Book Review: The Tomb of Time by Nury Vittachi & Luther Tsai

If you are living in Asia and either work with children or have children of your own you’re in for a treat with a developing book series called The Magic Mirror.

Magic mirror authors

Vittachi and Tsai – sans hair

Nury Vittachi and Luther Tsai (known as the Egghead Twins to publishing wags thanks to both somewhat lacking hair follicles on their bonces) produced their first book in the series back in 2012 and it quickly sold out. The Tomb of Time is the third of what will be twelve books in all and it is, quite honestly, excellent.

Unfortunately, the books are only available to Asian countries as yet (feel free to put pressure on the publishers, Scholasticto publish further afield too) and that’s a real shame for those of us in the West where world history really does continue to be a minor subject area. Children continue to learn reams about European and American history but little else of elsewhere and this really needs to change considering 60% of the world’s population lives in Asia and that the two largest populations (China and India) are now world leaders in every area of economy, art and science (or poised to be). If we truly want a global village, we need to introduce the next generation to their neighbours.

After working with English Medium Schools in Bangladesh, I’ve seen that the situation isn’t much better in Asia either. This is one of the reasons Vittachi and Tsai began writing the series in the first place. There are some great tales of Western explorers and discoverers which are well-known, but even more incredible true stories from Asia are unknown even among Asians themselves. These two authors want to change that.

The genius of the The Magic Mirror series is that the tales come across as pure magical fiction yet are based in solid historical fact. The premise is that two young siblings, Marko and Miranda, use their Grandpa’s Magic Mirror to travel through time and be a part of incredible historical events.

In The Tomb of Time the two young heroes travel to the time of an emperor who wants to live forever, bring clay people to life, have a huge city of the dead with ghosts who fire crossbows to prevent intruders and is advised by a wizard who needs 3000 young people to travel with him to find the potion on an island which will make the emperor’s wishes a reality. Magical fantasy?

Well, actually no.

All of the books have a section written by the authors at the end of the story explaining the facts behind the fiction. In this case all the above is true – the emperor was Qin Shi Huang and you can visit Xian, the region of China where he built his necropolis and see his famous army of clay soldiers. The wizard really did take thousands of young people away to an island but he never returned – in fact many historians think this was actually the founding of Japan.

And yes,  the Ghost brigade is true too – as is the magic mirror itself. Several exist in museums to this day.

Magic Mirror picThe books are easy to read as well as lots of fun making them great gifts for children or perfect for reading out loud at home and in the classroom. What’s more, each book comes with a great cut-out model to assemble which looks terrific – I’d buy the books simply for that alone!

I’ve known Nury Vittachi’s writing ever since I arrived in Bangladesh in 2008. His column in one of the newspapers there brought me great joy in those early days as I learned about Asian culture. He’s a funny guy and one who isn’t afraid to speak his mind and make a bit of a fool of himself for the enjoyment of his readers too. A genuinely nice guy who never fails to amuse or make you think (and often both at the same time), this book series is very much in his easy-going style and I simply can’t recommend it enough to those of you who lucky enough to obtain the books.

And if you can’t, you can find Vittachi’s writings in various other places on the web. Just google his name, take a pick and enjoy!

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A Year On: Wimbledon wonders and the writing life

Andy Murray at the 2011 Wimbledon Championships.

Andy Murray at the 2011 Wimbledon Championships (Source: Wikipedia)

I’ve been enjoying watching Wimbledon for the last few days but it took a Facebook message from an ex-colleague a LAMB school for me to realise I’ve been a full-time writer now for a year!

Although I’ve been part-time writing for several years (almost as long as I lived in Bangladesh, in fact) it was when I finished my final day at LAMB school last year that I ‘officially’ went full-time as a freelance writer. Since then I’ve published Sonali and been inundated with writing work – so much so that other books have had to go on the back burner for a while. I’ve almost had to consider out-sourcing some of my work but just about kept on top of it all. It was only when a LAMB teacher posted that school had just finished for the year that I realised I’ve been building my clients for a whole twelve months.

Watching the Wimbledon tournament is really a dream come true. Last year was just the worst – not only not able to watch any of it while living in Bangladesh but then missing the historic British win for Andy Murray. My family and I effectively ‘watched’ the match through Facebook messages from friends in real time! It was like listening to the radio only in slow motion.

This year, for the first time ever, I’ve been able to watch all the tennis I want. I’ve moved out of the study and brought my ‘office’ (read laptop) downstairs so I can write and watch at the same time. I’ve never been able to do this before. Even before working I was always having exams around this time so I’ve caught some of the matches but far from all of them. Despite this, Wimbledon remains my very favourite sports tournament of all. Nothing replaces it.

I’ve been self-employed before but that was as a music tutor and that meant teaching throughout the day and early evening. I could have taken time out but that would then mean losing income and you don’t do that lightly when you’re making your way in the world! As a writer, I can really set when I work and even where. I might not get quite as much writing completed while Murry et al are playing but I can then choose to write more later on or (as seems my preference increasingly these days) earlier in the morning.

