The Cooking Club Detectives

Ewa
Jozefkowicz

The pandemic has had a huge impact on food insecurity, and Magic Breakfast predicts that 2.3 million children are now affected. So through The Cooking Club Detectives, as well as writing a mystery (my favourite type of story), I wanted to show how important community is to us all. I also want to make sure my readers know that they should always ask for help if they need it.

Ewa Jozefkowicz

The Cooking Club Detectives is a heart-warming story, which is jam-packed with tasty recipes along the way. It brilliantly covers a range of themes, including: food poverty, community spirit and the importance of family and friends. When Erin must move with her mum to a new area, life becomes challenging due to financial worries and even some online bullying. However, Erin’s unwavering passion for food, inspired by her mother, allows her to make new friends at a local community centre’s cooking club. This new-found friendship comes in handy, when the club is mysteriously threatened with closure. Can the friends solve the mystery and save the centre from closure? A highly gripping read and great conversation starter with children.


I’d like to thank Ewa Jozefkowicz for joining us in the VIP Reading blog to talk about her latest book series, The Cooking Club Detectives.

Firstly, a huge well done for The Cooking Club Detectives, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. Without giving too much away, can you tell us a little bit about the story?

Thank you so much. Yes, of course. The story centres on four friends who come together through their mutual love of food and join a cooking club held at their local community centre, Skipton. When the building is suddenly threatened with closure, Erin, Tanya, Frixos, and Sam, form The Cooking Club Detectives. Their goal is to find out who is behind it all, and their search for the culprit unravels some unexpected findings.

Where did the inspiration for the book come from?

The story is inspired by the work of Magic Breakfast, a wonderful charity which I first came across when I was a governor at a school in North London. It provides healthy breakfasts for children at risk of hunger across the UK. In our school, the teachers spoke of the huge difference that the breakfasts made to the children. They were able to concentrate much better in class, they were more eager to share their ideas in lessons, and they had far more energy.

But another wonderful element of these breakfasts was the fact that they provided an opportunity for socialising across year groups. Our school’s breakfasts were sometimes themed, with a focus on music, creative writing or a whole range of other activities. I could see that it was where many new friendships were formed.

Obviously, food is heavily mentioned in the book and the recipes are such a unique addition. Would you describe yourself as a good cook?

Haha, a great question! I would say I’m a better baker than I am a cook. But I’ve mastered a few dishes. Spaghetti Bolognese and paella are my go-to meals if I’m cooking for guests. I also think some of the simplest dishes can be the tastiest. You can’t beat a really great pancake. That’s why I’ve included my favourite pancake recipe in the story.

Despite their precarious financial situation, we see Erin and her mother trying to make the most of what they have. What was the reason behind the choice of the food poverty theme?

Its such an important issue which has sadly become even more topical in recent times. The pandemic has had a huge impact on food insecurity, and Magic Breakfast predicts that 2.3 million children are now affected. So through The Cooking Club Detectives, as well as writing a mystery (my favourite type of story), I wanted to show how important community is to us all. I also want to make sure my readers know that they should always ask for help if they need it.

We see a big divide in wealth between Erin and her peers? Was this intentional and why did you wish to have this dynamic?

Yes, I wanted to show people from different walks of life brought together through a mutual passion. I was also aiming to highlight how amazing friendships are when they’re with people who are different to us – those differences might be to do with wealth, culture or anything else. We have so much to learn from each other, and can support one another to do great things. 

I was surprised at reading your book how it evoked such strong family memories and one in particular being a young child and being at my grandma’s house (Grandma Peggy) and enjoying her homemade fruit cake, which I used to call ‘burn cake’ due to the spice. Though we never found the recipe, it though it is something I still reminisce about to this day. What recipe is most special to you and what feelings does it evoke?

It’s incredible how food can evoke such vivid memories. My favourite recipe also comes from my grandma. She made traditional Polish pierogi with so many different fillings. Her kitchen always had this amazing smell, and I remember helping her roll out the dough and using an upturned tumbler to cut the shape for each dumpling.  

The relationship is so strong between Erin and her mother, Lara. The diary entries are particularly emotive and we see just how much Erin means to her mother, even prior to her birth. Were these characters based on anyone in particular?  

They were largely based on my mum and grandma and what I imagined their life to be like when my mum was a teenager. My grandma was a single mum and life wasn’t always easy, but they had a very close bond which I’ve always admired. 

We would love to know whether you are currently working on any other books. What are you allowed to tell us?

