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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.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Words on Wednesday: Gender Differences in Language?

It's an oh-so familiar argument to linguists, just as gender differences in other spheres are regularly debated too. It's a great topic in the classroom: how is men's speech different to women's speech? Students always have ideas about this and so many of the claims 'feel' true on some level: men swear more often and more violently, men problem solve while women sympathise, men compete while women co-operate etc etc etc.

The trouble is, every claim can be debunked with quantitative evidence. According to Deborah Cameron's fantastic The Myth of Mars and Venus: Do men and women really speak different languages?, that sense of familiarity is due to our 'confirmation bias' - we recognise and notice things which confirm what we already believe. Society tells us men and women are essentially different and behave differently, so that's what we notice.

I must say that, when faced with the same transcribed conversation, it amazes me that students will be able to find 'proof' of completely opposing ideas. Those who are stuck in the 'men are aggressive and women are lovely' mode will find examples of male interruption and females agreeing with others and generally smoothing things over. Those who think men and women have different (but equally valid) styles of conversation will find evidence of males' preference for factual communication and females' tendency to share feelings. Only those who have understood and accepted Cameron's arguments are likely to find evidence that contradicts any of the 70s and 80s studies showing clear gender differences.

So, with people happy to see confirmation of what they already believe, outdated ideas about gender are merrily being published. This piece in the Times Higher, dealing specifically with the recently-published work of John Locke, does a lovely job of discussing the evolution model used in some of this stuff. It's scary really, how tempting these arguments about our 'natural' or 'primal' or 'instinctual' gender-regulated behaviour can be.

This is easily one of my favourite bits of English Language teaching, as there's lots of scope for students to discuss and explore real data. Plus, I get to discuss a bit of feminist theory and get into gender-as-a-social-construct with some of them!

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

In My Mailbox 2

In My Mailbox is a weekly meme (but you can do them less often, as I am) which is run by The Story Siren.

Well, I've had quite a busy two weeks for book-buying! I've also been loading up my kindle ready for the return to work and its bus and train travel.

Dark Angels by Katherine Langrish (won signed copy from the author via Twitter).
This is my exciting acquisition of the fortnight. I won this in a draw simply by retweeting a link to the atmospheric new trailer for it. I was so thrilled!

The book is a medieval fantasy set on Devil's Edge (based on Stiperstones) about a young boy called Wolf who runs away and gets caught up in a scary adventure involving elves and a ghostly hunt. I loved Langrish's West of the Moon and am looking forward to devouring this one. Find more info on Amazon UK

So now we move onto my purchased new reads:

Bloodstone by Gillian Philip (read my review here).
Having loved Firebrand, the first in the series, I was extremely keen to read this, the second instalment. I recommend this series wholeheartedly to lovers of fantasy and YA.
Find more info at Amazon UK

American Gods 10th Anniversary Edition by Neil Gaiman. I loved the original and am keen to read the 'author's preferred text' - plus, of course, there's an extra short story in this edition.  The premise of this book is fantastic: as people emigrated into America, they took their gods with them. But gods evolve and change as their believers do, so America is full of altered, americanised versions of gods from around the world. Oh, and all of them are in danger of being pushed out by the new gods of the internet and television and so on. Fabulously inventive stuff, as we've come to expect from Gaiman.
Find more info at Amazon UK

Don't Judge a Girl by her Cover (more info)
and Only the Good Spy Young (more info) by Ally Carter
These are books 3 and 4 in the excellent Gallagher Girls series about a selective independent girls' school which is actually a training ground for spies. I've read the first and we have the second in the house already as my 12 yr old reads these too. In fact, I haven't seen these two for a while. Hmm.

And now we come to my Kindle-fest, which is a glorious mixture. I bought:

The Wombles by Elisabeth Beresford, because it's 99p at the moment and my 7 yr old wanted to try reading on the Kindle and it seemed like (and was!) a good idea.

Florence and Giles by John Harding, because Nicola Morgan recommended it and it sounded like a great read: elements of the gothic and perhaps psychological thriller, and with a highly creative approach to language. It sounds like the first-person narration uses a lot of quite specific idiolect, creating many new words largely by playing with word class . Looking forward to reading this!