In a way, the tennis (which begins on the TV around 11:30 am) is helping me meet deadlines. Once the family have gone to school/work by 8 am, I know I have just 2 1/2 hours to complete the kind of work I would have done in 5. I don’t quite manage it, of course, and have to keep writing while the matches take place, but it does drive me to concentrate well and do all the hard work before the TV goes on. I think I may even miss the tennis when it finishes in just over a week’s time. Time management, as Wifey will tell you, is not one of my strong points.

What a difference to a year ago, sat in my house either writing, researching or (as often happened) screaming at the internet completely failing while battling the hot and humid Bangladesh weather. Only the laptop and the need for copious quantities of tea remain the same here as there.

If that makes you think I don’t miss Bangladesh though, you’d be wrong. No matter how much I love Wimbledon, I’d still give it up to be back there. For now though, this will do just fine.

Posted in Bangladesh, British, LAMB, Life | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

A Very English Summer Fete

Am I the only one who gets excited by the thought of fairs, carnivals, fetes and festivals? I was beginning to think so until last Saturday.

I’ve done many, many similar onusthans and picnics in Bangladesh for numerous celebrations such as the Bengali new year, Victory Day and so on – but never (to my knowledge) an actual truly English dyed-in-the-wool village fete. It’s taken me 43 years to get there. The last time I recall bunting being up all over town was the Queen’s Silver Jubilee back in 1977.

I’ve been to plenty of church fetes and town festivals and carnivals but the village affair (which turned out to be just like the kind of thing you’d see on Midsomer Murders as I imagined it would) I’ve never had the opportunity to enjoy.

To be fair, before living in Bangladesh I probably wouldn’t have been fussed. Judging by how my teenager daughter, Thing I, reacted and how she reported what her friends thought of the annual event (“it’s really boring“) I don’t think much has changed since I was a teenager. I grew into adulthood thinking such community events were the epitome of dullness (My son, Thing II, at least is still young enough to enjoy the event – but that won’t last for long; the teenage years are coming).

But after enjoying the fascinating culture of Bangladesh and really getting in to what it means to be a community, I couldn’t wait to experience the English version; and there’s no better place to experience it than here in St. Bees. With one solitary exception (which I will come to later) I was not disappointed.

The fete began promptly at 1 pm with a parade down the single main street the village possesses. The sun came out in all its glory for the first time this year and remained out the entire day – as did all those who came to enjoy the fete. Of course, the pubs did brisk business which helped encourage the crowds to remain!

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After the Whitehaven Brass Band passed by we were treated to the fancy dress competitors. Considering this is a little seaside village I was stunned by how good these costumes were.

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We were then led up to the local school field for the fete itself.

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Especially noteworthy was the traditional Tug of War competition which, it had to be said, treated the sexes with surprising equality.

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The fete carried on into the evening with performances from Whitehaven’s Committed 2Rock Choir and various bands. Most important, however, was the traditional Hog Roast. Those who don’t like seeing pork might want to look away now. For the rest of us – it was delicious!

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All in all this was a terrific day out with everything as I had hoped and expected it would be – except for one small matter which, in retrospect, I should have seen coming but was still disappointed.

There’s a fine line between English tomfoolery and pure rudeness. There’s a fine line between enjoying a tipple or two and becoming an obnoxious drunk.

As the evening wore on, behaviour deteriorated among a few of the boys and men. Nothing so bad as to need police action or even neighbourly complaint but enough to make the environment no longer so pleasant for families. A group of teenage boys circled around the main field shouting insults and mocking anyone they could. They threw a couple of comments my way too as I took pictures and I couldn’t help but ponder the need of the English youth to try and throw their testosterone around.

We decided to leave and passed the same pub which earlier had been the haven of walkers and locals alike enjoying sunshine, beer and good conversation. Now I watched a young man attempt to kick the lights out of a taxi which was reversing in the road. He only missed because he was so unsteady on his feet – as was his companions egging him on. The expression on his face made the dead hog I’d just eaten seem more human than he and it saddened me to think how the English let themselves down across the country at the weekends – even in little vestiges of tranquility like St Bees – with behaviour betrays the lie that we’re the most ‘civilized’ in the world. What nonsense!

But no matter. Every village has to have its village idiots and clearly St. Bees is no different to any other village, town or city in the UK. But what it does have is a lovely beach – and so my family and I ended the evening with a stroll down there to watch the waves crash against the shore in sublime peace before returning home to sleep after a thoroughly enjoyable day.

The day may not have taken away the pain of no longer living in a Bangladeshi community, but it did at least show me there is a community here where I live which I can grow to love just as much. I think that’s worth celebrating.


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Monica Ali’s Brick Lane After Rana Plaza – Book Review

I’ve just reviewed Monica Ali‘s Brick Lane for Paste magazine. Have a look!


<i>Brick Lane</i> by Monica Ali Review

“Almost 14 months after the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in DhakaBangladesh, the debate surrounding the global garment factory industry shows no sign of abating.

