Monthly Archives: March 2012

The Hunger Games – the film

The book surfaced quite suddenly from nowhere four years ago, and one moment I had never heard of it and the next everyone was enthusing like mad about it. I thought it sounded horrible. The plot, I mean. And then I wondered if I was missing something and needed to read it. And then when I started investigating, someone suggested it was great for younger readers but not necessarily a book for adults.

So I never did read it. Even Little Flower’s Granny read it, which surprised me somewhat. Some weeks ago Daughter caved in as well, and went out and actually bought (!) all three books.

All I had to offer when she returned to Bookwitch Towers the other day (apart from my lovely company to go and see the film, of course) was a Hunger Games mug (beautiful red) and a Mockingjay pin. The pin narrowly avoided being binned, because I could see it would merely waltz around the house for years, littering, before someone finally threw it away.

Turns out it’s very much the item to have. Some people pay money for it, even.

So, we went to see the film yesterday (and you can read more on CultureWitch for some sort of film review) and it was good, just as they said. It makes a change, really. I’d say that unlike the Harry Potter films, which must have left anyone who had not read the books totally bewildered, The Hunger Games made sense. I got what it was about, although I allowed Daughter to explain a few things, because I could tell she wanted to.

The Hunger Games - Jennifer Lawrence

I’m really very good at hating badly cast actors, and I have a fervent dislike of some actors and actresses (usually for no good reason at all). Wonderful to find someone like Jennifer Lawrence whom I actively loved. Whether I will support Team Gale or Team Peeta I couldn’t say. In fairness, we didn’t see much of Gale, so perhaps leave the decision a little longer. Gale is more handsome, but I suspect Peeta might be nicer.

And it’s a shame that we have to be so suspicious of any novel-to-film in the YA world. There are several fantastic books optioned, but it’s easy to be cynical and expect very little good to come of it.

(Speaking of Cynical, she had quite a bit to say on the subjet of this film. It would seem Cynical is rather an expert. I read her lists of dislikes and minor niggles – which for a film that she loved is an interesting concept – and they made no sense to me at all. So I returned to them after seeing the film, and they made perfect sense.)


Permanent Rose

My WBD book about Rose the other day was an appetiser. It was that short. I felt I deserved a main course too, so allowed myself to read Permanent Rose while I was in my Hilary McKay mood. (I always am, actually, but try to keep the Casson tales going for as long as possible.)

If my knees were up to it I would go down on them and worship Hilary. She’d need to be in the same room, obviously. She’s not. Just as well, since that avoids a lot of embarrassing behaviour from me.

How is it possible to write such perfect stories where (as Daughter said when she recently read her first Casson) nothing happens? Until suddenly quite a few little somethings happen and you laugh and you cry and just feel ridiculously happy.

Permanent Rose

Saffron is looking for her unknown father in Italy. Caddy is trying to become un-engaged. Indigo has lost a good friend and gained a new – unwanted – one. And Rose is trying to help. Eve is in her shed, when she’s not at the hospital, painting stuff to make the patients think of other things. Home. Nudes.

There is a dead cat and a loser boy. An expensive ring. Shoplifting. There is Daddy Casson’s girlfriend, who seems exceptionally nice, and well suited to the Casson style. Lancelot and Arthur have minor parts to play. I just wish I’d seen the hint of what was to come a little earlier. I mean I did. I just didn’t stop to think.

If ever a series of books was crying out to be given the crossover treatment, this is it. Yes, they are children’s books. But they are also grown women’s books (so could do with an adult cover option…). I love them. I just don’t know how I will stop myself from going straight on to the next book.

I need my Cassons!

Department 19: The Rising

Books which (almost) prevent Offspring from going to lectures, thereby (almost) ruining their education, and after that, their whole future, can’t be all bad. The failed education obviously is, but seeing how eagerly Daughter tackled the second Department 19 book, I didn’t have it in me to refuse her review of it here. (She’ll say I forced her. Would I do a thing like that?)

Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t read Book 1 (and want to) don’t read ahead! You know what? I hate Will Hill. He is the master of cliffhangers, meaning I now have to wait until the next book comes out. Department 19: The Rising is the second instalment of five (!) and it is easily as good as the first.

