Tuesday, 29 March 2011

New challenge: A-Z Blogging Through April

I've just signed up for this challenge.  Basically, you blog every day except Sundays throughout April, using a letter a day as a prompt.  It'll be quite a challenge to blog 6 days a week, but I think (hope?!) it'll free me up to do shorter posts for some of them.  See, I'm reducing the commitment already!

Thanks to Rebecca Brown, on whose blog I found out about this challenge.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Stories on Saturdays: If I Never See You Again

Title: If I Never See You Again
Author: Niamh O'Connor
Publisher: Transworld
Published: 2010
Genre: Crime (police)

Find it at Amazon UK

The Blurb says...
On the streets of Dublin, one woman tracks a terrifying killer.

The Detective
Meet Jo Birmingham - single mum, streetwise, and spiky as hell.  Recently promoted, she is one of the few female detectives on the Dublin police force.  But with a failed marriage behind her and two young sons at home, trying to strike the right work-life balance has run her ragged.

The Serial Killer
When Jo identifies the missing link in a chain of brutal killings, she comes under fierce scrutiny from her male colleagues, especially her boss and ex-husband Dan Mason.  But as the body count rises, so do the body parts.  As fear stalks the city, it soon becomes obvious that a serial killer is at large.

A Chilling Game of Cat and Mouse
And so Jo embarks on a terrifying psychological journey to find out who the killer is, and how he is choosing his victims.  Soon she is involved in a deadly game in which the killer is always one step ahead.  Because he knows all the rules ...

My verdict: a pacy crime with unexpected twists and a great cast of characters.  Recommended for crime fans.
This is a complex mystery with an interesting lead character.  It's relatively unusual to come across a female lead detective with children, although of course a complex and often unhappy love life is de rigueur with crime-novel-cops.  I warmed to Jo Birmingham and her struggles to be taken seriously amongst the boys in blue, and was drawn into the story through her character.  She has an ongoing crusade - to get Separate Legal Representation for rape victims - which is mentioned throughout the book and picked up in an author's note at the end.  This clearly is an issue which the author (a crime journalist) has strong feelings about, but she did not allow it to take over the plot, which a lesser writer could easily have done.

The setting of Dublin is strongly present and there probably were references that I missed which would delight those familiar with the city, but I wasn't left with a 'one step behind' feeling.  The supporting characters were also well-drawn and inherently interesting, while the tense relationships between Jo, her teenage son and her ex-husband are effectively portrayed.

The plot itself (in terms of the crimes committed) was complicated and encouraged me to keep reading, but there were times I was surprised at the leaps made and I think there were aspects that were never completely explained - or maybe I wasn't paying close enough attention.  This was not sufficient to stop me reading (I wanted to know where it was going next!) and would absolutely not inhibit me from reading another Jo Birmingham novel in the future.

I received this book via Transworld's Great Crime Caper, but this did not influence my judgement.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Stories on Saturdays: Wolf Brother

Title: Wolf Brother
Author: Michelle Paver
Publisher: Orion
Published: 2004
Genre: Children's Fantasy

Find it at Amazon UK

The Blurb says...
Torak is alone ... wounded, terrified, and on the run. An outcast like his father, he has avoided all contact with the clans. But now his father lies dead: slaughtered by a demon in the form of a great bear.

Somehow, Torak must keep going.
His only ally is an orphaned wolf cub ...

WOLF BROTHER carries you back thousands of years to the ancient darkness of the Forest: to a world steeped in natural magic and elemental terror, a world in which trusting a friend means risking your life.


My verdict: a rollicking adventure that had me emotionally invested in the characters from the beginning (highly recommended for adventure lovers of 9+)
This novel plunges you in with Torak and his critically-injured father on the first page. Immediately, you are drawn into empathising with the young protagonist who has so much growing to do - prematurely and urgently under dangerous circumstances. I've seen advice not to start a story in such a high stakes scene, as the reader needs to care about your hero first, but this was one rule Paver shrugged aside without a problem. I absolutely cared about Torak and what was going to happen to him from the first page.

Characterisation is (clearly!) highly effective and a key part of this book's magic, but another strength lies in the world building. This is a complex society, very different to our own, which Paver conveys effortlessly. I particularly enjoyed the passages told from the wolf's point of view, in which a simplified language is used in places, e.g. "the fast wet" is a threatening rush of water - a flood or a strong river. This evoked both the environment itself and the wolf's feelings about it beautifully.

The plot itself is also well-crafted and this is, essentially, a coming-of-age novel realised through a quest narrative. The stakes rise and Torak faces major losses as he discovers the secrets of his identity and destiny. Kids below 9 may enjoy this as a story to be read to them, but I probably wouldn't give it to a child under 9 to read for themselves: it might be too challenging emotionally as well as intellectually. There's enough to satisfy older readers too, and plenty to think about. I was also interested in the incredible amount of research that Paver has done for this series, and was impressed that there is a "Wolf Brother" display of related artefacts in the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. How's that for validation?

Overall, I really enjoyed this and will definitely be reading the others - once I can get that TBR pile down a bit!

