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English teacher interested in language and culture, and also in fiction using magic, myth, folklore and the supernatural. Now teaching part-time in a Leicester Upper School (ages 14-19) and also writing for children, teens and teachers.

Friday, 30 December 2011

Family Friday: Peace and Love

As we near the midpoint of the traditional twelve days, a period of 'time out of time', I hope you're all enjoying the holidays in whatever fashion works for you.

Here are some of the aspects of Christmas/Yule holiday tradition that I particularly enjoy:

  • all the light/fire references, reminding us that it all stems from a celebration of the return of the sun as the balance shifts from dark to light again
  • the greenery decking the halls, a lovely piece of sympathetic magic encouraging the non-evergreen life to remember that life goes on
  • the rich, warming, spicy food and drink (as I write this, I can smell a ham boiling away merrily in apple and orange juices with cinnamon, cloves and allspice) to nourish ourselves for the coming winter
  • the sense of self renewal which has become the tradition of New Year Resolutions, possibly stemming from a natural inward-turning impulse in these longer and darker nights
This is my last post for 2011, so: whatever holidays you celebrate, I hope you're making great memories and that 2012 will be a great and positive year for you.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Thrilling Thursday: Review of The Bomber by Liza Marklund

Author: Liza Marklund
Title: The Bomber
Genre: Thriller
Series: Annika Bengtzon (1st written but 4th in series chronology)
Publisher: Transworld
Published: 24 Nov 2011
Source: review copy kindly provided by Transworld as part of their Book Group

Find it at Amazon UK

The blurb says:
Crime reporter Annika Bengtzon is woken by a phonecall in the early hours of a wintry December morning. An explosion has ripped apart the Olympic Stadium. And a victim has been blown to pieces.

As Annika delves into the details of the bombing and the background of the victim, there is a second explosion.

When her police source reveals they are hot on the heels of the bomber, Annika is guaranteed an exclusive with her name on it. But it soon becomes clear that she has uncovered too much, as she finds herself the target of a deranged serial killer...

My verdict: tense Nordic thriller offering lots of insight into Bengtzon's world as a female journalist. Strongly recommended to those who enjoy police procedurals and fancy something a little different.
This was a great read for the festive period, as it takes place during the week leading up to Christmas and reveals Annika's struggles to get Christmas 'right' as a working Mum, as well as the pressures she faces at work and the very real danger she courts as leader of the crime section of the newspaper. There is plenty of atmospheric detail in this novel and Marklund makes it very easy to lose yourself in the world she captures on the page. Marklund was a journalist herself and it is plain that details such as procedures, legal concerns and office behaviour all come from an experienced voice.

There is also a great deal of domestic and personal detail in the story, which I found mostly constructive in establishing character, but I have seen reviews criticising the inclusion of (for example) each cup of coffee drunk. I found it overall an immersive experience and, for me, it helped in ratcheting up the tension, although this is on the whole a drawn-out rather than top-speed pacey kind of thriller.

The narrative is third person past, mostly from Annika's perspective, but there are occasional sections from others' points of view. There are also some short journal-type sections dotted throughout the novel which seem to be some kind of justification of the bomber's motivation and values, offering a very different view of the world.

Annika is a complex character, who seems to be struggling with balancing her demanding career with her family ties. I feel that this aspect of her is particularly well-drawn from a feminist viewpoint without implying that she should have to choose between work and family. She is shown suffering from sexism at work, and worrying about her ability to be a good wife and mother, but she is a realistic creation and does behave as an individual under stress. Again, I know there have been some reviewers who have struggled to accept her as a likeable narrator, but my personal opinion is that her environment is presented clearly enough for us to see her as a product of it. In other words, she may be sometimes moody, but I would suggest she has a right to, under the circumstances.

Overall, I would recommend this as a crime thriller from a slightly different angle, using a reporter as the main character rather than a police detective or private investigator.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Tuesday Tidings: British Books Challenge Wrap-up

I signed up for the British Books Challenge last December and was keen to get going in January. The challenge was simply to read and review at least 12 British books. This was my first blogging challenge and gave me an excuse a reason to start doing reviews on this blog, which I have greatly enjoyed, so my thanks go to the Bookette for that!

I have mostly reviewed children's and YA books, and my 22 UK titles this year are:

An Act of Love by Alan Gibbons
Birdman by Mo Hayder
Bloodstone by Gillian Philip
Dark Angels by Katherine Langrish
The Double Shadow by Sally Gardner
Firebrand by Gillian Philip
Flood and Fang by Marcus Sedgwick
The Iron Witch by Karen Mahoney
Kaspar - Prince of Cats by Michael Morpurgo
Lob by Linda Newbery
The Long Weekend by Savita Kalhan
Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick
Paper Wings by Linda Sargent
Soul Beach by Kate Harrison
West of the Moon by Katherine Langrish
When I Was Joe by Keren David
Witch Hill by Marcus Sedgwick
Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver

I'm definitely signing up for next year's challenge, which is now being hosted by Kirsty at The Overflowing Library, and I'm now inspired to look out for other interesting challenges for 2012. Do you take part in reading/reviewing challenges? Would you like to recommend any? 

Friday, 23 December 2011

Family Friday: Review of Flood and Fang by Marcus Sedgwick

A great mystery for kids, with delightful gothic touches.

Author: Marcus Sedgwick
Title: Flood and Fang
Genre: Kids
Series: Raven Mysteries (Book 1 of 6)
Publisher: Orion
Published: 2009
Source: purchased (on Kindle)

Find it at Amazon UK

The Blurb says:
Meet the wonderfully weird Otherhand family and their faithful guardian, Edgar the raven, and discover the dark secrets of Castle Otherhand. Edgar is alarmed when he sees a nasty looking black tail slinking under the castle walls. But his warnings to the inhabitants of the castle go unheeded: Lord Valevine Otherhand is too busy trying to invent the unthinkable and discover the unknowable; his wife, Minty, is too absorbed in her latest obsession - baking; and ten-year-old Cudweed is running riot with his infernal pet monkey. Only Solstice, the black-haired, poetry-writing Otherhand daughter, seems to pay any attention. As the lower storeys of the castle begin mysteriously to flood, and kitchen maids continue to go missing, the family come ever closer to the owner of the black tail...

