Monthly Archives: December 2011

Nicola’s brain and my just desserts

I really want to be amusing and able to tell a good story. The truth is rather different, but I have this urge to force my sad pudding tale on you, regardless. Don’t worry, I’ll make it up to you. Later.

The twenty-something witch and Mother-of-witch and Favourite Aunt had decided to spend Christmas in London. Or rather, the witch had, and the other two had to trail after her. We crossed on the ferry from Gothenburg, which still sailed in those days. We splashed out on the proper dinner with waiter service as it was Christmas. Waiter service. Hah. He was as drunk as a skunk.

I forget what we ordered for dessert, but we all had the same. Tried to have the same. The other two were in receipt of their puddings. Our lovely waiter had three more on his tray, and two of them were safely delivered to the diners at a nearby table. Then he stopped and looked in bewildered fashion at the remaining bowl. He pondered it briefly before depositing the offending pud on a small table behind a column, which was presumably holding up the dining room ceiling.

I steamed – not very nicely at all – and nearly exploded before managing to explain to him that it was not unwanted. It was wanted by me.

My bad pudding karma followed me to London. We were allotted our own waitress at the hotel, and ours must have been re-called from a long retirement to help them out over the festive period. She was ours for breakfast and dinner. Every day. One night my eye was caught by the Baked Alaska on the menu. My foreign-ness meant I wasn’t totally sure what it was, but strongly suspected it was a close relative of the ancient Swedish delicacy we call Glace au Four.

I asked our faithful waitress (she really seemed to be very fond of us) for a confirmation of this. She peered at the menu and thought about it before whispering conspiratorially that I would probably be better off having something else (i.e. she didn’t have a clue). Well, you know me. We ordered the Baked Alaska/Glace au Four. I had been right. It was ‘Glace au Four.’ At least it didn’t go missing en route. Towards the end of the holiday I had grown quite fond of our waitress. She meant well. And I do like it when people like me. It’s a rare thing.

And now for your reward. Here is Nicola Morgan’s tale about when her brain tried to leave Belfast. Nicola knows how to be amusing.

My Christmas hat

Isn’t it wonderful? My hat, I mean? It’s a Christmas special. For everyday use I wear something a bit more ordinary.

Christmas card 2011

This glamorous witch’s hat was embroidered by my lovely friend/blog reader Laurie. I’m not sure what I did to deserve it, but I’m very happy to be at the receiving end of things too good for me. Don’t mind at all.

A very Happy Christmas to you all!

Witch’s Eleven

Here’s the 2011 top ten. Because it’s my top ten, it has eleven books. Because it’s 2011. Eleven is such a nice number. You know.

Anyway, I can’t have the same number every year. I need to keep my readers on their toes. There could have been many more. Books. Not toes, unless we count them individually, since every extra reader ought to bring around ten when they join.


I was aiming for some sort of order of colour in this pile, but eleven isn’t enough. And rest assured, I didn’t choose my list according to colour of spine.

Whereas in the photo the books are rated by colour, I will list them here based on titles in alphabetical order. It’s an even year, and almost impossible to pick a ‘winner.’

Being Billy, Phil Earle

Bloodstone, Gillian Philip

Caddy’s World, Hilary McKay

Cat’s Paw, Nick Green

In the Sea there are Crocodiles, Fabio Geda

Life, an Exploded Diagram, Mal Peet

Outlaw, Stephen Davies

Return to Ribblestrop, Andy Mulligan

There is no Dog, Meg Rosoff

The Unforgotten Coat, Frank Cottrell Boyce

Wonder Struck, Brian Selznick

My rules are few. The books need to be from this year. I need to have loved them more than I loved many other excellent books. They need to have made me go ‘Yes!’ when reading them. Made me laugh or cry, or both, that little bit more than average. I’m also hoping to have at least partially avoided what someone was complaining about on facebook the other week, which is that recommended books often have very little to do with what children read. Or rather, since I don’t know what children actually read, that I’m not recommending books suitable for adults only.

If I’m to elevate one book above the others, it will have to be Fabio Geda’s Crocodiles. And it’s not even fiction. And it’s a translation.

Goodnight Mister Tom, the musical

In February I blogged about the dramatised version of Goodnight Mister Tom after I’d seen it on stage at the Lowry. I liked it a lot, and soon after Michelle Magorian sent me her own two act musical of the book, for me to read and compare.