This review is my fifth for the British Books Challenge, since Michelle Paver lives and works in the UK.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Sunday Writing: Creativity and Rules

There are two main tensions in my day job.

That's tension in the sense of existential-type conflict, rather than the hassles and squabbles endemic to all work (if pushed, I could probably identify more than two of those...).

As a teacher of English Language for A-Level, I have a tension right there in that single role.  On the one hand, I have to teach teens not to be judgemental of others' use of language.  "These people can't use English properly because they are uneducated" is not an acceptable comment!  On the other hand, of course, I'm underlining every instance of "alot", "infact" or "aswell", every "sentance" and "grammer" and every poorly-chosen "their/there/they're" and offering helpful advice on where commas, full stops and apostrophe might usually be found in Standard English.

My other great tension lies in being both the person running the "Creative Writing" enrichment, and a teacher on the GCSE English resit programme, for kids needing a second chance.  One poor girl has the misfortune to find herself in both groups.

In teaching GCSE English, we're encouraging creativity in Original Writing, with no time to really correct the students' existing assumptions that creativity = an abundance of adventurous adjectives, dialogue tagged with anything but "said" alongside descriptive and elucidating adverbs.  We try, but since marks are allocated for demonstrating 'interesting' vocabulary, we'd be letting them down if we prevented them using these writing methods.

In Creative Writing, however, we've been working on showing and not telling and using straightforward and precise vocabulary, even when an obscure word or phrase would convey a similar meaning and demonstrate intelligence at the same time.  We looked at speech tags in published novels once, to make the point about adverb-free "said", and we examined how settings and people were described.  Yes, I know in GCSE, we do as-descriptive-as-possible writing, but in the real world, where people buy stories to escape/relax/whatever, readers want stuff to happen, and will picture people and places through incidental detail rather than pages of prose painting.


Why is nothing ever simple?  I guess I can more easily live with the first tension than the second.  I always end up discussing it with the class - it's part of the whole "should Education equip kids to use Standard English or not interfere with their language" debate, after all.  The second, however, is more directly caused by said Education system, and the aims of English in the National Curriculum, Literacy Framework and so on, which have nothing particular to do with the art of writing for publication.

Any thoughts on this clash between taught writing for 'English' as a subject, and 'real' writing in the world?

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Midweek Magic: Spring Lore 1 - Blodeuwedd

Since it's starting to feel properly Spring-like, I thought I'd bring some Spring-related stories and lore to this spot.  And as the flowers of the season are starting to show themselves, I've been thinking of the story of Blodeuwedd.

In the Welsh myth cycle, The Mabinogion, is Blodeuwedd's story - of her creation and her undoing.

She is created out of flowers (oak, broom and meadowsweet) to be a wife to Llew, whose mother Arianrhod has cursed him never to marry a human woman.  This is the third curse she has placed upon him, as the first two have been foiled by her brother, the magician Gwydion, and her uncle, Math.  Blodeuwedd is said to mean 'flower face'.

What's interesting to my mind is the later part of this story, where Blodeuwedd falls in love with another man -    Gronw - and they conspire to kill Llew, who can only die under a very specific and bizarre set of circumstances.  Llew can only die if he is: neither by day nor by night, neither indoors nor outdoors, neither riding nor walking, neither clothed nor naked and not by any lawfully-made weapon.  Blodeuwedd tricks Llew into telling her how he can be killed, feigning wifely concern, and (of course) shares this information with Gronw.  Since producing the unlawfully-made weapon will take a year (it must be produced while people are supposed to be in church), Blodeuwedd checks the exact circumstances under which Llew could die a year later, persuading him to demonstrate just how unlikely a set of circumstances these are.  Naturally, Gronw happens along and attempts to kill Llew (who turns into an eagle), for which Gronw is put to death.  For her part, Blodeuwedd is punished by being turned into an owl, and to have no friend among the other birds - this is why owls are only seen at night, for Blodeuwedd is not permitted to enjoy the light of day.

OK, the end of this story is, admittedly, not in the least Spring-like.  But Blodeuwedd is seen by many as a Maiden Goddess, related to Spring - probably at least because she is formed of delicate flowers.  What I find interesting is the punishment brought against her for not remaining faithful to a husband whom she hadn't chosen.  She can also be defended as a being of Nature (in the most literal sense), and therefore not subject to human codes of behaviour.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

There is an interesting analysis/explanation of the story at the OBOD website here.

If you enjoy your myths sung, I would recommend the music of Damh the Bard, who has several songs featuring Blodeuwedd: "Blodeuwedd" and "Cloak of Feathers", on the album "Herne's Apprentice" are inspired by her story, while "Oak, Broom and Meadowsweet", on the album "Spirit of Albion" tells the story of her creation very effectively.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

International Women's Day: My Relationship with Feminism

I am a feminist.  For me, that means I believe that women are not men's inferiors.  I consider myself a liberal or 'equal rights' feminist.  In my head, this is all very straightforward, but I often find other people slightly more confusing...

For example, my students.  I look forward to being able to teach about equality and diversity - something which is easier for me, as an English teacher, than for some other subjects.  But then, when it comes to it, I find myself justifying the label 'feminist' to get away from the stereotypes that teens seem to have in mind.  I have been encouraged by the occasional response of 'but that's not anything -ism, that's normal', but for the most part, somebody in the room is always waiting for me to betray those man-hating instincts.