It’s been three months since Lindisfarne and Jamie, Larissa and Kate have been brought together into a team working for Department 19, to kill vampires and ensure that they remain a secret. But ever since Count Dracula was resurrected by Valeri Rusmanov, they need to start catching the vampires for the Lazarus Project, an assignment so secret that only the top levels of the department know what goes on behind the door on the deepest level of the Loop. They know that any second all hell could break loose. The messages left for them at every location they’re called out to couldn’t be clearer. ‘He Rises.’

But Jamie doesn’t only have to worry about Dracula and Valeri, but about his mother, his team and the fact that he feels responsible for Frankenstein’s death. But he is quickly distracted as he is assigned to join the Zero Hour Task Force, to track down and destroy the oldest vampire in the world. At the same time, a man is travelling across America to find an answer, only to be constantly directed somewhere else.

I think what I love most about this book is the amount of twists and turns. Will Hill surprises us with discoveries, intrigues us with secrets and makes us, the readers, keep wanting to turn that page over. Even if there is only one minute to go before your lecture starts.

And another thing, you can literally see and smell the blood. Though I wish you couldn’t, but that’s just me.  I can see how kids will love this, especially since there are no glittering, romantic, pale guys to ruin this vampire adventure.

Hmmm. I wonder if holding a wooden stake to his heart would make Will write faster..?”

I see that as a threat. So that didn’t happen on here. I think.

Chasing Vermeer


I’m doing my best. When I hear the word pentominoes (like over coffee with Little Flower’s Granny the other day), my mind can’t help but think through things like pentagons and pentameter and pentagrams and all manner of other pentas. Whereas the Resident IT Consultant thinks other – cleverer – thoughts, and after the coffee he disappeared off and came back looking all wistful over the series of three books by the fantastically named Blue Balliett, which feature crimes solved through pentominoes.

Seven years on from publication I wasn’t hopeful, but amazingly Chicken House unearthed a copy of Chasing Vermeer for me(us). And it appears the book is just as interesting and fun and mathsy as had been expected. Inside the cover Barry Cunningham asks if we are smart enough. I suspect I’m not, but the Resident IT Consultant kindly said I could probably read it without trying to solve the pentomino puzzles.

Best to just hand you over to an intelligent reviewer right now.

‘An interest in pentominoes led me to Blue Balliett’s children’s mystery story Chasing Vermeer. Set in Chicago, it appears to be a much more gentile Chicago than the one that features in most American crime fiction. Petra and Calder live in Hyde Park, close to the University of Chicago campus, and attend a middle school originally founded by John Dewey and still clearly loyal to his ideas. Certainly their teacher, Ms Hussey, enjoys a freedom in deciding what her pupils should do that would be the envy of any British Year 7 teacher.

Girl Writing

A series of apparently unconnected events lead Petra and Calder to develop an interest in A Lady Writing, a 17th century painting by Vermeer. Then, while the painting is being transported from New York for a temporary exhibition in Chicago, it suddenly disappears. Petra and Calder are convinced that the strange events they have observed contain clues to what has happened and decide to search for it. Meanwhile, the unknown thief issues a series of letters and adverts provoking a public debate on the attribution of Vermeer’s paintings. After a long succession of confusions and false trails Petra and Calder eventually discover the stolen painting and we realise how everything they have observed has been connected.

Blue Balliett, Chasing Vermeer

This book reminds me of Emil and the Detectives. The children are resourceful and intelligent, they are free to move through their own urban environment and the adults they encounter are generally friendly and helpful. Its pace never slackens, it challenges readers with new ideas and it creates a vivid impression of this part of Chicago, enriched by by Brett Helquist’s map and illustrations. And it’s not afraid to include passing references to mathematics. I particularly enjoyed Petra’s calculation that trains passing her house, do so taking a second to pass each house in the street, and her impressionistic memories of the colours glimpsed so briefly.

And where do the pentominoes fit in? Calder has a set he was given for his twelfth birthday. He uses them as a puzzle, to help him take decisions and as the basis of the code he uses when writing to his friend Tommy. As the mystery unfolds the pentominoes become a metaphor for the way in which the clues Petra and Calder uncover fit together to find the solution. Eventually all the clues, like all the pentominoes, fit together.’