My verdict:  Hilarious with gentle gothic elements for children. A good choice for sharing/reading aloud or for more confident readers.
There is much to praise in this book, but I think I've finally settled on its key strength being the narration. Having the family raven (called Edgar, of course) tell the story is a fabulous feature of this very entertaining book. There are aspects which I think the younger end of its target audience (8-9 year olds) might miss, but at the same time, I think there's plenty here to keep them reading while also being sharp enough for 12 year olds to enjoy. Despite the many gothic elements, the book is not scary for younger readers: this is zany-gothic rather than creepy-gothic.

The pace is lively, with short chapters and quirky illustrations, making it suitable for newly-independent readers, while the content (particularly the unreliable narrator, in that Edgar doesn't always understand everything immediately) offers enough to engage older and more experienced readers (myself included!).

The characters are wonderful. Edgar, of course, is closest to us and we learn a little of his history and that of the house. His absolute belief in his superiority is endearing (and befitting a raven), as is his loyalty. The family are, of course, hilariously crazy, and the castle itself (in fine Gothic tradition) is effectively a character too. Using an animal to narrate, and spreading the focus around the whole family means that this is easily a gender-neutral choice and will appeal to both boys and girls.

I would absolutely recommend this for anyone of 7 or over, and will be reading further instalments in the series.

This is my twenty-second British book reviewed this year. Are you signing up for next year's British Books Challenge?

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Thrilling Thursday: Review of Tempest's Legacy by Nicole Peeler

The third fabulous Jane True novel. I am loving this series!

Title: Tempest's Legacy
Author: Nicole Peeler
Publisher: Orbit
Published: 2011
Series: Jane True (Book 3 of 6; my review of 1 & 2)
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Source: purchased (on Kindle)

Find it at Amazon UK

The Blurb says:
After a peaceful hiatus at home in Rockabill, Jane True thinks that her worst problem is that she still throws like a girl - at least while throwing fireballs. Her peace of mind ends, however, when Anyan arrives one night with terrible news... news that will rock Jane's world to its very core. After demanding to help investigate a series of gruesome attacks on females - supernatural, halfling and human - Jane quickly finds herself forced to confront her darkest nightmares as well as her deepest desires. And she's not sure which she finds more frightening.

My verdict: Just as sassy, pacey and sexy as the first two, with oodles of interesting character development. This series is strongly recommended for urban fantasy fans (and curious newbies to the genre!).
I am really enjoying this series. I love the voice, the realism of the characters (yes, even the supernatural ones - their motivations and behaviour 'feel' real, and that's what makes a character!), and the fact that this isn't a static series with the status quo maintained or restored so that the characters are always the same. Jane, in particular (but not exclusively) changes, adapts and develops through the series, adding to the effective characterisation I already mentioned.

The whole fabulous package is delivered in Jane's voice: a voice with its tongue firmly in its cheek, never taking itself too seriously and located firmly in the now, thanks to various pop culture references. I know that some people feel that 'sassy heroine' is a cliche, but I think that's a sign that it's often poorly done, which is not the case here.

The plot is involving and action-packed. Peeler has ramped it up each time and I'm wondering what on earth she can do for the last three books, but I'll find out! The romance aspect is also intriguing and I'm enjoying the development of Jane's love life alongside her personal development - and these two are clearly linked. As a feminist reader, I have little patience with over-dominant males and passive females held up as the ideal, so I appreciate Peeler's work here.

Overall, this is a great continuation to the series, and I'm keen to read the rest. Peeler is definitely an auto-buy writer for me now and I'm looking forward to seeing what else she comes up with.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Still here

Well, term has ended, I've had my refreshing nap and here I am. We've all had the particularly lovely cold bug that's been doing the rounds this year (*cough cough*) and work got a bit frantic there at the end. But that, as they say, is all over now. I have a lovely pile of poetry analysis coursework to tackle, new lessons to prep for next term and more than a couple of things left to do for Christmas to work as it should.

I will be back to posting more regularly now. Look out for some wonderful kids' books to be reviewed, as well as more language-focused posts and some folklore-infused pieces over the next couple of weeks. A certain seasonal influence may even creep in at some point...

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Guest post: Stunt Bunny by Tamsyn Murray

This is a special guest post (of sorts) featuring a book review produced by my 8 year old as homework.  Her class were asked to choose a book to recommend to their classmates, as many of them were saying they did like reading but didn't know which books to read. What a great homework idea!

Here's what she wrote under each of the set headings:

What is the book about?
It's about a bunny called Harriet Houdini who's a stunt bunny. She can do somersaults. There's also a bunnynapper named The Great Mouldini. The Great Mouldini is a magician.

Who would this book be suitable for? Age/interests
The ages are probably about 7 to 11. The interests are about heroes and a little bit of adventure.

Would you/ would you not recommend the book? Why?
I would definitely recommend all of the Stunt Bunny books because it's a great story, it creates tension and they all have a proper ending.

Rating: five stars

And finally, her fabulous drawing:

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Thrilling Thursday: Review of The Double Shadow by Sally Gardner

Sally Gardner's new YA novel is an ethereal literary experience, which I would urge you to treat yourself to.

Title: The Double Shadow
Author: Sally Gardner
Publisher: Indigo from Orion
Published: 3 November 2011 (HB) - coming Aug 2012 in PB
Genre: hmm, tough one. Fantasy maybe (since it's not realism)? Magic realism perhaps? Sci-fi (since it posits a fabulous machine)?  I suppose you'll have to read it to decide :)

Find it at Amazon UK

The blurb says:
Once there was a girl who asked of her reflection, 'If all I have is fragments of memories and none of them fit together, tell me then, do I exist?'

