Monthly Archives: May 2012


Believe it or not, but Goblins is my first Philip Reeve! I am a disgrace. (Or does a short story count?)

Philip Reeve, Goblins

Goblins is deliciously green; cover, paper edges, bookmark-cum-postcard, the lot. I wanted to read it, but tested it first on the Resident IT Consultant, who loved it. His notes (he took notes!) mentioned Farmer Giles, Gormenghast, Magic Flute, Wagner, Beowulf and Pratchett. So there you are.

My post-reading notes has anchovies and gazebo and cheese listed. We appear to see things differently.

Like Henwyn, the (human) hero of this book, I had never given too much thought to princesses who need rescuing. I know they do, occasionally, but had never stopped to think about who and what they might be. It would actually be worthwhile doing so. Philip Reeve’s princess is better than most. She is Princess Eluned, or Ned for short.

There is a map of Clovenstone, where the action takes place. What struck me about it is that most maps of this kind of fantasy country tend to look the same. I don’t mean it badly, but there were no surprises, if you get my drift? Anyway, Goblins live in Clovenstone and they are an unpleasant and stupid lot, apart from the (goblin) hero Skarper. He has goblinish tendencies, but is on the whole rather nice, and he is well read, due to the existence of bumwipes.

Power will make anyone mad and bad, whether human or goblin or any other species. That means the search for who is going to be the new Lych Lord can’t end well. Once you have power, you will not improve, and your friends will despair of you.

Henwyn comes from a cheese-making family, and there is an unusual cheese in this story. The gazebo in question is simply one of those nice words Skarper learned from the dictionary which he found among the bumwipes. Gazebo almost makes more sense to Skarper than kindness (the word) does, until he encounters kindness. You’ll know it when you find it.

Anchovies is merely a goblin kind of ‘phrase.’

Skarper and Henwyn and Ned have a bit of an adventure. Thanks to Henwyn’s courage and Ned’s wisdom and Skarper’s well… everything else, their search for riches and power and heroic adventure goes just fine. There is a dragon, three human idiots, as well as a troll and a giant. I’d say all the angles have been covered.

This book offers lots of humour and an exciting adventure, but I especially liked Philip’s use of language. And Ned. I’ll be Ned in my next life. At least if I can avoid some of her more hair-raising, near death experiences.

Bookwitch bites #81

If you fancy listening to Eoin Colfer swear and curse you shouldn’t click on this video from the launch of Paul O’Brien’s debut adult crime novel Blood Red Turns Dollar Green. (No, I don’t know what that means.) It seems Eoin was looking forward to having left the children’s world behind (why?), when he discovered there were children present, so he had to clean up his act in praising his fellow Wexford author. Or he might have made that up. He’s also shorter than the first presenter in this clip.

The sound quality isn’t marvellous, and it sounds like it’s raining (it’s Ireland, after all), but you have to admire an author who uses his speech at someone else’s launch to talk about himself… Just joking. I still have to get over the beard.

Mentioning Eoin some more, I see the last Artemis Fowl is almost with us. July can’t get here soon enough. Artemis Fowl and the Last Guardian. It sounds like a newspaper advert, but that’s OK.

Being Irish could be enough to enter the multilingual poetry competition run by the Manchester Children’s Book Festival. If you are lucky enough to be aged under 19, and you have a first language other than English you can enter this competition with a poem in your own language. English native speakers learning a foreign language can also enter by writing a poem in the other  language.

I have no poetry writing skills, so it’s just as well I’m old. For anyone else who is interested, go to Mother Tongue Other Tongue for more information. And write fast. The deadline is 28th May. The Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy will present the prizes to winners on 30th June.

That other award – the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award – will be presented on the 28th May, and I can’t tell you how relieved I am. I thought it was going to be on the 22nd (for some obscure reason, not known even to me) and worried in case Crown Princess Victoria had double-booked herself, forgetting she has a baby that needs Christening. On the 22nd. But all is well, and Guus Kuijer will presumably be able to shake the royal hand after all.

Last year when I was searching for foreign reads I believed it’d be both easy and logical for me to read something Finnish. Not actually in Finnish. Obviously. Failed in my research and gave up. Then the other day the Resident IT Consultant (who clearly had nothing better to do than surf the net) sent me a link to an article about Finnish books (which had been translated – into Swedish).