I've encountered others with odd (to me!) views too.  My postgrad studies included a Women's Studies element and I was surprised to find that some felt I didn't belong there - because I was (and still am!) married.    More recently, we've seen surprise in others as hubby stays at home full time with the kids and has done for almost 7 years now.  Whether it's fascination (does he do... washing, cleaning, school run etc etc) or pity (oh, can't he get a job), people react - which they probably wouldn't do so much if I did the house+kids thing while he worked.

Overall though, I still consider myself a feminist because we still have so far to go.  Obviously there are parts of the world which have a shocking record for women's rights, but even here in the enlightened West, there remain many inequalities, not the least of which is attitude.

The Penguin Atlas of Women in the WorldA great resource for exploring women's rights around the world is this Atlas of Women in the World, which graphically represents a range of relevant figures.  It's been a real eye-opener in my classes, as students discover statistics relating to literacy, marital rape and access to contraception.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Stories on Saturdays: Mistress of the Art of Death

Title: Mistress of the Art of Death
Author: Ariana Franklin
Publisher: Transworld
Published: 2007
Genre: Historical Crime

Find it at Amazon UK

The Blurb says ...
Adelia Aguilar is a rare thing in medieval Europe - a woman who has trained as a doctor.  Her speciality is the study of corpses, a skill that must be concealed if she is to avoid accusations of witchcraft.

But in Cambridge a child has been murdered, others are disappearing, and King Henry has called upon a renowned Italian investigator to find the killer - fast.

What the king gets is Adelia, his very own Mistress of the Art of Death.

The investigation takes Adelia deep into Cambridge; its castle and covents, and streets teeming with life.  And it is here that she attracts the attention of a murderer who is prepared to kill again ...

My Verdict: engaging, gripping and well-written (strongly recommended for crime fans)
I've read a couple of negative reviews on this book, pointing out small details that are historically inaccurate.  I'm not a historian, nor do I know a lot about the 12th century, so there was nothing to pull me out of the novel's world.  I do know a little about the period, and I did greatly enjoy the characterisation of King Henry, and the English characters' general xenophobia felt accurate to me also.

The novel has a prologue and an epilogue and initially I found the voice of the prologue quite difficult, not just because of its omniscient narration but because it addresses the reader in a way I haven't seen in many recent novels.  It felt quite 19th Century to me, and that's not a good thing to my taste.  That said, the intrusive narrator soon disappears and the plot and characters gripped me rapidly - to the point where I had to leave the book at home one day to make sure I did my marking on the train and wasn't tempted...

The main character is fabulous.  Yes, her views are quite modern (which may have irritated some other reviewers), but to me that's entirely consistent with a woman doing an uncharacteristic job and encountering prejudice on a regular basis.  Or, more accurately, having to go to extraordinary lengths to avoid the prejudice that could see her put to death as a witch!

As a crime novel, there is some unpleasant detail - this is a book about a child murderer, after all - but  considerably less than many others I've read.  The text also doesn't delve into the psychology of the murderer, which seems historically consistent to me.  Psychoanalysis as an explanation for criminology is a pretty recent concept, after all.

On a personal level, having grown up in East Anglia, I really enjoyed the depiction of Cambridge: its atmospheric fenland and especially the local dialect, which was very effectively drawn and frequently made me smile in recognition.

Overall, this is a well-paced crime novel with a strong cast of characters and a beautifully-evoked setting, in terms of geography and history.  I have today purchased the second in the series (there are four) and am forcing myself to not read it immediately (there are Christmas present books I haven't got to yet!).

I received this book via Transworld's Great Crime Caper, but this did not influence my judgement.
This review is my fourth for the British Books Challenge, since Ariana Franklin is a British novelist.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Home on Tuesday: Simple Pleasures

I was compiling a list of things that have made me smile lately - a sort of gratitude exercise, to help me remember that life is good - and I realised that they were all linked.  What I realised was that all of them had made me smile because of a connection - and that all of those connections were about feeling at home and being at peace with myself.

Here's my list:

The rapt attention and sheer squealy delight of my 7 yr old as we follow James on his journey into the peach.
An obvious delight, this one - but her happiness was more enjoyable to me because I understand it.  I'm pleased my girls have discovered the pleasure of stories.  If I could only give them one gift, that would be it.

The opening bars of a song I loved as a teenager.
For this one, it's about being instantly transported to another time, another place, another self.  Those late-80s/early-90s power chords can really make me feel free again, like anything's possible.

The warmth and homeliness I felt on holiday at half term in the depth of Suffolk - the joy of recognising place names I hadn't encountered for 20+ yrs, the pleasure of recognition in that strange accent, the healthy weariness brought on by a seafront walk.
These feelings surprised me.  I lived in Suffolk (in different areas) from the age of 3 until I left for uni aged 19, and having been born in Lancashire, I've always identified as a Northerner.  Apparently, though, Suffolk has part of my heart too - very interesting.

What brings you home?
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