Now I want to read it too, pentominoes and maths notwithstanding. And I’ll bet I’m not the only one.

Blue Skies & Gunfire

I’m with Mrs Fickling on this one. It is a good book. Blue Skies & Gunfire is also a surprisingly recent novel by K M Peyton, on an old topic, WWII. Primarily a romance, it is just the way I like a book to be.

You can tell that Kathleen lived through the period she writes about. The description of London and the Southeast is so much more vivid for all the everyday details, both about the war, but also about people ignoring the war.

K M Peyton, Blue Skies & Gunfire

I never used to understand how you could come almost eye-to-eye with German pilots, nor how easy it must have been to allow romance to go at full speed, since you couldn’t expect someone to be alive the next day, let alone after the war.

16-year-old Josie is evacuated to her aunt’s in Essex, where she meets and falls in love with the lovely Jumbo, in the Big House. He is hoping to become a pilot. Then Josie meets Jumbo’s brother Chris and falls in love with him. He already is a pilot.

You can tell this is not going to end well. The main question is which kind of not well and for whom. Both brothers are lovely boys. You just know someone will have to die, and someone will be devastated. But who and in what way, and how will it be resolved?

I had several options in my head, and I suppose the end was close-ish to one version. I just wish the last chapter hadn’t been there. I sort of want some things to be unsaid. Now that they are not, I am slowly coming round to it being the best way after all. Maybe.

Holding Hilary’s hand

Or more accurately, with her in my hand. I have owned Hilary McKay’s World Book Day 2005 short book about Rose for an absolute age. I don’t know when or where or even why I got it. This was before I discovered and fell in love with the Casson family.

I have also been reading this 50 page book for a Very Long Time. That’s not because I’m slow, but because it’s a perfect book. Sometimes I need a very small, but reliably wonderful book to grab when I leave the house and require something to calm me down and make me feel better without lugging a huge tome of a book along. The Flying Feeling fits in a pocket, and even in my bumbag. (I know that sounds to Americans the way fanny pack does here…)

It also wants to be very very good. So basically, I don’t want to waste such a perfect book for when it’s not needed. I’ve read the first chapter several times, and this week I was ready to go further.

I mean, who would not want to be accompanied by little Rose wetting herself in class, as you are waiting to part with some blood? (Anyone squeamish; leave now!) Very little blood, but I like hanging on to it. Not my mind so much as the rest of my body. I know I have blood. But none to give nurses when they come looking for it.

So as I was enjoying the post-wetting agonies of Rose and the possibility that her darling Mum had been murdered in the shed in the dark, I was led from blood-taker to blood-taker with as little success (for them) as that day in 1992 which scarred Son for life.

It’s always best to lie down, as I have a distinct dislike for fainting off chairs. When I finally ended up in New GP’s room I discovered a berth thingy that clearly was an antique, just there for effect. It was also piled high with picture frames and countless other bits of junk. Which the receptionist and New GP hurriedly had to shift…

Bet that added to my popularity. I obviously didn’t hold Hilary while the blood reluctantly trickled out, seeing as my arm was otherwise engaged, but her spirit was present.

And to avoid fainting by the zebra crossing outside I sat in the waiting room with Rose, recovering while she dashed down the road in the thunder storm, with dead hamsters behind her, or not.

Then I went home and came to the conclusion that I deserved the blood donor’s traditional treat of tea and biscuits. The Resident IT Consultant pointed out I had not parted with enough blood for this, but I still drank my tea with enjoyment. Then I allowed myself to finish The Flying Feeling as an extra special treat. Pin cushions are entitled to treats, some of the time.

OK, you can look now.

(If anyone could see their way to writing a few more books of this type to keep me afloat in times of need, I’d be obliged.)

Why Miriam wrote Illegal

Today I’m happy to have Miriam Halahmy on the blog. You will remember my review of Illegal the other day? Here Miriam tells us about some of the things that inspired her, and she certainly has a lot of experience of teenagers like Lindy and Karl. Not everyone has had television sets thrown at them.