In a bluebell wood stands a picture palace. Arnold Rubens built it to house an invention of his that could change the war torn world forever. It is to be given to Amaryllis, his daughter, on her seventeenth birthday.

But it's a present she doesn't want, and in it is a past she has to come to terms with and a boy whose name she can't remember.

Who knows what her past has been, or what the future might hold for Amaryllis, lost as she is in this place with no time?

My verdict: beautiful, haunting and evocative, this is a real book to lose yourself in. Recommended for teens upwards.
This novel is extraordinary. Lyrical, elusive and utterly compelling, it draws you and hooks you long before you have any real sense of exactly what is happening.

When I first read the info about this book, it made me think of Angela Carter - probably because of the surreal machine plan and the uncanny double idea hinted at in the title. That comparison was borne out in the reading, due to the lyrical beauty of Gardner's writing, the surrealism and the mythic sense of symbolism created. But that isn't to say this is a derivative work, by any means. This is a truly original novel with genuine literary quality. It's great to see something so unashamedly literary produced for teens.

The characters of Amaryllis and those around her are beautifully drawn and the period detail (the novel is set largely between the world wars) is informative, creating a realistic backdrop to the crazy memory machine. As well as the gorgeous and imagery-rich writing, we are drawn in by the characters' feelings and behaviour, which, together with the setting provide a grounded realism to support the extravagant fantasy of the memory machine, sited in the picture palace. This glorious building stands as a symbol of the nostalgia and unreality which haunt the inventor Ruben.

The narration shifts around in time, adding an additional layer of complexity to the plot, and contributing to the theme of the nature of memory. These shifts in time are matched with changes in tense, switching between a dreamy and fairytale-like past and an immediate and more charged present, giving a sense of urgency to these sections. The narration is all third person in an omniscient style, adding a further sense of the past due to the old-fashioned tone of this narrative style.

The novel has dark overtones and touches on some unpleasant themes. As Gardner stated in her guest post here as part of the blog tour for this book, the past contains some unpleasant truths and it would be wrong to pretend otherwise and prettify them in writing. This darkness, as well as the novel's complexity, make this a book suitable for teens and adults rather than children. I would strongly recommend it to anyone of around 14 and up.

Thank you to Indigo at Orion for sending this lovely book for review.  This review is my twenty-first for the British Book Challenge at the Bookette (to be hosted at the Overflowing Library next year).

Thursday, 1 December 2011

One Year On: What I've Learnt Through Blogging

So it's one year ago today that I created this blog and first sent my thoughts out into the ether. I wasn't completely sure what I wanted out of blogging, but I certainly couldn't have predicted or expected everything that I've gained. I've made some great online friends through blogging (and dear Twitter, of course) and have had the opportunity to read a lot of books that I wouldn't have done otherwise.

I've read a lot of blogging advice in the past year or so, much of it specifically aimed at writers (with a view to building a platform). Some of it I've put into practice and discovered it didn't 'fit' for me; some of it I ignored and came around to later (we can all be stubborn, right?); some of it I've followed and found useful. So, in the spirit of paying it forward, here's what my one whole year of experience has taught me so far:

  • UK fiction writers don't need a platform before submitting, but blogging and tweeting etc is a good way to demonstrate willingness to contribute to promotion.
  • The writing and reading community online is incredible.
  • A writer's blog doesn't necessarily need a single unified theme - you can be your blog's theme and cover anything you're interested in. If you think about it, a writer who has no interests outside of writing is extremely hard to imagine: most are interested in particular places, times or cultures, or an area such as myth, physics, environmentalism. 
  • Blogging twice or three times a week seems to suit me best and is what I've settled into over the past few months (with a couple of notable exceptions recently). I think I'd lose sight of it if I were aiming for monthly posts, and I know I couldn't keep up with daily blogging!
So, all in all, I'm really glad I took up the blog and expect to be sticking around. 

What blogging gems have you picked up along the way?

Friday, 25 November 2011

Family Friday: Advent Plans

Sorry, we've no pics of our stockings
I really enjoy the lead up to Christmas. We've evolved a great family tradition that really helps to get everyone geared up for the season, using a refillable advent calendar. Ours is a pretty little series of hessian stockings with numbers printed on them, but we first did this using a stack of matchboxes which I'd covered in wrapping paper, assembled in a vaguely attractive pile, and painted numbers onto.

I have quite a lot of fun planning the filling of the stockings, and it's a great way of building up excitement. Some days I'll put chocolate or sweets in, some days it's vouchers and others little toys or (now they're older) little girly stuff like nail stickers or lip balm. If something doesn't fit, I hide it somewhere and put a clue to what it is and its location into the stocking.

The vouchers are everyone's favourite though, and I print these myself. Mostly, these are family things and mark some kind of focused time that we don't always remember to build into our busy lives. Some of the things I'll include on vouchers this year include:

  • trip into town on the bus to see the Christmas lights (and get a hot chocolate in a nice coffee place)
  • baking session(s)
  • crafts - making decorations or gift boxes to share the baking around
  • family movie night (sometimes this is cinema vouchers, sometimes a new DVD)
  • family games night (again, this might be accompanied by a new board game, or Wii game, or a set of pen and paper game ideas)
  • trip to the zoo (when they were younger, we took them to the local city farm to see the 'reingoats'!)
As you can see, many of these are quite old fashioned and somewhat simple ideas, but they always go down really well. I think the girls like the mixture of family stuff, weird little toys (Hawkins and Yellow Moon are brilliant for these), cutesy girly gifts and sweet stuff. It's definitely a tradition I'm glad we started and we all get a lot out of it.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

In My Mailbox 6

In My Mailbox is a meme started by the Story Siren. It's available weekly, but you can also do it less often (as I do).  It's been about a month since my last one. A month in which I have:
  • received two books I'm looking forward to reviewing
  • won a bundle books on Twitter
First up, my review reads are as follows:

New Beginnings was sent to me for review by the lovely Rebecca Emin, who I met online via her blog during the Writers' Platform Challenge. She saw that I like to review children's books and sent me a charming email inviting me to review her debut novel for older children on the theme of bullying. The book is due to be published in late January. I'm looking forward to reading it and probably sharing it with one of my girls.