The April 24, 2013, collapse killed more than 1,100 people and injured more than 2,500—making it the world’s worst industrial structure failure. Most victims were women. Most were poor. I happened to be nearby that day, but I kept a respectful distance. The rescue workers didn’t need a white guy poking his nose into the nation’s rubble.

Recently, American Apparel’s controversial “Made in Bangladesh” campaign stoked the debate about working conditions in the nation. Ads show a bare-breasted girl—Maks is her name—as the embodiment of modern Bangladeshi feminism. The campaign generated praise and condemnation in equal measure around the world. If nothing else, it reminded media that Bangladesh still exists.

Similarly, the BBC produced an exposé-style documentary from Bangladesh earlier this year, reminding viewers how the abuse and exploitation of young and vulnerable girls continue in seedy garment factories. These sweatshops produce 60 percent of Europe’s apparel exports and 40 percent of America’s. Such media attention does nothing to improve the reputation of Bangladesh.

I couldn’t help but consider all of this as I read Monica Ali’s award-winning debut novel Brick Lane. Set on and around the events of 9/11, Brick Lane primarily focuses on life in Britain for Nazneen, the protagonist. This poor, non-English-speaking Muslim Bangladeshi girl has been brought to Britain for an arranged marriage.”

Read the rest of this review here

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If you were born between the 50s – 80s congratulations – You made it!

“the road to hell is lined not just with good intentions but with health and safety laws too…”

Do watch the video I’ve linked below. It’s a little cheesy and (forgive me, my US friends) a little too American in its presentation and I don’t agree with everything the narrator says, but overall it’s an excellent description of the differences between the current generation and my own with more than a strong hint that maybe current thinking is, frankly, a bit daft.

It’s one of the reasons I eventually agreed to our family moving to Bangladesh back in 2008. I knew, from our visits to LAMB that this was the only opportunity I had to give my kids the kind of upbringing I had which had been so impossible back in the UK. In the UK our kids were driven everywhere, had parties and specific times with friends organised carefully and never went outside alone. It would have been irresponsible of us not to do this. At LAMB, with walls surrounding the NGO and guards at the front, we could let both our kids roam freely whenever it wasn’t a school day and not worry as long as they came home for tea.

My son, Thing II, fell down concrete stairs giving him a nasty black eye, fell off a metal climbing frame, bloodying his nose to the extent that we had a doctor check he hadn’t broken it and had numerous actual bone breaks through stupid daredevil stunts. Both kids played with dirty dogs and smelly cats, swam in open (and deep) pools inhabited with snakes, fish and frogs and climbed trees or sat on roof tops with no protection to stop them falling. They got muddy in real mud where animals and humans alike very probably had relieved themselves many times and, sure, got ill plenty of times along the way.

But you know what? They turned out just fine. Somehow, they survived.

The really sad thing about our 21st century health and safety rules is that they really haven’t done a damned thing to help. The sad fact is children still die, accidents still happen, things go wrong, schools still fail their kids, authorities still abuse their position. Yet, to ignore these rules make us feel nervous and subject to disapproving looks. I don’t know if we’ll ever know what happened to Madeleine McCann but I have had many a person tell me how her parents ‘deserved everything they got for leaving her alone’.

I don’t agree. I think it was a horrible thing to happen and could happen to any of us who are parents. There’s always something we could be doing better or more safely and something we’ve missed which, if something terrible happened to us, would have people looking at us saying “well, they got what they deserved.” All the rules do are make us feel guilty and strait-jacket good people. The rules kind of assume that bad people will follow them if rules are in place. The bad news is that bad people don’t tend to follow rules at all…

We’re back in the UK now and living in a tiny, sleepy little village, arguably the safest in the whole of Cumbria. If there are annual crime stats for St Bees I would guess they must run to single figures. My daughter is a teenager and my son, though eleven, towers over both his older sister and his mum and is frequently mistaken for a sixth former. Yet, a few days ago I struggled to persuade their mother to let me take her out to the pub – literally just a few yards down the road – for an hour for a drink before tea. When I did she wanted to lock the kids into the house ‘just to be safe’! I had to drag her away before she had a chance. We were more likely to win the national lottery than anything happen to them.

This video reminds me how, growing up in 70s Wigan in the north of England, I would spend hours as a kid roaming the whole of Wigan to the extent that I got so badly lost I was returned by the police at least once. We left when I was seven and moved to the Midlands, to Coalville. It was no better then – I roamed not just the town but all the neighbouring towns too. My family never had a clue where I was and anything could have happened to me. To my knowledge, I wasn’t alone with this – we all did it.

What a world we live in where we’re too afraid to let our kids do anything yet bad things still happen regardless. What happens when this generation grows up? What will their children come to know as ‘normal’? It’s frightening and I pray to God that this current ‘nanny state’ thinking of the West is reversing before it’s too late. As far as I’m concerned, the road to hell is lined not just with good intentions but with health and safety laws too.


Posted in Bangladesh, British, children, Life | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments