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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.

Monday, 27 June 2011

The Girl Who Chased the Moon by Sarah Addison Allen

Title: The Girl Who Chased the Moon
Author: Sarah Addison Allen
Publisher: Hodder
Published: 2010 (paperback 2011)
Genre: Magic Realism (possibly, or perhaps Magic Romance, if such a genre exists)

Find it at Amazon UK

The Blurb says...
Emily Benedict came to Mullaby, North Carolina, hoping to solve some of the riddles surrounding her mother's life. Why did she leave her hometown so suddenly? Why did she vow never to return?

But in a place where unexplained lights skip across the yard at midnight, where the wallpaper in your bedroom changes to suit your mood, and where a neighbour bakes hummingbird cakes in the hope of bringing back a lost love, Emily will find that the answers are not what she expects...

My verdict: An engaging, delightful, tender book to curl up with.  Highly recommended as an enchanting summer read. 
This is the third of Sarah Addison's books I've read and I've enjoyed them all thoroughly. I love the fact that magical powers or unusual abilities are just there in all of these books, often simply accepted by many of the small-town characters. These powers tend to be original and quirky. She also has food as an important theme in them all somehow, and I have a sneaking suspicion she has a sweet tooth! I also appreciate the difficulty in placing her books in a genre. They do include romance, but I wouldn't necessarily put them into that category. There isn't the classic relationship-against-the-odds vibe as standard, for example, and the story is often about more than one female protagonist, and hence more than one relationship features.

In this novel, the main action centres around young Emily's arrival into the town, but the stories of several other characters are also important. There's Julia, living next door, who takes Emily under her wing but is wrestling with her own issues quietly. Julia's relationship with Emily's mother was difficult, but she is welcoming to the teenager while others seem to be punishing her for something her mother did. The key male characters are: Emily's grandfather Vance, the Mullaby Giant, who has no idea how to relate to her; Win Coffey, a member of the social elite who is not supposed to associate with Emily; and Sawyer, a real 'Southern gentleman' type who flirts shamelessly with Julia.  The story is told in the third person, with sections from different characters' perspectives, allowing us insight into most of the main players at some point.

I really can't rate this novel highly enough as an absorbing and enchanting read. Although it has a real lightness of touch, there are serious themes of forgiveness and prejudice: it's not 'weighty', but nor is it trivial or overly sentimental.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

The Iron Witch by Karen Mahoney

Title: The Iron Witch
Author: Karen Mahoney
Publisher: Corgi
Published: 2011
Genre: YA Fantasy/ Paranormal Romance

Find it at Amazon UK

The Blurb says...
Donna is a freak. An outcast. Branded with iron tattoos that cover her hands and arms, she is cursed with a magically-enhanced strength that she does everything she can to hide.

But now, the dark exiles of Faerie are coming and Donna must choose between saving her best friend - or betraying one of the world's greatest secrets.

My verdict: some really unusual and interesting plot elements woven together into a highly original story. Recommended for fans of dark faeries and paranormal romance.

This novel works with some interesting folklore, in the form of the Armless Maiden myth, and also combines traditional battles between the human and faery worlds, using lore relating to iron and alchemy. For these aspects, and the clear sense coming from then that Mahoney knows her stuff when it comes to folklore and myth, I enjoyed this book and am keen to know what will happen in the rest of the trilogy.

I was slightly disappointed in the telling of the story, however, and feel that in places a bit too much was withheld in order to create suspense.  The wrap-up at the end also felt quite abrupt and didn't answer all my questions - presumably in order to resolve those issues in later books. I haven't read widely in this genre, so maybe this is the norm for fantasy adventure/romance trilogies.

My favourite parts in terms of the writing were Donna's journal entries, which appear at various points and give us more insight into her personality via her voice. I would have liked more of this, as she is an engaging and feisty character. I also liked the character of Navin, the best friend whom she must save, and enjoyed the challenge to their friendship that Donna's secrets posed. The love interest, Xan, was suitably diffident and 'cool' at first, and has his own sense of mystery too, although I didn't trust him to start with and was concerned about Donna.  Unlike some other reviewers, though, I didn't feel her trusting him 'too soon' was necessarily unrealistic, as teens have been known to make unwise choices, especially with hormones in charge...