My other review read for this month's post came from the Transworld Book Group and is Liza Marklund's The Bomber. Publishing next week on the 24th November, this seems like an exciting winter read: a thriller with a smart female lead, set in December. Look out for my review in the next couple of months.

And finally, my exciting win this month comes from the generous team at Scholastic. I won via a Twitter promotion for National Non-Fiction Day and the prize was an amazing set of non-fiction books.  Just look at this:

The parcel contained the following titles:
Horrible History Annual 2012
Horrible Science Annual 2012
Both kids (aged 8 and 13) have been flicking through these and muttering 'cool!' and giggling. Job done, I think!
How to Draw Horrible Science
The 8 yr old dived straight into this and has been practising drawing people and all sorts of creatures. She's particularly impressed with this one, and we're all impressed with her results. Maybe when we review these, she'll let me scan in a picture.
How to Change the World with a Ball of String
This is a quirky volume, showing how coincidences and mistakes have made history. Again, both kids have dipped in and declared their findings 'cool'.
The Murderous Maths of Everything
This was less attractive to the girls to begin with (both are a little maths-shy), but the younger one recognised the author name, since Kjartan Poskitt also wrote Agatha Parrott (which we enjoyed in the summer).

Big thanks to Rebecca Emin, Transworld and Scholastic for enhancing our household with these lovely titles!

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Tuesday Tidings: So, How's NaNo Going?

This is a phrase that fills me with dread at the moment. Dread and shame. I have been struggling away, adding shamefully few words every day to arrive at my current word count (7578 at the time of writing but see the widget on the right for an updated figure). I have been writing mostly on the bus and train on my daily commute (on my BlackBerry), with a few additional sessions at home at my desk. It has been going well while I'm writing: I'm happy with my idea and feel like it's going somewhere. The problem is, I am failing to give it enough time. There are excuses I could make, some of them are even legitimate, but I'm finding it way too difficult to put in the necessary time to get up to the word count. It probably didn't help that the first two days of November were both extended work days.

That said, the bottom line is clearly positive: I've written words that I wouldn't have done and I've established a new routine of writing on my commute. That will, of course, reduce my reading time but you can't do everything, can you? And there's still time. I will keep going and see how far I get, but the 50k is not looking very likely at this point (although today I did add more new words than the daily target to get me there on time, but I don't think that's repeatable on a daily basis). I do feel, though, that NaNo may have achieved for me what I needed it too.

I'm still going to grit my teeth when people ask me how it's going, though...

Thursday, 10 November 2011

All I Want for Christmas Is No Surprises

"I want a Barbie car for Christmas." My husband and I exchanged looks as our then five-year-old told a family friend this was her dearest wish for Christmas. It was December 23 and this was the first we'd heard of a bloomin' Barbie car. Imagine our delight. Thankfully the extremely generous family friend went shopping and picked up a cute little purple Beetle for her (and she was still pleased with all her gifts), but still... 

So if we look a little shifty leading up to Christmas these days, you know we're just wondering whether the kids still want what they said they did. Did we leave it long enough? If we'd waited, would they have changed their minds? What if we can't get X in time? Argh! So yes, my dearest Christmas wish is for a complete absence of surprises of that nature.

This post is part of a blog party launching the lovely Cally Taylor's new book, Home for Christmas out today. Since her own gorgeous little bundle arrived just over a month ago, she's going for the reduced-stress, stay-at-home launch. She managed to find time to co-write a cute trailer for it though! (see below)

The blurb says:
Beth Prince has always loved fairytales and now, aged twenty-four, she feels like she's finally on the verge of her own happily ever after. She lives by the seaside, works in the Picturebox - a charming but rundown independent cinema - and has a boyfriend who's so debonair and charming she can't believe her luck! There's just one problem - none of her boyfriends have ever told her they love her and it doesn't look like Aiden's going to say it any time soon. Desperate to hear 'I love you' for the first time Beth takes matters into her own hands - and instantly wishes she hadn't. Just when it seems like her luck can't get any worse, bad news arrives in the devilishly handsome shape of Matt Jones. Matt is the regional director of a multiplex cinema and he's determined to get his hands on the Picturebox by Christmas. Can Beth keep her job, her man and her home or is her romantic-comedy life about to turn into a disaster movie?

Monday, 7 November 2011

Review: Spider Bones by Kathy Reichs

Spider Bones is Temperence Brennan's thirteenth outing. Do take note that the hardback edition had a different title (Mortal Remains) - several people on Amazon and Goodreads are unhappy about accidentally buying the same book twice.

Title: Spider Bones
Author: Kathy Reichs
Publisher: Arrow
Published: July 2011
Genre: Crime (forensic)

Find it at Amazon UK

The blurb says:
Dr Temperance Brennan spends her life working amongst the decomposed, the mutilated and the skeletal. So the two-days-dead body she is called to examine holds little to surprise her. Until she discovers that the man is John Lowery, an ex-soldier who was apparently killed in Vietnam in 1968. So who is buried in Lowery's grave?

The case takes Tempe to the heart of the American military, where she must examine the remains of anyone who may have had a connection to the drowned man. It's a harrowing task, but it pays off when she finds Lowery's dog tags amongst the bones of a long-dead soldier.

As Tempe unravels the tangled threads of the soldiers' lives and deaths, she realises there are some who would rather the past stayed dead and buried. And when she proves difficult to frighten, they turn their attention to the one person she would give her life to protect.