The Opposite of Amber by Gillian Philip, because I've loved her Rebel Angels books and have also heard great things about this. It's a quite different style to Firebrand and Bloodstone, but is still YA. It's a contemporary realistic novel which is described as a thriller, but many reviewers are saying that it is much more character-driven than the thriller label makes it seem. It seems to mostly be about the relationship two sisters share.

Tracking the Tempest by Nicole Peeler. This is the second in her Jane True series and the first (Tempest Rising) was a great read. This is smart and funny urban fantasy set in a world with a whole range of supernatural beings. I'll be reviewing both of these together on Thursday, but if you like UF these are well worth checking out.

Undead and Unwed;
Undead and Unemployed;
Undead and Unappreciated by MaryJanice Davidson because I read the fourth in the series from the library years ago and really enjoyed it. I came across them in the Kindle Store and remembered how much I'd laughed, so I bought the first three to be going on with. These are comedy urban fantasy, I suppose, since they take place in an urban setting and are about vampires. There is also (I think - but I'm not at all a connoisseur of the genre) more than a hint of chick lit thrown in there too. These are definitely the girliest books I have enjoyed!

Monday, 29 August 2011

I'm Off On a Writers' Campaign Visit

Today you'll find me over at Michele Helene's lovely blog: A Wanderer in Paris, where she's kicking off a series of interviews with fellow campaigners.

In the spirit of getting to know you, I'm going to shamelessly use the classic ice-breaker of three lesser-known facts about me. Apologies to Kelley, on whose blog I already shared one of these.

  1. I'm scared of snow. More accurately, I fear falling over. Clifftops, ladders and tall buildings are also a problem, but snow and ice are my biggest worry.
  2. I hate feet.
  3. I apologise for everything. I've started correcting myself with "actually, that's not my fault", but it's still my first instinct in many situations. My maiden name was Smith and my mother-in-law used to call me "Sorry Smith" :)
For more sensible stuff about me, work and writing, head over to Michele's blog to read her excellent interview questions. Feel free to share your own three fascinating facts in the comments as well!

Friday, 26 August 2011

Family Friday: Lob by Linda Newbery

A timeless, magical tale of the seasons and the passing of time for this week's Family Friday.

The hardback cover

The paperback cover
Title: Lob
Author: Linda Newbery
Publisher: David Fickling
Published: June 2011
Genre: Children's (7+)

Find it at Amazon UK

I found out about this book through the Awfully Big Blog Adventure Litfest, which featured (among many other fabulous posts) a discussion between Linda Newbery and Julia Jarman, talking about this book and Jarman's book Pillywiggins and the Tree Witch. Both went onto my wishlist at once, and Lob was one of the first books downloaded onto my Kindle.

The Blurb says:
Stand quietly in a park, garden, or the woods one day. Listen! Watch! If you are one of the lucky ones, you will see him. Lob! A green man.

You have to be a special person to see Lob, that’s what Grandpa Will says. Lucy’s parents don’t believe he exists, but Lucy does. And she’s delighted when she finally catches sight of the green man in Grandpa’s garden.

Then something awful happens, and Lucy's life is turned upside-down. Back at home in London, she wonders whether she’ll ever see Lob again. Will he come and find her?

My verdict: a glorious, gentle yet exciting story for young readers. Highly recommended for confident readers of 7+, or as a shared story.
This is a bittersweet story dealing with loss as well as the nature of belief. All of this is wrapped up in the story of Lob, a kind of combination of Green Man and household spirit. There is real magic here, and a story which fosters a genuine love of nature and all that grows, with an emphasis on the natural cycles of the world. Newbery's use of the Green Man is inventive and new, without departing far from existing ideas.

This book is extremely well-written and beautifully illustrated. It had a lovely old-fashioned feel to the voice, which is lyrical and would be great read aloud. The main character of Lucy is well-drawn and interesting: curious, enthusiastic and creative. I'm sure all child readers would find something in her to identify with. The relationship with her Grandpa is another high point and will be familiar to many children who find a special closeness with a grandparent.