All in all, an enjoyable read which I am passing along to my 12 yr old, and I will be wanting to read the further books in the series to see what happens next.

This is my ninth review for the British Books Challenge hosted by The Bookette.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

What should children and teens read?

A few things have made me think about this lately: Gove's ill-fated 'approved' reading lists for UK children, that Wall Street Journal article that prompted the #YAsaves hashtag on Twitter, and my 12 yr old's struggle with a book outside her usual reading.

As with most things related to children, people have opinions about what's 'good' for them to read, or even more prescriptively, what they should read. Our hapless Education Minister believes in the canon and the classics, suggesting that there should be lists of books to be recommended for each school year, and that kids should expect to read 50 books per year. Often these arguments end up linked to general intelligence or, more disturbingly to morality, as though only morally upstanding citizens read, and a good dose of literacy could innoculate our youth against crime.

The WSJ article that has caused so much outrage focuses on concerns about what type of reading should be available to kids. Centred on the belief that only 'dark' material is available to teens these days, it implies that negative experience shouldn't be presented in books for this age group (or perhaps for anyone...). Quite rightly, authors and lovers of YA are protesting that in fact there is a range available - not all teen titles feature horrific future worlds or supernatural violence - and anyway, within these dark storylines, the message is frequently one of hope, strength and generally positive attributes that we would want to nurture in our teens. Hence the wonderful #YAsaves hashtag.

Finally, my own daughter's slight struggle in reading "The Railway Children", which of course I remembered fondly, showed me loud and clear how problematic it could be to force challenging older ('classic') texts onto reluctant readers. As is clear from the reviews here, I am a reader of YA and I read it because I enjoy it, and also because I enjoy writing it. Having taken another look at the E Nesbit classic, at my 12 yr old's prompting, I realise how much more difficult a read it is. Obviously there have been differences in the language in the 107 years since it was first published, but also people's behaviours, expectations and beliefs are quite different to today. She enjoyed it nonetheless, but probably wouldn't have read to the end if she hadn't been required to, and she did find reviewing it difficult, because she wanted to say that it was hard to read, but felt that was too negative a comment. This was the third book she'd had to review and the first time she wanted to discuss a review book with me.

In all, I suppose my (not very earth-shattering) conclusion is that children and teens should be encouraged to read by being allowed to explore a range of material. Unfortunately, however, it seems to need saying at the moment.

I don't think we can (or should attempt to) shield kids from anything and everything negative in the world, and I believe that books have a role in allowing us to explore and extend our emotional lives, which is best achieved by letting us into experiences that we wouldn't necessarily have ourselves. As a teacher and a parent, I am convinced that setting books which won't engage kids is the very best way to turn out non-readers. Seeing my booky daughter struggle has absolutely shown me that a kid who didn't already believe in the power of books would simply see that difficult text as evidence that they were right to see books as boring.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Six months on: my blog's half-birthday

It was six months ago that I blogged for the first time. I am quite pleased with how things are going here at the hearthfire. In six months I have:

  • published 61 posts (this is number 62!)
  • gained followers and made some blogging friends
  • posted on 26 tagged topics
  • completed the April A-Z Challenge
  • participated in the Bookette's fine British Books Challenge (8 reviews posted so far)
  • reviewed 9 books here, representing my preferred genres of fantasy, kids, YA and crime
  • found loads of other blogs to follow (my google reader has 101 subscribed blogs at this point)
  • learned that I enjoy writing on a range of topics and don't want a one-topic-blog
  • gained confidence in sharing my views and things I've learned
  • increased my writing rate generally
Given that I wasn't entirely sure what I wanted out of blogging when I started, I'm very pleased! It's definitely helped me to prioritise writing more, and to explore different areas. I've posted on topics that I might not have poked my toe into otherwise, and have particularly enjoyed having an outlet for discussing folklore and myth. I enjoy blogging as an end in itself, but it also has clear benefits for my writing more widely.

What are your favourite things about blogging? Does it support other goals that you have, or is it more simply an enjoyable pastime?
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