There was singing in the production I saw as well, although not nearly as much. Whereas it sounds strange to think of this tear inducing novel turned into a musical (don’t you somehow feel a musical is happy at all times?), I find that you can fit a lot of back story and explanation into a song, in a way you couldn’t with plain speech, because it’d be boring and sound too much like a shopping list.

So yes, I liked Michelle’s own version a lot. I’m always surprised by how well you can fit a really long book into what is a pretty short play, without losing too much of the general feel of the original story. The actors obviously help, as they can show you in a second what takes a while to describe on the page.

The film starring John Thaw is also excellent for that very reason. The plot of the book  has been cut, but you feel it’s ‘all there.’

I have heard of authors who attempt to write screenplays of their own novels, but who give up. Not only is it a different skill, but it must be hard to cut your own ‘baby,’ as it were. The difference for Michelle is her theatre experience, which gives her a head start when it comes to adapting her work for the stage.

The Mister Tom musical was a brief read, but it still brought tears to my eyes. I suspect it always will.

And tonight you absolutely must watch – or at least record for later Christmas viewing – the new ITV film of Just Henry. It’s on at seven this evening, and I have been looking forward to it for months.

Josh Bolt will be Henry, and Elaine Cassidy, Dean Andrews, Stephen Campbell Moore and Barbara Flynn are also in the film, with Sheila Hancock as Henry’s grandmother. Now that should be interesting!

This Dark Endeavour

…and here is the Bookwitch, just crossing the finishing line of her twelve months of Foreign Reading Challenge. Not that a Canadian book is all that foreign, but it’s not British, and that was the whole point.

As you know, I like my main characters to be likeable. They don’t have to be good, but they need to have a certain something. Victor Frankenstein – yes, that Victor Frankenstein – is someone I didn’t particularly like. This prequel to Mary Shelley’s novel, written by Kenneth Oppel is a very exciting and easy to read thriller/horror story. Quite gory in places, but brave soul that I am, I only skipped about six pages towards the end. If you are a regular reader of this blog you will have no trouble working out which pages.

Not being an expert on the original Frankenstein, I was fascinated to see how Kenneth has incorporated the necessary bits from the original novel with his own new ideas, including a Geneva address like Woolstonekraft Alley. The love of Frankenstein’s life is in the book, and so is the faithful friend.

Kenneth Oppel, This Dark Endeavour

Victor has also been furnished with a twin brother who is just like him, only that little bit nicer and more popular, so he is jealous of Konrad. They are teenagers and we see them at home outside Geneva, being taught by Mr Frankenstein the elder, and finding a library of forbidden books underneath their castle.

Then Konrad falls ill, and to save his brother Victor and the other two enter into a world of alchemy and deceit, hoping to find the Elixir of Life.

It’s adventure of the kind that almost makes me ill with worry, and it doesn’t always go as well as we’d like. I couldn’t foresee exactly what they would do, but it was easy to guess what must ultimately happen, and it did.

The Kingdom Under the Sea

By the time I picked this book up, I’d almost overdosed on myths and traditional stories and fairy tales, but wanted to take a look at The Kingdom Under the Sea by Joan Aiken and with illustrations by Jan Pieńkowski. I could skim it.

The Kingdom Under the Sea by Joan Aiken, with illustrations by Jan Pieńkowski

That’s what I thought. It only took me a little of the first story to be hooked. That’s the thing with Joan Aiken. She didn’t do things the way others do them.

To begin with, none of these stories were of the same old, same old kind. Nothing wrong with well known tales, but new (to me) traditional ones are more refreshing. They are all in the same vein that I remember from my childhood collections, but new and very well told.

It’s always the youngest son or the prettiest but poorest girl who are true and good. Why this is so I have no idea. There is a wonderful tale about a poor knight and his many animals. That story didn’t go in the expected direction, and was so much better for it.

Perhaps there is too much killing, even when done by the good characters, but it sort of belongs in this type of literature. (Witches don’t absolutely have to be bad…)

The Kingdom Under the Sea by Joan Aiken, with illustrations by Jan Pieńkowski

And as if Joan Aiken’s stories weren’t enough, we get beautiful illustrations by Jan Pieńkowski. Many of them are black silhouette ones, which somehow make more of an impact than a colourful and detailed ordinary picture would. You can see the warty, crooked nose of the witch so much better. (Ahem.)