My verdict: Full-on, typical Brennan fare. Recommended for Reichs fans.
I always enjoy a good Kathy Reichs novel - lots of procedural and scientific fact, plenty of detail that I half regret reading momentarily, a good dose of uncertainty about Brennan's private life, and all delivered with a healthy dollop of dry humour. This novel doesn't disappoint at all. I've seen other reviews which complain about some of these aspects, but it's not like Reichs has suddenly started writing a different kind of book. To those who don't like scientific and forensic detail in their crime novels, I would point out that there are many crime writers out there to choose from and perhaps reading books by those who are forensic professionals might not be the best idea.

The plot centres around the appearance of a body which suggests that another body was misidentified forty years ago. Naturally, this requires investigation and, also naturally, this is not the end of the matter. On top of this, Brennan is pulled into another case while working on this one, leading to plenty of complexity, red herrings and many character names (several of them already dead!) to remember and keep straight. I did feel a bit like making notes at one point about who was who, but Reichs includes enough reminders to help her readers out, and this never actually became necessary.

I read this in two days, as it just kept pulling me back in. If you've enjoyed other Tempe Brennan novels, I'm sure you'd like Spider Bones as well.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Double Shadows Blog Tour: Can You Police the Past?

Today, Thoughts from the Hearthfire is visited by the lovely Sally Gardner. She's here as part of her Double Shadows blog tour to promote the marvellous and myseterious-sounding The Double Shadow, released today. The hardcover looks gorgeous (with a lovely matte dust jacket - I'm such a book-stroker...) and I'm looking forward to reading this (it's somehow jumped to the top of my TBR pile *whistles innocently*).

Anyway, over to Sally and her take on the idea of Political Correctness in writing historical fiction for children.

The past is a foreign country, and we did do things differently there. There is a tendency to whitewash it in fiction – especially for younger readers. This robs them of the knowledge of the journey we’ve made and the lessons we’ve learned. You can’t pat-a-cake the past pretty, you have to be true.

The Double Shadow is set between the wars and in the 1930s they smoked a lot, anti-Semitism was prevalent in Britain as well as Europe, there was the use of drugs and alcohol, the facts of life were not taught and young girls were often in trouble. Things were swept under the carpet and not talked about, but in the writing of them you bring them out from under the carpet.

Then, if you upset a man’s moral machinery by being dressed in a sparkling skirt you would expect little sympathy for what happened to you. The two world wars can’t be made to look all right, they were a huge black cloud over Europe and they changed the fabric of our society. Not to talk about it is a terrible mistake.

Humans on the whole are very slow learners as history has proved. The wheel always goes back a little before it goes forward. Writers have a duty to be true to what history has given them, even when writing fiction and especially when writing for a young audience. There is an issue with patronising today’s youth. The dumbing down of history should not be condoned.

Thank you so much to Sally for sharing such interesting thoughts with us today. I agree completely: part of the excitement of reading is discovering different viewpoints and we can't do that if we re-colour and re-touch attitudes from past times (or from different places and cultures).

Don't forget to visit the other stops on the tour!

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Words on Wednesday: Teaching Political Correctness

One of the topics we have to cover in the A2 year of English Language is Political Correctness, as part of the broader topic of how and why language changes. It amazes me, the extent to which seventeen year olds seem to have been raised on the Daily Mail diet. It's always a far harder task than you'd think to get a class to accept that maybe - just maybe - there have been some good things that have come out of the PC movement.

But then there's the perennially popular topic of swearing, which can be beautifully aligned with PC to open up the idea a little bit. Swearing reveals something about taboos and a simple survey, asking people to rate words according to their acceptability, can be most effective in reminding students of the need for PC language. Once they've made the connection, students are never really surprised that their grandparents/elderly neighbours etc find a different category of words to be taboo compared to their own sensibilities. Racial epithets are usually rated worst by teens, while older people are likely to find sexual swearwords more offensive. And there it is, right there. We need alternatives to 'those' words because they have become unacceptable - and most seventeen year olds can agree with that and have horror stories about grandparents embarrassing them with inappropriate racial descriptors.

The big task is getting students to separate the clear and apparent need for new terms represented by topics such as race and disability (many teens are shocked that 'The Spastics Society' ever existed, for example) from the myths perpetuated by the tabloids on a slow news day. Of course, the problem is that so many well-meaning institutions have embraced some of these myths in their desperation not to offend. If one more student tells me I can't say 'brainstorm' (I can, actually) I might just spit.

exciting news for tomorrow's blog

Sally Gardner will be here tomorrow, celebrating the publication of her new book The Double Shadow. She will be continuing the PC theme, from her perspective as a historical novelist. 

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Tuesday Tidings: It's NaNoWriMo Day 1!

By the time you're reading this, I should have started writing my NaNo novel. I know, cool eh? I'm ready and raring to go - and a little bit nervous, since we're being honest.

In preparation I have:

  • done a little writing (on separate non-fiction work) on my BlackBerry on the bus and train, so I know I can claw back that time for writing
  • dug out, refreshed and reworked my notes for a YA novel I hadn't got round to working on yet
  • made notes on characters, setting, theme and structure (there is an outline, but it no longer works since I changed some key aspects of the premise, but I think it'll be ok)
If you're doing nano as well, and you want to be buddies, I'm over there as BethKemp (for I am nothing if not imaginative...)

Monday, 31 October 2011

Magical Monday: Samhain Celebrations

Today is celebrated as Hallowe'en but it is also part of the old festival of Samhain, which commemorates the dead. It is also a time of looking backwards and inwards before moving into the lighter half of the annual cycle which begins at the Winter Solstice.

The belief that the Otherworld is more accessible on this particular night both links to the commemoration of the dead and to the traditional practice of divination on this night.

In keeping with the backwards/forwards energy here, a useful divination practice (this can also be a meditation focus) is to look at what to let go of, what to keep and what to bring in, e.g.using Tarot cards, you'd draw a card for each. It can also be really tightly focused by taking different aspects of your life in turn (e.g. career, love, etc) - it's interesting when similar themes crop up across different areas!