‘Illegal is the second novel in my cycle of three novels set on Hayling Island opposite the Isle of Wight. Each novel is stand-alone but a minor character in the previous novel becomes the major character in the next. Illegal is Lindy’s story; the story of a teenage girl driven to take desperate measures when all other choices are taken away from her. It is a novel about growing up and gaining independence against the odds.

In this book I have focused on the needs of vulnerable young people in our society who do not come from supported backgrounds. I was a Special Needs teacher in London schools for 25 years and worked with many pupils like Lindy and Karl.

Lindy is based on an amalgam of pupils I knew with emotional and behavioural problems. Many of these pupils cannot cope in mainstream classes and attend special units with a very high pupil teacher ration. Even then they present very challenging behaviour fuelled by a whole range of factors such as difficult home backgrounds, drug taking, peer group influence and sensory and emotional problems.

One girl I worked with had grown a fingernail and then sharpened it to a fierce point. She threatened everyone around her but inside she was a very frightened person as a result of abuse she had suffered. Another boy was going deaf and refused hearing aids. He simply couldn’t control his anger and broke windows, furniture and doors. Another lad threw a portable television at me one morning. You learn how to duck in this field of work!!

Inside all of these damaged, angry and very frightened young people were decent human beings trying to emerge. Some of the pupils I have worked with were mute, like Karl. This is a terrible affliction and reduces the sufferer to a shadow. They cannot make friends, their education suffers and they need very specific therapy. A paediatrician confirmed to me that the shock Karl experiences in Illegal could trigger speech again. But it’s not the ideal cure!

I believe that with the right support every young person has a future. It concerns me that in these days of austerity the support needed by young people on the very fringes of our education system may be cut and opportunities reduced. I am certainly convinced that last August we would have had much less trouble on our city streets if there were youth clubs and youth leaders engaging with young people on the margins of our societies.

At the heart of many of these troubles is the massive drugs industry. This is why I chose to place this issue in Lindy’s story. I have worked with many young people who have had serious mental health problems from using cannabis and other drugs. If Lindy’s story helps even one teenager think twice about taking drugs, then it’s been a story worth telling.’

Let’s hope it does. I have great faith in the power of books, and if I were a doctor I’d prescribe them. And if I was the government I’d start spending our money rather differently. The trouble with them, though, is they’ll never be as wise or sensible as I am.

Bookwitch bites #75

If I’d known about it I would have wanted to be there. Here is a short video from when some other people spoke up for libraries, with Alan Gibbons at the forefront ‘as usual.’ The others are, in no particular order, Lucy Coats, Candy Gourlay, Philip Ardagh, Gillian Cross, Fiona Dunbar, Chris Priestley, Pat Walsh and the librarian of librarians, Ferelith Hordern. And probably some others I didn’t catch enough of a glimpse of to be able to identify them.

It’s easy for us to take libraries and the whole idea of them for granted. I had no idea that when Candy grew up in the Philippines there weren’t any libraries. And the elderly gentleman in the video who talked so passionately about borrowing books to read… well, it makes me want to cry.

Charlie Brown had access to a library. Probably even Snoopy had a library, unless it was ‘no dogs allowed.’ It can be easy to lose or forget a library book, but as long as you don’t ‘spill coffee’ on a book on purpose, you might be forgiven.

Charlie Brown library cartoon

The coffee spilling was a technique I learned about at work, back in the olden days. Not very honest, and not something I have ever practised.

Finally, here is a link to a radio programme on Monday 26th March, about Scandinavian children’s books, presented by Mariella Frostrup as ‘always.’ Let’s hope it won’t be only the same old stuff, despite the description. I am particularly interested, because I was party to a request for contributions to the programme from the Scandinavian church in Liverpool. Nice that they asked, but not sure who they hoped to find there. (Having said that, I will clearly be faced with all my friends at Gustav Adolf…)


Lord's Library

I’m not entirely sure whether the – Bookwitch – jury is still out on this, or not. To e or not to e? Well, actually, I will e(book) if and when the need arises. I’d be silly not to. But I’m more or less with Blue Peter on this.

They went to great trouble to test e-readers versus good old paper. It might not have been totally serious or scientific, but I was quite impressed by the exercise of letting a tank run over the two competitors. The e-reader survived, but the paper book survived more, if you can put it that way?