This is the second recent reissued collection by Joan and Jan, and I adore these books. I’m sorry, but you’ll have to go shopping again. This is perfect Christmas present stuff.

Graduating the Mancunian way

Back in July I carelessly said I hoped for a long interval before my next graduation. Just over five months isn’t all that long. We have another graduate and there was another graduation yesterday. This time it was the other boy of the family, the Resident IT Consultant. I went along to keep him company, seeing as it was just six miles up the road and felt like a manageable kind of event. (Shouldn’t have ‘borrowed’ Daughter’s bag, however. It decided to moult all over me.)

There was just me and my camera, so no swirly Snape-ey shots of his behind. I mean of the gown, obviously. Most of the pictures are not terribly marvellous, and anyway, I can’t publish photos of an innocent member of the witch family on here. The photos are very much of the something bad in the background kind, or when the background is fine he decides to take a little nap, or the tie is misbehaving, or it’s the rabbit caught in headlights look.

I’ve realised why Edinburgh insisted on bow ties. Ordinary ones get in the way of the gown. I’ll know for next time…

So, we got the hoodie. The lovely purple Manchester hoodie was sold cheap. It says Graduation 2011 on the back, and my cynical mind says there aren’t too many opportunities left in 2011, so they are clearing out their stock. Bypassed the exorbitant frames intended for the exorbitant official photos (who’d want a good one when they can have my bad one?). No hats or cuddly toys or whatever else was being flogged.

Graduation at Whitworth Hall, Manchester

The ceremony was fine. Lots of men and women wearing colourful gowns and making speeches and one poor soul who shook a lot of hands. At least there was no hitting people on the head this time.

The world really is a melting pot these days. Many of the graduates have names originating somewhere else. I think that’s good. Many colour coordinated muslim dresses, including two full veils in purple. A tremendous number of females with long, glossy hair, making the Resident IT Consultant’s hair look a bit wanting.

Graduation at Whitworth Hall, Manchester

Can you see him at the back on the right? I believe Son watched the proceedings online, while Daughter only managed sound, but that’s to be expected seeing as she’s that much further north.

We skipped the reception afterwards in favour of dinner at a reasonable hour at home, with the latest NCIS. Maybe we are getting old?

The Feral Child

This is one book you can’t buy for Christmas, because it’s not out yet. But if the 5th of January could somehow be jiggled round to come before Christmas, I would suggest you buy a copy of The Feral Child for someone you know, and one for yourself. Unlike many books for 9+ this one is enjoyable for adults.

So there was no cause for me to worry. But one does, anyway. What if this new – first – book by someone who frequents this blog were to turn out to be boring or badly written? But Che Golden writes books the way she comments on blogs; intelligently and with wit and humour.

The book has a very strong first chapter. You just want to go on. There is nothing wobbly about this beginner.

Che Golden, The Feral Child

I am quite fond of Tír na nÓg, although I have to say that Che has put some vicious faeries in her version. (For visiting purposes I’d much rather go to Kate Thompson’s Tír na nÓg, where the people are inept but friendly in a charming Irish sort of way.) But if they weren’t unpleasant there would be no adventure.

Maddy is a second generation Irish English girl, who has come to Blarney to live with her grandparents when her parents died. As we all do, she discovers that the lovely holiday destination is much less fun when you have to stay forever. She’s very unhappy, and her cousins aren’t too friendly towards her, either. ‘Dealing with prats like Danny, one of the nastiest people you could meet this side of an ASBO.’

She likes her toddler neighbour Stephen best, and when he’s snatched by a faerie one night, and taken to Tír na nÓg, Maddy sets off to rescue him. Unfortunately she can’t shake off her cousins, so they end up coming along on this dangerous journey. Some people – like Maddy’s grandfather – believe in faeries, but most people in Blarney don’t.

The Feral Child is a fantastic read, and has a nice Irish feel to it. I’m becoming increasingly partial to Irish books. It’s the first of a trilogy, and I’m looking forward to more Maddy, and wondering what on earth she can get up to next time. Will it be back to known enemies, or will she discover new ones?

At the Old Bailey

Old Bailey

When looking through some old paperwork the other day, I came upon Son’s notes from when he appeared at the Old Bailey. You somehow never expect your child to end up somewhere like the most famous court in the country.