Sinikka and Tiina Nopola are sisters writing books about a Finnish rapper by the name of Risto. I love the original title, Risto Räppääjä. You really can’t have too many äs in a word. Expecting great things I went in search of Risto in a more manageable shape. He’s out of print… So that’s that.

Räppääjä, Räppääjä!

How wartime Bletchley Park made Ruth fall head-over-heels in love with maths

I’m the last in line. There has been this blog tour for over a week, in aid of maths and codes and generally saving the world. I’m saying as little as I can, because I get worried when I see so many noughts. Gazillions of them. So here is a smitten Ruth Eastham telling us why she’s crazy about them.

Messenger Banner

“Four down, 158,000,000,000,000,000,996 to go.

That’s million, million, million to you and me. Quintillion for short.

No, I’m not talking about the number of drafts I had to do for my second book, The Messenger Bird (although it did seem like that at times). Writing may be hard graft, but what about having to crack vital, top secret enemy messages day after day without a let-up?

I’m talking BP, and not the service station and convenient-roadside-shopping kind. I’m talking Bletchley Park. The extraordinary Second World War code-breaking headquarters.

Now, I’ll admit, I’ve always been a bit of a geek. I play chess; I used to make up cryptic crossword clues just for fun; I was already partial to a bit of mathematics…

Maths may not be the nation’s favourite subject, and some of you may even need convincing just how wonderful it is. You may even scoff at the very idea of my being in love with it. But you simply need to be enlightened, as illustrated by a conversation recently with a former student of mine:

Inge: I hate maths!

Ruth: Why?

Inge: It’s BORING!

Ruth: But it’s maths that made Bletchley Park tick! If it wasn’t for maths, the Turing Bombe (first operational in September 1940) would never have been designed, enemy Enigma messages would never have been decoded, and the theories of programmable numbers would never have led, in December 1943, to the invention of… Inge… Inge?

So just how did Bletchley Park do it?

You’ve heard of Enigma Code, right?

An Enigma machine was a sort of typewriter, but with two keyboards. It was used by the Nazis to send messages. When a key is pressed on the lower keyboard, special rotors inside and a plugboard make a different letter light up on the upper keyboard.


The scrambled string of letters was sent by radio waves in Morse, and ‘Listening Stations’ located around Britain and abroad intercepted these secret messages and sent them straight to BP!

Problem was, with Enigma machines there were millions upon millions of different ways they could be set to when the message was sent! Quintillions in fact! Another problem was that the settings were changed at midnight every single day


Enter BP and the ‘Turing Bombe’, which was an automatic machine that could quickly test-out all the different possible settings. Once the correct one was found, all the messages intercepted that day could be decoded, letting the Allies make crucial decisions about the movement of soldiers, ships and war planes; likely shortening the War by two years!

Yes, two whole years!

Hitler and his generals used a machine with, not three, but twelve rotors, leading to the invention of Colossus, the great-granddaddy of all computers!

So maths is not only beautiful, it was the basis for all computing as we know it. You like your laptop, don’t you? You like being able to freely surf and chat to friends? You’ve got maths to thank for that!

So need I say more about why we should all adore mathematics?

(I’ve still to convince Inge, but I’m hoping she’ll come round…)”

Never mind Inge; I have come round. Or would have, if I thought I could do it. But I believe. And I’m a great fan of Alan Turing’s.

And for those of you collecting letters for Ruth’s mystery message competition: Mystery letter number 9=I


Following on from yesterday’s post on Bloody Scotland, here is a brief review of organiser Lin Anderson’s debut novel. I’ve been not reading her books for too long, but have enjoyed one or two short stories. Some years ago, when I learned that Son’s friend’s mother writes crime novels, I almost dismissed it as some sort of hobby. But I quickly realised Lin is a real author. It’s me who hobbies.

To be perfectly honest, I didn’t enjoy the beginning of Driftnet. There was a bleakness that made both me and the main character, forensic scientist Rhona MacLeod, unhappy. I wanted to kick her, get her to react differently to her circumstances. I didn’t like her lover, Sean. Wasn’t sure what to make of her job or her colleagues, either.

But things ‘brightened up’ after a while, so I’m glad I continued. What do a paedophile ring or a few dead teenagers matter, in exchange for a determined heroine? The subject is horrendous and makes for difficult reading. What’s so awful is that this still goes on and probably always will.