Friday, 28 October 2011

Family Friday: Picture Book Nostalgia

As you may have noticed from earlier posts, I have a lovely new nephew who, following family tradition, has a library card and is enjoying being read to on a regular basis. This knowledge led us to some lovely nostalgic moments this week in discussing which to recommend, so I thought I'd share a few favourites, just because.

Many of our Children's Laureate's lovely books have seen hard service in this house, but a particular favourite that I haven't often seen mentioned is The Princess and the Wizard, which is essentially a variation on the old 'magician's duel' theme where one turns into something and then the other turns into something else. With lovely rhyming Donaldson text and sparkly Lydia Monks illustrations, this is perfect for young girls who are ready for real stories (not recommended for babies, this one!).

A series that we've loved and recommend for any child able to pay any attention to a book is Lynley Dodd's fabulous Hairy Maclary series. I personally particularly enjoy Slinky Malinki's stories (possibly due to the cute 'linki linki' pronunciation we had when the youngest was a toddler...). These books are also strong on rhythm and rhyme but are far shorter and more suitable for the youngest children. The pictures are also far more full of interesting detail than they at first appear and little ones love looking out for clues to what's going to happen next.

Another series is Julie Sykes' and Tim Warnes' gorgeous Little Tiger books. Little Tiger is a fabulous stand-in for an awkward toddler who doesn't want to go to bed or have a bath. Loving these stories led us to their brilliant Santa series (such as Hurry, Santa!), in which Santa is clumsy, noisy or running late on Christmas Day and the animals must help him. Lovely bright pictures which exude warmth and friendliness and a simple text that the kids soon learned to join in with made these books firm favourites over several years (and the board book versions, which originally came with little toys, are now a little dog-eared).

Finally (because I really can't go on forever), I'd like to mention the wonderful Oliver Jeffers, who is a relatively new picture book author-illustrator. His stories are wonderfully simple and warm and understated - oh, and bizarre. It's perfectly ok, for example, in The Way Back Home for a boy to go to a cupboard and find an aeroplane. Just lovely, imaginative stuff.

It's been a lot of fun going back through the picture books I used to regularly read to the girls and reminisce about which were our favourites. I should say that the 8 yr old does still read some of the picture books we have, especially when she's tired and wants a 'comfy blanket book'. A good picture book can be just as rewarding as a longer story.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Review: Death Sentence by Mikkkel Birkegaard

For Thrilling Thursday, a violent novel that refused to let me stop reading, despite my revulsion at its extremes.

Title: Death Sentence
Author: Mikkel Birkegaard
Publisher: Transworld (Black Swan)
Published: 2011 (English translation)
Genre: Crime thriller
Acquired: Sent for review (Transworld Book Group)

Find it at Amazon UK

The blurb says...
A murder committed on paper, safely within the confines of a novel, is one thing. To see that same crime in the real world, is something else entirely. . .

Frank F√łns is a successful crime writer. His novels, famed for their visceral descriptions of violent death, have made him a household name. But now someone is copying his crimes. For Frank what once seemed a clever, intriguing plot twist, has suddenly become a terrifying, blood-spattered reality.

Frank unwittingly swaps his role of writer for detective. He must find out who is using his fiction to destroy his life, and why. What had once been a game is now a matter of life and death.

In fiction, the bad guy always gets caught, but in real life there is no such guarantee. And as Frank knows, no one is promising him a happy ending...

My verdict: the grisliest book I've read, yet terribly compelling.
It's hard to offer my feelings about this book without plot spoilers, so forgive me if this is vague in places (I'd sooner that than give away the plot).

The premise of this book is intriguing, and the writing is excellent, if a little detached in tone. This is somewhat unusual for a first-person narrator but it reflects the rather disconnected narrator effectively. The novel begins with the excellent opening line "Until recently I had only killed people on paper" and Frank continues to explain how this manuscript will be different to all his others, in dealing only with realities. The tension is managed and paced by interspersing the narration of current and murderous events with part of Frank's life story, particularly relating to his relationships.

I thought for quite a large part of the book that the excessive depiction of violence was a theme of the novel (since Frank explains some of his more grotesquely planned murders but without actual description, and discusses other characters' reactions to his work), but the closing sequence made me question this idea. This sequence is the most disturbing and graphic depiction of violence I have read and I didn't want to read it, but desperately wanted to get to the end to find out who was behind the murders. I enjoy crime fiction and am not normally squeamish, but the narration and graphic detail in this section was much more, er, 'colourful' than the rest of the novel. I had read other reviews saying that this was a violent and shocking book and was merrily disagreeing with them until this part of the story. It's told differently to the rest and has much more description and much more immediacy. I was compelled to read on and get through it, but I was breathing in sharply, covering my mouth and generally twisting myself up in tension right through it. And I have to say I'm not entirely glad I did, as I didn't find the ending very satisfying and unfortunate details of the book's violent climax keep revisiting me.

Overall, I'd say that it is done skilfully, and it certainly has a strong effect on the reader, but it wasn't my most enjoyable read this year.

Thanks to Transworld for sending me this as part of their Transworld Book Group promotion.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

In My Mailbox 5

In My Mailbox is a meme started by the Story Siren. It's available weekly, but you can also do it less often (as I do).

Well, it's been a great couple of weeks for books around here. In the last two weeks, I have:

  • picked up one pre-ordered title I was eagerly anticipating
  • won a signed trilogy in a blog giveaway
  • received a book for review that I've been keen to read for months
I know, I know, you want to know what they all are.

Snuff is the pre-order I picked up (I got the special gold edition from Waterstones). This is the 39th Discworld novel and is focused on the Watch, well on Sam Vimes really. I've been a Discworld fan for years and a new Pratchett is always an event. I finished reading this yesterday and it was great. Exactly what we've come to expect: social satire, gentle genre in-jokes and plenty of interesting characters, both familiar and new.

My exciting win came courtesy of Tall Tales and Short Stories, a fabulous blog for writing for children and teens. Thanks to a simple comment/tweet type draw, I won the cool Witchfinder trilogy by William Hussey - a signed and numbered set, no less! Just look at those beautiful jewel-like covers!