Especially not as barrister for the defense. And especially not at the age of 16.

As Son began Sixth Form he came home with this odd idea that he’d take part in a Bar Mock Trial. I’d never heard of this, and thought it was a strange thing to be doing, when you could play rugby after school. But off he went, and at times he and I both resented quite how much work it involved and how much time it took.

Bar Mock practice

Basically, what they do is have teams of students taking on the different roles in a trial, from barrister to crook. Pardon, the person who might be innocent. Or guilty. First they practise for a couple of months, and then they compete against teams from other schools.

I went along to the regional heat at Chester Crown Court, more or less under duress. I wanted to be a good mother, but expected to leave after a while, rather than stay all day. (Chester has nice shops.)

Son had been writing down what he was going to say, based on any number of scenarios, because you can’t know what your opponents might say. His team had an excellent tutor, who had herself been part of a successful team some years earlier. They had four barristers, two for the defense and two prosecuting. The team had court ushers and clerks, it had defendants and witnesses. Each had to learn their part as well as possible.

For each ‘game’ a team either defended or prosecuted, and there were two different cases, which they could end up doing from both points of view. Hence all the preparation and the writing of what to say. The judge is a professional, who will judge the teams as well as the trial.

Suffice it to say that after the first trial I had no intention of going anywhere. The judge also had the very good taste to commend Son’s barristering. (What a nice man!) Those long afternoons at school paid off when Son’s team won, and even if I say so, it was well deserved. They had clearly prepared well, where some had not, or not prepared at all.

The Bar Mock team

There was no kicking or screaming on my part when it came to a weekend in London, going to the Old Bailey for the day. It’s quite an experience, having the place to yourself, with only the other teams. And as with football, it’s an opportunity to get to know the parents of the other team members. I liked the mother of the defendant who was probably guilty as hell, except ours was so good she got off. It was the backstory of her young son that clinched it.

As with football, you get to know the finer details of the game when you’ve seen the same court case over and over again. You can unpick it, and you see what’s good and what doesn’t work.

They didn’t win. But they came second, to an incredibly skilled team. (And as Son tends to point out, he didn’t lose. It was his barrister colleague who defended in the last trial… But she was good, too. Very good.)

Bar Mock team from Wilmslow High

So, you learn a thing or two about how to manipulate the jury with what you say. And speaking of the jury; the main problem for the final was that most of them had gone home, so the last jury was not exactly unbiassed.

When I think back, though, it’s the fictional young son I remember. Preparation might not be everything, but it’s very important. Some people overlook this basic rule. I believe in little Bobby.

Return to Ribblestrop

You’d worry about the under-age driving of large trucks and the drinking of champagne in cars, not to mention going off with strange men or deep frozen priests. Playing russian roulette with a gun. Especially coming so early in a children’s book. But when you’ve read the first Ribblestrop, you feel in such safe hands with Andy Mulligan and the whole Ribblestrop school, that you just sit there and grin with the sheer bliss of it.

With Ribblestrop I wasn’t sure how to look at this seemingly mad headmaster. Was he bad? Was he a crook? No. Others took care of the crook business, and he’s just a sweet man, doing his best for the education of the children in his care.

Were any of the children bad? Bullies? No, they too, are simply different personalities, and they all get on and learn – however unorthodox the methods may be – and develop. And they deal with the crooks. That’s why we know it will be all right in the end.

That’s not to say there aren’t deaths.

This term the children are joined by a few more students, and there is a pregnant panther and a hungry crocodile and a few more beasts of the zoological variety. There are also human beasts. But as long as there are orphans at Ribblestrop things will get done. I love them all. Ruskin’s little brother Oli (didn’t even know he had one) is a most useful newcomer.

They continue playing football. We hear from the silent monks, and the reproductive systems of animals are studied in detail. A new tuckshop is in operation. A tiny bit of romance, which is very nice. (With just the one girl, you don’t need to wonder who.)

And it’s so lovely the way the new people joining the school don’t even bat an eyelid at the unusual goings-on. They get on with it. They like each other and look out for each other.

If that’s not a successful school, I don’t know what is.

I really, really hope there will be further returns to Ribblestrop. Sometimes it seems as if there can only be so much mayhem in one place, but please, please think up some more for us, Andy!