You can tell the book is ‘old’ (2003) because the use of mobile phones is less widespread. People don’t always check their answerphone messages (in time). Computers and research worked differently, and they didn’t seem to go in for broadband.

Rhona has a complicated – and not always happy – past and it catches up with her and the case, when a young ‘rentboy’ is murdered. It looks like people in high places might be involved. It looks like things will be hushed up because of it.

This is a fascinating beginning to a series of crime novels, set in Glasgow, looking at the painstaking work behind the usual detective work.

If I can find the time, I will want to know what happens next to Rhona and those around her. Hopefully it won’t always be those nearest her who end up involved with the latest crime to solve. I read the first book, because Lin suggested that was a good place to start. And assuming some of the characters turn up again, it would have given the game away to read them in the wrong order.

Evil and deadly and Scottish (ish)

It’s going to be blo*dy difficult to choose. I am talking about Bloody Scotland. The programme goes live today, and I have to urge you to buy tickets while stocks last and all that. Hurry.

You might also want to stock up on stamina. I began making a list of what I want to see and hear, and setting aside that little inconvenience of having mislaid my timeturner, meaning I can only go to one event at a time, I have come to realise it could turn out to be too taxing going to one event for every slot in the day. Do you think? Or perhaps I can?

Bloody Scotland venues

It’s in Stirling, and what better place for it? The organisers have commandeered the Albert Halls and the Stirling Highland Hotel. They are near each other, so the toing and froing will be OK. Or would be but for that little matter of the hill. The hotel is the former Stirling High School, the alma mater of the Resident IT Consultant. (No, he didn’t go to school in a hotel. He had to go somewhere else.) The Albert Halls sounds grand, and seeing as it has been good enough for the Singing Kettle, it will be good enough for the cream of crime.

I’m aware that I haven’t listed all the crime writers who are appearing. You will just have to check out the programme. Karin Fossum and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir are coming, which means it’s not exclusively Scottish. It’s northern, though, and Scotland has expressed this understandable interest in joing the Nordic countries. And I daresay that if they murder well enough, we might let them.

There are so many great looking events I don’t know how to choose, and I won’t even try to list them here for you. What I absolutely mustn’t miss is Gillian Philip and Cathy MacPhail with Helen FitzGerald talking about YA crime.

A couple of fancy dinners are also part of the programme, where you can dine with your favourite crime writers. I hope that the former school does nice meals. They say the dinners go on until late. Luckily it’s downhill on the way home (unless, of course, it isn’t – depends on where you intend to sleep), so that’s all right.

Get on that website now and book your tickets. There are even reduced prices if you buy lots (except I’m not sure they have been reading those maths books I’ve mentioned) of tickets.

See you there!

The Murderous Maths of Everything

Below you will learn about at least one interesting thing you can do with a publisher’s press release. I had no inkling they were so versatile, but let the Resident IT Consultant loose on a maths book and allow him the use of scissors and the previously mentioned press release, and…

I gave up at the Sieve of Eratosthenes. So you will forgive me (or maybe you won’t) for having handed Kjartan Poskitt’s book over to the man with the scissors. Although, having said that, I do feel The Murderous Maths of Everything looks interesting. Actually. It has come too late for me, but I could see myself studying bits and pieces from the book. A little at a time.

But here is the Resident IT Consultant on Kjartan’s book and also an earlier source of happiness for a very young R IT C:

“Where once there was nothing but Mathematics for the Million (Lancelot Hogben, 1936) there are today at least a dozen well-written popular mathematics books for adults published every year. But for children there is very little to satisfy, or inspire, an interest in mathematics. Look at Amazon’s popularity ratings and you find them dominated by study and revision guides.

For more than ten years this has been the sector of the market addressed by Kjartan Poskitt’s Murderous Maths series. Economically priced and heavily illustrated (many by Philip Reeve), these informal and irreverent paperbacks have built an enthusiastic following from children aged eight and upward. Kjartan’s latest book, The Murderous Maths of Everything, has one important innovation: it is in colour.

It looks very attractive. With something of the feel of a comic book it addresses a wide range of topics ranging from the Sieve of Eratosthenes through the probabilities of being dealt different poker hands to topological theorems that are not normally encountered outside university mathematics. I particularly enjoyed the double spread on mobius strips which introduced me to a demonstration (cutting around a pair of loops made out of a paper cross) which I hadn’t previously seen.