And finally, my book for review came from the lovely people at Orion's new teen imprint, Indigo. A gorgeous hardback copy of Sally Gardner's The Double Shadow. I've been wanting to read this since I first heard about it in the summer. The blurb and description remind me of Angela Carter, possibly because of the crazy use of machines, the theme of dream and memory and the novel's apparent genre-blending.

This lovely book comes out next week and the wonderful Sally Gardner will be visiting this very blog as part of her blog tour. How cool is that?

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Review: The Long Weekend by Savita Kalhan

A Thriller for Thursday - and a fab read.

Title: The Long Weekend
Author: Savita Kalhan
Publisher: Andersen
Published: 2008
Genre: YA thriller

Find it at Amazon UK

The blurb says...
Sam knows that he and his friend Lloyd made a colossal mistake when they accepted the ride home. They have ended up in a dark mansion in the middle of nowhere with a man who means to harm them. But Sam doesn't know how to get them out.

They were trapped, then separated.
Now they are alone.
Will either of them get out alive?
This gripping and hypnotic thriller will have you reading late into the night...

My verdict: Tense and engaging. A great example of thriller writing for a teen audience. Highly recommended.
This book gets going quickly. The relationship between Sam and Lloyd is established and they are rapidly put into a dangerous situation, although it isn't clear immediately in the text that they are in danger. Kalhan is skilled at creating tension - we know from the blurb what is happening, and are willing the boys to realise that all is not well and that they should try to escape. The situation is entirely believable in terms of how contemporary clued-up kids could find themselves in this scenario.

The story is told from Sam's perspective, using third-person close narration. We have access to Sam's thoughts and feelings and are not able to 'see' what is happening beyond his perspective. This is also highly effective and contributes to the tension, particularly early on when we know they have been taken but Sam and Lloyd have not yet realised anything is wrong, and we do not yet know precisely what their captor intends. The voice is convincing for a kid of Sam's age and his thought processes and interactions with Lloyd (and their captor) ring true.

The main characters are only eleven and Kalhan manages to express the threat and what is happening to the boys in terms which are appropriate to this age group. Nothing is made explicit in the book - which, of course, further adds to the tension and the overall 'creep factor'.

This is likely to be an effective cautionary tale, although saying so seems to reduce the book to merely a teaching aid, which does it a great disservice. This is a brilliant read and teens will enjoy it for its tension and excitement, which is exactly how it should be.

I just read this book on my Kindle last week and what should happen but this week, Kalhan posts a book trailer on the Awfully Big Blog Adventure. So take a look!

This is my twentieth review for the Bookette's British Books Challenge (confession: I've made that claim once before, but somehow I'd managed never to do an 'eighteenth' review. I don't have a pathological fear of eighteen or anything, promise. And please, no jokes about English teachers not being able to do Maths :) This time it really IS twenty) 

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Words on Wednesday: Fry's Planet Word

If you're interested in language and you haven't yet caught BBC2's fabulous programme "Fry's Planet Word", I'd like to suggest that you do. It's a five-part series of hour-long programmes exploring language in a wide-ranging and intelligent way, and the last one is on this Sunday night (but don't worry, they're available on iplayer until the end of the month).

For those of use teaching English Language A Level, it's been a godsend, with topics such as swearing, coded language (such as Polari) and how children acquire grammatical rules. Students have been delighted to see familiar names such as Jean Berko-Gleason and Steven Pinker talking to the wonderful Stephen Fry. We've also been able to see academics working on related disciplines in Psychology and Evolution Studies, and hear the stories of people with language-related problems such as Tourette's Syndrome.

My students have been enjoying the familiar nature of some of the programme's ideas, while also being stretched with new aspects that aren't on the exam specification, but no specific prior knowledge of linguistics  is assumed. Go have a look!

Monday, 17 October 2011

Magical Monday: But Aren't Vampires Supposed To...

This is not really a post about vampires. It's a post about folklore and who controls it.

My favourite vampires...
Vampires are a particularly interesting case in point, I think, because so much use has been made of them in popular culture, be it film, TV or literature. If you're going to have vampires in your story, although it may seem that they are a 'stock' character, there are decisions you can make, even about quite basic things. They may choose not to kill - like Terry Pratchett's brilliant 'Black Ribboners' who have sworn off human blood. They might be unable to be outside during the day at all, or they may only need to avoid full sunlight (possibly because they sparkle rather than burn to a crisp...). The method of turning a human into a vampire is also somewhat up for grabs these days - fluid exchange may be required, or it may be a complex ritual requiring considerable planning.

Anyway, who hasn't read, or watched or heard something featuring a vampire (or other folkloric creature/object) and come to a part that made you (or someone else) say "But I thought they couldn't do that/ could only do that if..."? But who says? What makes the version you previously heard/read/watched better or more accurate than this new idea?

I think we notice changes to folklore because usually folklore is something that changes gradually, over time, by consensus. When a writer decides to make a change to something from folklore, we notice and may wonder why they've done that. Is it more convenient for their plot? Does it question or parody something in contemporary society more effectively with that change in place? Are we convinced by their adaptation?

I suppose, ultimately, that last question is the most important. If something about the writing isn't convincing, we're more likely to question the need to mess with established patterns of folklore.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Family Friday: Review of Dark Angels by Katherine Langrish

A great atmospheric read for older tweens and teens with compelling characters and plenty of intrigue. I was lucky enough to win a signed copy from the author by retweeting a link to this lovely trailer (which she filmed herself - everyone say "oooh").

Title: Dark Angels
Author: Katherine Langrish
Publisher: HarperCollins
Genre: older children's/YA
Published: 2009

Find it at Amazon UK

The blurb says:
A bad feeling hung over the place.
"I'm not going any further," Wolf said, shivering.