Take my (no longer so) recent train trip to Glasgow. Eight hours there and back. The way to justify all that time was to take books to read. Get a lot of reading done. I usually take more than one, since I never know if I’ll end up hating one. On that basis, perhaps three books, considering the length of the journey?

A Kindle would be ideal, and would prevent the bag getting too heavy (with a laptop in there, it was already too heavy) and too fat. Umpteen books in one small packet. But what if the battery ran out? Better take one paper book. So, in reality I took the equivalent of two, anyway.

And what about the funny people you encounter on planes? I have yet to find any consistency from one crew member to another, and I need to read when sitting there waiting for take-off slots, and to take my mind off bumps. So I can’t afford someone coming along demanding my electronic gadget is put away for (here you insert whatever stupid reason such people might come up with), which could be five minutes or five hours.

So, paper book it is.

Holidays. Could take ten books with little effort. Between us, the Resident IT Consultant and I could share twenty. But unless we have an e-reader each, we can’t share.

Reviews. Yes. Publishers can club together to pay for e-readers for people on their current mailing lists (except they probably wouldn’t, or couldn’t) and then send out ebooks (and that’s the death knell to Royal Mail). Handy. Except, if the book isn’t only published as an ebook, there is no way of getting all touchy-feely with some of the lovelier aspects of books where a lot of thought has gone into the design.

Suzanne Selfors, Mad Love

Loking at my (I mean the Kindle belonging to the Resident IT Consultant, of course) grey and boring e-reader I would never get those pink twinges I experienced over Suzanne Selfors’s Mad Love.

I could never do a header photograph like my new header. There would be just the one ‘book’ and no hope of rainbows anywhere.

Actually, that’s not strictly true. I gather there are skins you can buy. Sounds decadent, and not very vegetarian, but quite nice. You can even have a custom made skin. Saw a blog post by an author who tried out customised skins from her own (paper) cover designs. It looked great! And I do think that’s a nicer way to adorn an e-reader than the ever-changing pictures that pop up on the Kindle. Nice enough, but you’re not in control. And there is no colour.

I have read some ebooks now, and it’s been OK. But I find I need to remember they exist. The e-reader alone does not remind me that I have six exciting titles to read, the way six books would. That’s partly why Philip Caveney hasn’t been getting the attention his new ebook deserves. I’m not in an ebook mood.

It’s great the way you can alter the size of the font. But you never know what page you are on. (Or even how many ‘normal’ pages there are. Percentages are all very well, but if you can’t see what the 48% is 48% of…) Also, I needed to alert one author to a mistake that I was sure she would want to correct, but what page would it be at her end?


There are good and bad things for both options. But I prefer books made of paper. I even prefer the mess they make on my shelves. Which is funny, because the minimalist in me ought to be more than ready for a life with one book. Like the chap at the top of this post. I’d love to have visitors admiring my ‘selection.’

Where am I heading?

It’s a bit of a cliché, and I apologise, but I have been craving some colour co-ordinated books up on top here. I just have. I know ‘everyone’ else with a book blog also has books, and I know some have the colours, but I just couldn’t help myself, all right?

The shape of a blog header is made for a row of books, don’t you think? And no book was spared in the making of Bookwitch’s new head(er). I picked and I planned and I carried. I remembered that I don’t have all the books. Offspring look after certain categories, so I went to see what they had to offer.

And in case you thought Daughter provided Love Lessons for that lovely red colour, I’ll have you know her copy was buried so deep that I went and borrowed Son’s copy instead. Yes, I know. It’s not every witch who has a son who owns a red Jacqueline Wilson book.

I lined them all up and then I wondered what on earth I should do with the whites and the blacks, as they aren’t part of the rainbow I was aiming for. But as you can see, I thought of something. (To be perfectly honest, without the black and white ends they would all have toppled sideways.)

When I had photographed them a few times (not all of the books said ‘cheese’ at the same time…) I had to carry them all back. And whereas getting the books off the shelves is relatively easy (according to the principle that anything will come down), returning them meant lugging the stepstool out to reach the top. But because my shelves had already begun to look untidy, I suppose it was good that I had to do it again.


I will now be able to accommodate another ten books or so, after reading, and after that, I will be as desperately off as I was only the other day.