Yes, I’m working on a new story which is a bit different. It’s influenced by a famous Polish legend. It’s still early days but I’m really enjoying the writing process. 

Can you describe the The Cooking Club Detectives in three words?

Food, friendship, mystery

Thank you so much for taking the time to read and answer our questions.

Thank you so much for having me!


Q & A hosted by
Rob McCann


Extinct – The Story of Life on Earth (series)

Professor
Ben Garrod

When we think of extinct animals, it’s all too easy to think about huge dinosaur skeletons in museums, completely intact and cleaned up. The reality however, is very different. Most fossil discoveries, even from big species which lived just 70 million years ago, such as the ever-so-famous T. rex, are often pieces and fragments.

Ben Garrod

A truly gripping and awe-inspiring series of books. Professor Garrod takes us on a journey of evolution and extinction, dating back hundreds of millions of years. From rapid mass extinctions via devastating volcanoes to extinctions lasting millions of years. Meet incredible creatures such as Hallucigenia and the formidable Dunkleosteus along the way. An awesome way in which to learn tons and have a great time doing it.


I’d like to thank Ben Garrod for joining us in the VIP Reading blog to talk about his latest book series, Extinct.

You write about various things happening millions of years ago, such as carbon dioxide levels dropping massively. How is it possible to know these things when they happened so long ago?  

We know this, and much more, because science, and scientists, are awesome, basically. We have so many incredible techniques which we can use to unlock secrets from unbelievable fossil discoveries. We can do things, which vary from looking at rates of breakdown in radioactive elements in prehistoric bones which help us detect what the atmosphere was like, to analysing the internal structures of rocks to look for the unique types of crystals created by an asteroid impact. The exciting thing is that we are developing new techniques and finding new fossils every day, so our understanding is always growing. 

 How sure can scientists be that the different fossil fragments they are piecing together actually go together?  

Ha ha, they’re not always sure, and in many ways, that’s part of the scientific process. When we think of extinct animals, it’s all too easy to think about huge dinosaur skeletons in museums, completely intact and cleaned up. The reality however, is very different. Most fossil discoveries, even from big species which lived just 70 million years ago, such as the ever-so-famous T. rex, are often pieces and fragments. Imagine how much more difficult this is with a small fossilised species. A small species which lived hundreds of millions of years ago will be even harder to piece together. Plus if that small species lived hundreds of millions of years ago, and was soft-bodied and had no skeleton, then it’s almost impossible to be certain about what it looked like and how it behaved. It was decades after its discovery that we finally understood what Hallucigenia, the small worm-like animal from nearly half a billion years ago looked like.

What is the most fascinating fossil you are aware of and why?  

That’s such a tough question to answer. There are so many fantastic fossils which tell us so much. There’s a very famous fossil for example called the ‘Fighting Dinosaurs’, which shows a Velociraptor and Protoceratops which both died while fighting. For me, it’s the fossils that aren’t famous that fascinate me the most. In my local museum in Bristol, there’s a Scelidosaurus fossil. This armoured herbivore, lived during the Jurassic period, and is so well-preserved, you can still see the food in its throat 190 million years after it died.  

If you could take a walk during any period from prehistoric history, when would it be and why?

These questions are all so difficult to answer! I’d love to go back to see what it was like at many points in prehistory. I’d like two stops in my time-travel adventure, if that’s okay. First, I’d stop around 101 million years ago and head to Argentina to see the mighty long-necked, long-tailed herbivore Patagotitan which, at somewhere between 55-75 tonnes, may have been the largest land animal ever. My other stop would be in East Africa, around three million years ago. I’m fascinated by our early human ancestors and would love to see what we were like then. We were at a pivotal moment, where climate change had completely altered habitats, turning endless forest into much drier grasslands. With that came massive changes to our anatomy and behaviour, all leading us to where we are today. 

With all we know of the evolutionary history of the world, what are your predictions for the evolutionary future?

That’s a dangerous game to play ha ha … Evolution is unpredictable and wild and just because you can look back to see what has happened in the past, does not mean you can predict what’s coming next. If we were suddenly zapped back in time to when the dinosaurs roamed the planet, there is no way anyone would ever have been able to say that one day, in the blink of an eye in geological terms, some weird, hairy, little ape would move down from the trees, lose its hair, learn how to make and use tools and would come to dominate the planet as we do. Predicting evolution and expecting it to happen that way is a game for suckers. The beauty of evolution is that you never know what’s coming next.

The world has experienced several mass extinctions in its history. Do you predict another one any time soon (relatively speaking)?  

Just look around you. At least one million species are endangered right now … 

Who would win, Dunkleosteus or Megalodon?  

Ah, that’s easy. 

If you were able to bring back one extinct creature, what would it be and why?  

I never use the word ‘creature’ as it implies it was created and for that, you need a creator. Instead, species evolve as a result of a never-ending supply of random mutations, the effects of their surroundings and their interactions with other species. It may sound controversial, but I wouldn’t bring any extinct species back. That’s the easy option. Instead, every species we’ve lost should serve as a reminder to us that extinction is forever, and now, more than ever, our actions have consequences. 

If someone wanted to follow in your footsteps, what advice would you give them?  

Be weird, be geeky, be different, and definitely don’t follow in my footsteps! Instead, make your own footprints and have fun on your own journey. I’ll give you the advice my mum gave me when I was much younger. Find a career where you wake up each day and look forward to the day ahead, because you love what you do so much. I love what I do, but I’ve tried lots of things along the way. I’ve tried different jobs, have lived in different parts of the world and have changed more than a few times now. You only have one life, so take the time you need to make sure you spend that life doing what you love. Also, don’t be too mature all the time. Remember to be silly!

What’s next? More books in the Extinct series? A new series? Or something completely different?

There are eight books in my Extinct series, which will be coming out over the next 12 months. Each book tells the amazing story of a mass extinction and one of the animals lost each time, from the largest shark to the most successful animals that have ever lived. As well as these books, I’m always at work on more ideas and have some exciting TV and radio projects in development. I’d love to tell you all about them, but they’re secret and you’ll just have to wait and see what they are …

Can you describe the Extinct series in three words?  

Life keeps going.


Q & A hosted by
Ben Morgan


Circus Maximus: Race to the Death

Annelise
Gray

I feel passionately that gender stereotypes are harmful and limiting for children and nothing gives me a bigger kick than to see them being confounded. It’s something I try to underline whenever I get the opportunity.

Annelise Gray

This is a rip-roaring historical adventure full of action and intrigue. A brilliant children’s book debut from Annelise Gray and the first in an exciting new series. Dido dreams of becoming the first female charioteer to race in the Circus, the greatest sporting stadium in the ancient world, but only the best can compete in this deadly race. This fabulous, fast-paced and gripping book is a sure-fire hit.


I’d like to thank Annelise Gray for joining us in the VIP Reading blog to talk about her latest book, Circus Maximus: Race to the Death.

Firstly, congratulations on Circus Maximus: Race to the Death, which we anticipate to be very popular. Can you tell us a little bit about the story without giving too much away?

Firstly, thank you so much for the lovely welcome.

Circus Maximus: Race to the Death is the story of a 12 year old girl called Dido who dreams of becoming a charioteer at the Circus Maximus, the greatest sporting stadium in the ancient world. But being a girl, she’s not allowed to compete. Her only consolation lies in helping her father Antonius, who’s the head trainer of the Green faction, one of the top racing teams. She has also befriended a tempestuous black stallion called Porcellus who no one at the stables can manage except for her. One tragic night, Dido’s world turns upside down when she sees something she’s not supposed to see at the Green stable, putting her life in danger. She is forced to go on the run, leaving behind everything she loves, in order to escape the men who would silence her. But she doesn’t give up on her dream, and the book follows her quest to become a charioteer, against the odds, while staying one step ahead of the men trying to hunt her down.

Are you able to tell us where the inspiration for the story come from?

There were two main sources of inspiration. The first came from the horse and pony adventures stories I loved when I was a kid. I was obsessed with one in particular, Enid Bagnold’s National Velvet, which is about a girl called Velvet Brown who wins a horse in a raffle and dreams of riding him to victory at the Grand National. I grew up to be a huge armchair fan of sport in general and it was while watching a Formula One race on TV one day that the second spark for the story was kindled. I was wondering rather wistfully whether one day there might be a female equivalent of Lewis Hamilton for me to cheer on, when suddenly my main character, Dido, popped into my head. I started imagining a brave, scrappy girl, a bit like Velvet Brown but living in ancient Rome and hoping to race to break into the all-male world of chariot racing. That’s how the book was born.

There is a wealth of historical detail within the book which adds a real authenticity to the story. How long did the research process take and the story as a whole?

I did quite a bit of research before I actually started writing. Although I have a doctorate in Classics, I knew next to nothing about the sport of chariot-racing, and I spent a quite a few months in London libraries building up a bank of research notes to draw upon so that I could paint as accurate a picture of possible of what went on at the Circus Maximus. After that, I tried to write through the first draft without stopping too much to check on things. Then I did another research stint during the editing process to help me paint in more of the sorts of period detail that would make you feel like you were part of Dido’s world – the everyday sights, smells, sounds and tastes of ancient Rome.

As to how long the book took to write, the answer to that could be anything between five years and about eighteen months, depending on your perspective! I have a file on my computer from 2015 which contains the first draft of the first couple of chapters of the book. But after that I took on a senior management role at the school where I teach and little writing got done for the next couple of years. Dido kept calling to me though and in the end I decided I needed to ditch the senior management job and finish the thing I cared about the most.

Both your previous books had a Roman theme, though they were for the adult audience. Where does your fascination with this period in history originate from?

I knew next to nothing about the Romans (other than their myths) until I was thirteen. Then I was given the chance to study Latin at school. Our textbook was all about a family living in Pompeii in the months leading up to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. I remember so vividly being on tenterhooks in the last chapter, waiting to find out which of the characters would make it out alive. I think that experience was instrumental in making me see that the study of the Romans was actually the study of real people who once lived and breathed and felt things just as you or I might. I was also lucky to have been inspired by some brilliant teachers, both at school and later at university.

Can you tell us more about your inspiration for the character of Dido, the protagonist who has been dealt more than her fair share of tragedies? 

I have always loved books about brave, rebellious girls. Dido’s closest literary cousin is probably Velvet Brown but her characterisation has also inevitably been influenced by the female characters from the books and films that made a big impression on me as a child (and indeed as a grown-up). These include Anne Shirley from the Anne of Green Gables series, Jo March from Little Women and Lyra Silvertongue from His Dark Materials. 

The descriptions within the story are incredibly vivid and atmospheric. What roles or experiences have you had prior to writing Circus Maximus, that helped to shape the book?

I wish I could say that I’d drawn on my experience of racing chariots, but to be honest, I’m extremely risk averse and moving at speed intimidates me. However I get incredibly invested in the drama and high stakes of watching sport on TV – which I think helped with a lot of the action scenes in the book. I’m also intensely competitive in my own way, and I’ve always got a huge kick out of books or films that celebrate the underdog, which is the role Dido is forced into. The other experience that helped me was the years I spent riding horses when I was young. I’ve barely sat on one since, but I’m still endlessly fascinated by them. I’d love to have Dido’s skill as a horse whisperer.

As your debut in children’s fiction, how did this feel and compare to writing for adults? 

It’s been a joyful experience. To be honest, in some ways it feels like I’ve shed a skin. I’m very proud of the two books I wrote for adults (one non-fiction and one fiction) but I always felt quite uncomfortable in the guise of grown-up Classical ‘expert’. As soon as I started writing Circus Maximus: Race to the Death, I knew that I had found my authentic voice as an author. I still love the historical research but it just feels now as though I’m writing simply and truly from the heart, trying to craft the kind of story that I might have loved as a child.

The issue of gender stereotypes and equality are themes featured in the story, as Dido has to constantly fight to have the same opportunities as the boys around her. How important was this theme to you and do you think it was possible there could have been a real Dido?

It’s a very important issue to me. The senior management role I spoke of earlier (the one that almost stopped me writing the book) was essentially being a kind of gender equality czar at the school where I work. I feel passionately that gender stereotypes are harmful and limiting for children and nothing gives me a bigger kick than to see them being confounded. It’s something I try to underline whenever I get the opportunity.

Could there have been a real Dido? Historical sources would tell you no and I don’t have any grounds to contradict them. But who knows….history is full of women who have found ways to live their lives against societal expectation, leaving their peers none the wiser.

Many people, myself included, will be wanting to know more about the next instalment. What can you tell us about Circus Maximus 2, which is coming out in 2022? 

I have just handed in the first draft to my editor so I probably can’t say very much. All I can reveal is that many of the characters from book 1 return, and some new ones are introduced. I planted a little seed in book 1 that gives you a big clue as to the plot and theme of book 2 – you’ll have to see if you can spot it.

Finally, can you describe Circus Maximus: Race to the Death in three words?

(Can I borrow some indefinite articles?)

A girl. A horse. A dream…

Thank you so much for taking the time to read and answer our questions.

My pleasure! Thank you so much for asking me.


Q & A hosted by
Rob McCann
(Review by Kevin Cobane)