Wolf is on the run, lost on a dark hillside said to be haunted by ghosts, demons and other supernatural forces. But Wolf uncovers a creature far more strange and thrilling on his journey into the shadows.

My verdict: An exciting and mysterious read, chock full of great characters. Highly recommended.
This, like Langrish's excellent Troll trilogy (see my review) is a fabulous historical adventure novel with strong fantasy elements. Langrish draws her fantasy aspects from the folk beliefs of the period she's writing in, so this novel, set in the time of the Crusades, is strongly influenced by people's fear of elves and demons.

The compelling characters are a real strength of the book, quickly gaining our sympathy and ensuring we are rooting for them. Her young protagonist, Wolf, is flawed enough to be sympathetic while being someone a tween or teen reader could admire and might choose as a friend. The book is suitable for both boys and girls, since it fits firmly into the fantasy-adventure genre and Wolf is joined by a female protagonist in the form of Lady Nest fairly quickly, ensuring both genders are represented (and eschewing the obvious 'romance' route which can alienate boys and younger readers). Nest herself is a great character, responding negatively to some of the gender-based confines of the age without standing out as anachronistic by being openly rebellious.

As the cover (and trailer) suggests, the setting is important to the novel, and the caves on the hillside feature particularly strongly, offering both temptation and threat. A chilling atmosphere is effectively created through the mystery of the setting, giving us a strong sense of place and its effect on the local residents (and again, this is something Langrish also does particularly well in the Troll trilogy).

Overall, I really enjoyed this and recommend it as a great fantasy adventure. It will definitely be a bedtime read with my eight year old in the not-too-distant-future and I'm sure she'll love it. Although this is shelved as a YA novel (perhaps because the elves are threatening and uncanny rather than sparkly and benign), I think younger children would also enjoy it, especially as a shared read.

This is my twentieth review for the Bookette's British Book Challenge 

Thursday, 13 October 2011

More awards!

Somewhat belatedly, as I crawl out from under a pile of Self-Assessment documentation from my day job, I am happy to accept two more awards on the blog. Andrea Michaels, who blogs at Wordy Living, awarded me the Versatile Blogger Award and Jani at Life Debatable passed on the One Lovely Blog Award. How nice!

I'm taking a leaf out of Andrea's book for this and 'theming' my responses. The Versatile Blogger Award requires me to post seven random facts about myself and to pass it on to fifteen bloggers, while the One Lovely Blog Award simply asks that you pass it on to (and recommend) fifteen newly-discovered blogs.

My themed seven things will be things that I can do:
  • type fast (according to my students - I don't know my wpm speed)
  • read on a bus without feeling sick
  • sew (not that I have time at the moment!)
  • play the flute
  • read a map (take that, gender stereotypes!)
  • fold a terry nappy (although I haven't had to for about six years!)
  • raise one eyebrow disapprovingly
Since many awards are doing the rounds currently, and given that I have already passed on the Versatile Blogger and the Liebster Blog Award fairly recently, I shall recommend just five blogs without worrying about who already has which award. All of these are relatively new to me. To all you lovely bloggers, please feel free to accept or ignore either or both of these awards without fear of offence :)

  • First up, we have the very new InkRunsDry blog, a writing blog run by a very lovely former student of mine, Adam Smith. He's recently been chronicling his attempts to set up a creative writing group in college, so there are bound to be interesting times ahead for him.
  • Next comes C D Meetens' blog One Little Spark, which discusses writing, words, inspiration and some fascinating everyday stuff too (I enjoyed the recent 'pet rat' post, for example). I found her through the Writers' Campaign.
  • Also found through the Writers' Campaign is Candy Lynn Fite, whose blog features regular 'winks of fiction' as well as posts about writing. 
  • Another Writing Campaigner is Clare Robyns, whose novel Second Guessing Fate is just out as an ebook. She posts about the writing process in broad terms as well as about her own work.
  • Maria Smith's lovely blog, First Draft Cafe, is also focused mostly on writing, but also mixes it up with some other topics. Maria is also a Campaigner, but I already 'knew' her on Twitter before following her blog.  

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

In My Mailbox 4

In My Mailbox is a meme run by the Story Siren, in which bloggers share their good fortune and give a mention to all the lovely booky goodness coming their way. It runs weekly but you can do it less often like me.

It's only been a couple of weeks, I know, but it's been a good couple of weeks for the booky arrivals, so I thought another In My Mailbox was in order!

Breaking News: Incredibly Lucky Win
Daughter of Smoke and Bone was an incredibly fortuitous win in a Twitter giveaway run by @Lucyzilb,  publicist at Hodder and Stoughton. Just for being her 500th follower, I received this gorgeous hardback (and the picture really doesn't do it justice - the purply feathers are iridescent)! It was one of those entirely brilliant coincidences that happen online: I saw a tweet from her which mentioned a book I'd seen in our college library. That book was L'Auberge written by Julia Stagg, who is a former student of my college, so that piqued my interest. I followed both Julia and Lucy and found that I had won the giveaway (which I hadn't even known about...). Such a lucky day!

Anyway, as well as being beautiful, the book is an urban fantasy set in Prague, using folklore and some intriguing original ideas. It was only released a fortnight ago and the blogosphere is alight with praise for it, so I am extremely excited (if you can't tell already!) to have received a copy. I expect this will be a half term treat, so look out for my review.

Received For Review
These three lovelies arrived courtesy of the marvellous Caroline at Portrait of a Woman.

The Emerald Atlas:The Books of Beginning is a fantasy adventure for older children (9-12) that I have been wanting to read for a while. People have been calling it 'the new Harry Potter', which probably isn't helpful at all, but it does sound intriguing in its own right.

The Ghostgirl books look quirky (they're even a non-standard physical size and shape!) and a cool goth/emo take on the established YA plot of popularity issues in high school.

Death Sentence is a crime novel with a crime writer as its protagonist. Someone is using his plots to commit horrific murders and ruin his life. Sounds great, no? This one came as part of the Transworld Book Group. Watch out for the review!
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