just advertised with the Edinburgh International Book Festival. They are looking for a new Children & Education Programme Director. I think that’s the job Sara Grady has been doing, and I hope this doesn’t mean she is leaving. To me this is probably the most important job in the whole festival.

Michelle Lovric

Someone else who was at the festival is Michelle Lovric and she will be appearing at the Italian Cultural Institute in London for their ‘IN CONVERSAZIONE’, Talks with Anglophone authors who write about Italy and Italian Culture. Monday 6 December 2010 7pm: MICHELLE LOVRIC in conversazione with MAXIM JAKUBOWSKI. It’s free, but you need to book on

Who is it for?

Below is the comment left here by Julia Jarman yesterday:

“I’ve been meaning to write about a disturbing telephone conversation with an Aspie boy’s mum who emailed to say ring her about my book ‘Hangman.’ Ever the optimist, I thought she was going to tell me it was useful, moving, informative etc because I do get quite a few compliments about this book that boost the authorial ego, but OH NO! The lady told me that her son found it very upsetting and it did nothing at all to boost his morale. Far from it. The opposite in fact. All I could do was tell her how sorry I was and murmur that some people liked it, and that I wrote it at the request of an Aspie boy who wanted his story to be told. I’m left wondering – is my book doing more harm than good? – and would be interested to have other readers’ reactions.”

To me it was such an interesting and important question that I felt it would make a full blog post, rather than ‘just’ have a discussion in the comments section, and in the ‘wrong’ thread at that. (I don’t mind things going off topic, but to be useful it’s better if it’s posted under a suitable tag.)

The day I wrote my first Aspie booklist blog back in 2007 I had the wrong target in mind. I thought people needed educating about Aspieness. They do. And I think that’s what Hangman does admirably. It’s for all those who have no inkling what it’s like. It describes the miserable life of an Aspie boy. Not because having Asperger Syndrome is dreadful. But because in this case it’s the reason for some appalling bullying.

So I’m not surprised this lady’s son was upset. He will have seen only the bullying and the danger to Danny in the story, and may not have been able to draw any relief from the ending of the book. He may have been looking for ‘a nice story about’ someone like himself, perhaps like The London Eye Mystery. And that’s not what he got.

But no, I don’t think Julia was wrong to write this book. I think the boy’s mother was at fault. As a parent you must know your child well enough to know roughly what’s suitable at any given stage. As a parent of an Aspie child you would have got used to testing the water much more carefully on a daily basis. Whether it’s a case of facing total meltdown or just mild upsets, you know what to avoid, what to do, and you protect your child to the exclusion of having a life of your own, maybe.

This woman should have looked at the book first. As I say in my review, it frightened me for months before I grasped the bull by the horns and read it. There are plenty of books suitable for a child who needs to see someone like themselves in fiction. There are plenty of supportive non-fiction books that could provide useful support. Eating an Artichoke by Echo Fling comes to mind. It has an imaginative story about dealing with bullying, with the solution carried out by the Aspie boy himself with the help of adults. It was helpful adults that Danny in Hangman lacked.

As it says on the back of my copy of Hangman it’s “for anyone who’s ever been a playground thug or just stood by while someone else was being picked on”.

Julia has written a spot-on tale of bullying with an Aspie flavour. She hasn’t, to my mind, written a selfhelp book for young Aspie children.

I think this mother had a nerve telling Julia off like this. It wasn’t Julia who put the book into her son’s hands. The world is full of marvellous books that for some reason are not right for some people. Doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have been written.

I don’t knowingly put novels about zombies into the hands of Daughter. And there are books on subjects that I myself prefer not even to think about, let alone would consider reading. We can all accidentally give someone the wrong thing, but parents of Aspie children have generally learned to think five steps ahead for even the most mundane stuff. And if we fail, it’s easy to be furious, but it’d be nice not to take it out on an innocent author.

Though I’d be interested to know what the Aspie boy Julia wrote the book for thought. I could see that if I had been the victim of something, that it’d make my suffering more recognised to have a book written about it.


Now, if only someone had whispered into my ear that Bartimaeus is funny, I’d have been begging to be introduced a lot sooner. You know how much I like my humour. Don’t you? Anyway, now that Random have the forceful Corinne to twist arms, I’ve found myself reading the most surprising stuff.¹

So, I have been started off with the prequel, after assurances it’s an OK place to begin. And it was.

In a way the djinni Bartimaeus is an awful person. But then he isn’t really a person as such, and he isn’t awful in all respects. He’s funny. He could be Skulduggery’s second cousin. ²

I like him best when he is young and handsome. I like him a little when he’s a moth, and less when a hippo.

This prequel affair is set a long time ago, in the times of good old King Solomon, the one who was wise and who had a powerful ring. That’s why the book is called The Ring of Solomon. There is an interesting heroine as well called Asmira,³ who is in the employ of the Queen of Sheba. She’d fit easily in a James Bond movie, but she’s fine with old Solomon, too.

Asmira is to steal the ring and kill Solomon, and she cons the almost un-connable Bartimaeus to help her.

Lots of fun, and quite a bit of exciting adventure, too.⁴

¹ But do keep in mind I only have so much time. No more. In fact, sometimes I don’t even have that much.

² Both old and slightly dead, or at least not alive in the conventional sense.

³ I take it there is no one here who will use the fact that I’m giving away people’s real names for any unpleasant magic, is there?

⁴ I did find the footnotes tedious from a practical point of view. Incredibly witty, but they made the flow of reading a bit, well, un-flowey.