Kjartan Poskitt, The Murderous Maths of Everything

The book reminded me of a book I received as a seventh birthday present, Irving Adler’s Giant Colour Book of Mathematics (Golden Press, 1958) and I thought it would be interesting to compare the content. They are almost exactly the same size, in physical dimensions and number of pages: Adler’s has 92 pages, Poskitt’s 96. Adler’s book has an index, and is much more respectful in tone than Poskitt’s, though just as colourfully illustrated. Poskitt’s is much more entertaining. Neither book is afraid to use demanding vocabulary when the need arises.

Irving Adler, The Giant Colour Book of Mathematics

The two books cover a surprisingly similar range of topics including prime numbers, the Fibonacci series, mathematics and music, conic sections and Pythagoras. Both state the irrationality of the square root of two but neither attempts to explain it. Poskitt’s book provides more detail in some areas: there is much more on the application of probability to a range of games, the uses of prime numbers (Adler was writing long before their use in cryptography), and, surprisingly, Euclidean geometry (was Adler rebelling against its historical status?). It also covers several topics not included in Adler’s book: cycloids, mathematics in space, time zones and topology (including the fixed point theorem).

Kjartan Poskitt, The Murderous Maths of Everything

I was really impressed at how comprehensive a coverage of mathematics Adler’s book provides: projective geometry, great circles, infinite series, integral calculus and complex numbers are all touched on briefly and simply. Important concepts such as coordinate systems and algebra are introduced in easy to understand ways. A child familiar with the content of this book would find nothing to frighten them in secondary mathematics.

Irving Adler, The Giant Colour Book of Mathematics

Of course Adler’s book is only available second hand today while Poskitt’s can be bought easily. The style of Adler’s writing might strike a modern child as old-fashioned, possibly even slightly patronising in places. I find Poskitt’s style a little brash in place, but then I don’t belong to his target audience! For an eight to twelve-year-old with an interest (or a potential interest) in mathematics it would be ideal.”

I foresee an avalanche of little mathematicians in years to come. Apologies for the lenghty review. He’s not reviewed anything for days, so presumably felt deprived. Glad to find I’m not the only one to find square roots irrational. If you find me a bit out-of-sorts, it’s purely because Kjartan’s event in Edinburgh the other year sounded like a lot of fun, and I was on the wrong side of the wall of the tent. Outside. He was noisy. And popular. Hmph.

One last apology for the half naked cowboy.

(Illustrations by Rob Davis)

Vampire Dawn

I know you felt safe from vampires over here, but there is no such thing as safe. And this new vampire series by Anne Rooney is no safe, pale, veggie kind of vampire series. Anne might count herself veggie, but it’s been a long time since I encountered so much blood in books. I’d recommend not reading and eating at the same time.

Intelligently written, with humour – and blood – and exciting and dangerous, this is a series of easy to read books for older readers. Seven books in total. You have to start with Die Now or Live Forever. It’s where the five teenagers Finn, Juliette, Omar, Ruby and Alistair go camping in the woods in Hungary. Almost before they can say ‘bat’ they have turned into vampires, much to everyone’s surprise.

The next five books are one for each teenager, and can be read in any order, as they don’t have much to do with the others after ‘the change.’ You find out what their lives are like afterwards. Not that they have much of a life, some of them.

There is blood. Did I say? And the books are quite scary in places. I think I found Drop Dead Gorgeous the hardest to digest. There is an aspie vampire, naturally. And all the teenagers encounter some famous people that we have erroneously believed to be long dead. Undead is what they are.

Anne Rooney, Vampire Dawn

Once you have covered In Cold Blood, Every Drop of your Blood, Life Sucks and Dead on Arrival, you can study the very useful Bloodsucking for Beginners.

Anne has evidently done a lot of research. I know she is brainy and all that, but I hadn’t realised it was possible to research vampirism.

And all that blood…

The Messenger Bird

For our code-crazy family, Ruth Eastham’s new novel The Messenger Bird fits in perfectly. Now, it’s not me who is into code. I can barely do crossword puzzles, but some of the others are a lot more competent. So I grabbed this book with both hands when it was offered.

And it will come as no surprise that a book about code features an aspie character. Josh is Nathan’s friend, and he turns out to be very useful when Nathan’s father is arrested for breaking the Official Secrets Act, and the only way to prove his innocence is to solve the trail of clues that his dad hurriedly hints at as he’s being dragged away by intelligence officers.

It’s the friendship that counts for more, though, because Josh and his and Nathan’s other friend Sasha prove to be both brave and loyal when it comes to standing up to danger and to the deviousness of the intelligence services.

Ruth Eastham, The Messenger Bird

This is an incredibly exciting story, and these days no one would be too surprised to find something like this actually happening, close to home.

Nathan’s family live near Bletchley Park, and the trail of clues lead him and his friends there. They look at the Enigma machine, and they learn about the vital war work that went on here in complete secrecy.

They – and the reader – can work out that someone is not who they claim to be, and it’s best not to trust anyone. And how can a woman who’s been dead for sixty years send text messages?

At one point I even saw ghosts, although I suspect that was just me. But I wouldn’t rule them out.

There are two cases of injustice running parallel here; Nathan’s dad’s and that of a woman who worked at Bletchley Park during the war. Both have connections to the cottage where Nathan’s family live, where memories of the war are particularly strong.

Very fascinating book, where the WWII puzzle blends with current security fears. And it’s good to see 13-year-olds with initiative and courage, even when you’re scared of heights and seemingly have nobody you can trust. I hope it will encourage young people to take an interest in the sort of things that went on at Bletchley Park.

Hat Cottage

It’s odd, but I’m sure the Elsa Beskow classic The Children of Hat Cottage wasn’t quite like this. I mean, I know it was, now that I have re-acquainted myself with the book. But for the life of me, I could not remember it well at all. And that’s despite it being an old favourite.

Elsa Beskow, The Children of Hat Cottage

Looking at it with 21st century eyes, it is not terribly pc. And wondering to myself what it was I loved so much, I have to say it was probably the idea that you could have a nice house in a hat. Even that early I was into houses and interior decorating.

Elsa Beskow’s illustrations are as wonderful as always. There is good reason for Swedes loving her books so much. Generations of us have grown up with her picture books, and I’m sure we all have a favourite, if you were to ask. This wasn’t mine, but it ranked pretty high.

It’s about a woman who lives with her three children in a hat. One day she has to leave them on their own to go and buy some yarn to make clothes. In fairness she does take unexpectedly long over this shopping expedition. But,

those children decide to sweep the chimney, then wash their dirty clothes, and then make a fire to dry them. Yes. There isn’t much left of the lovely hat cottage after a while. But not to worry. The little man across the water comes to help them put the blaze out, builds a new house for when mother comes home, and then finishes off by proposing marriage when she returns.

And they live happily ever after.

I think it must have been all this house business I loved. Having one nice house, and then simply setting about building another when disaster strikes.

I found out about this new translation into English quite by chance, and I’m really pleased that someone – in this case Floris Books – decided to publish Elsa Beskow’s books for a new and wider audience.

Bookwitch bites #80

I borrowed this as it seemed just right for a week full of tributes to Maurice Sendak.

Goodbye to Maurice Sendak, by Sarah Van Tassel

The Top 10 UK Child Literature Blogs published its new list this week, and I appear to be on it again. Not sure what I’m doing there. Not much, probably. But the recognition is nice, whether or not they are accurate in the way they measure whatever it is they measure. Some very worthy blogs are not on the list, whereas I wonder a little whether the penguin blog belongs to this category.

New-ish blogs I have been meaning to mention for ages are UKYA and the Demention blog. UKYA want to make British YA fiction better known, while Demention is more of a ‘demented’ dystopian kind of blog. And whenever I see another excellent blog start up, with lots of professional bloggers sharing the burden I get awfully jealous. Anything I can do they can do better.

Penguin beach chair

Speaking of penguins, I am still hoping someone will want me to review a beach chair, or better still, the more Bookwitch-friendly deckchair. When I looked these up they were all out of stock. Does that mean it’s still too early? Or too late? Was that our summer, back in March? Please say it wasn’t!

The Big Sleep seems appropriate for this chair, methinks.

Speaking of beaches, I realise summer is almost here. By that I mean the time of year we call summer. It will no doubt be cold and wet, but summer it is. And I’m not ready for it. There is now a lot less May left in which to do my pre-summer stuff.

Before I know it, it will be the 5th of July. After then September won’t be far away. (Am I having an Eyore moment?)

Shortlist Branford Boase 2012

Many bookish events are planned for the 5th of July, and one of them is the Branford Boase Award. This year I have read fewer of the shortlisted books than ever, but it is a great selection.