Overall, there is much to commend this book: beautiful writing, warmth and depth of feeling, a healthy engagement with nature and its cycles, support for children facing loss. My 7 yr old has a real treat to look forward to!

This is my fifteenth review for the British Books Challenge

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Thrilling Thursday: Reading in the Dark

Creepy ghost stories, misery memoirs, grisly crime novels: what is it about the dark that makes us seek it out in fiction? It's the same with TV and film and on occasion, let's face it, the news (*ahem* riot coverage *ahem*).

Is it like the car crash rubbernecker thing?

Although I would want to reject that, I suspect there is something to it. Perhaps it's a cathartic impulse: experiencing scary/nasty/dark things vicariously allows us to explore what we would do in those circumstances or gives us some kind of psychological benefit.

Following the #YAsaves furore, I read a great post on The Edge blog reporting on a panel discussion about what is appropriate for teen readers.  The title of the post was Reading is Safe. Perhaps that's what it is - a safe place from which to observe scariness. It's possible that reading about it is better than viewing it either in real life (as in the car crash) or on screen, since we have (arguably) some measure of control over the images in our minds, whereas once something is seen, it can't be unseen. Maybe that's why films are rated and books, as yet, aren't, although of course there are those who think they should be.

Personally, I don't read misery memoirs, and don't expect I ever would - I'm pretty sure I wouldn't enjoy the experience. I'm not a horror fan (in books or on-screen), but I do enjoy 'edgy' teen fiction, and I'll happily read fairly violent crime novels, thrillers and fantasy. I think that I enjoy tiptoeing around the edges of the dark like this as simple entertainment from my position of safety, but it may also serve a deeper psychological purpose.

How far into the dark do you venture? And what do you think the attraction is?

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Tuesday Tidings: a Campaign to Help Writer-Bloggers Network

I've just signed up for Rachael Harries' Third Writers' Platform-Building Campaign. It looks like fun, and quite a few bloggers I already follow have also signed up for it.  To find out more about it, this is her sign-up post and you can also check the hashtag #writecampaign on Twitter. Sign-up opened yesterday and is available until August 31st.

Looking at her posts from previous campaigns, it's about helping like-minded writer-bloggers to find each other, and there are also fun challenges. This is her third campaign, and will be the second this year. The earlier one overlapped with the April A-Z challenge and I remember seeing some writers' challenge posts then but not really having an overall view of what was going on.

How many of you are going to join in? I'm looking forward to making some new blogging friends, but I'm sure I'll also get to know some existing ones better through the challenges.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Magical Monday: Bloodstone by Gillian Philip

The excellent sequel to the fabulous Firebrand, published this month by Strident.

Find it at Amazon UK

The Blurb says...
For centuries, Sithe warriors Seth and Conal MacGregor have hunted for the Bloodstone demanded by their Queen. Homesick, and determined to protect their clann, they have also made secret forays across the Veil. One of these illicit crossings has violent consequences that will devastate both their close family, and their entire clann. 

In the Otherworld, Jed Cameron - a feral, full-mortal young thief - becomes entangled with the strange and dangerous Finn MacAngus and her shadowy uncles. When he is dragged into the world of the Sithe, it s nothing he can t handle - until time warps around him, and menacing forces reach out to threaten his infant brother. 

In the collision of two worlds, war and tragedy are inevitable especially when treachery comes from the most shocking of quarters...

My verdict: full-throttle fantasy adventure. Essential reading for teens and above.
I loved Firebrand - it's easily one of my favourites of the books I've read in the last year or so (here's my review) - and I was a little worried that this might not live up to it. What groundless fear! Philip is an amazing writer who doesn't slip a millimetre. The voice, the characterisation, the plot, the pace - all perfect. Not that this is an easy read: Philip believes in making her characters - and her readers - suffer. Bloodstone makes a heart-wrenching and tense read. Like the first Rebel Angels volume, the novel focuses on Sithe characters interacting with our world (the Otherworld, as far as they're concerned). These are not the fluffy pink fairies of our disneyfied culture but nor are they evil faeries seeking solely to harm mortals. Philip's Sithe warriors are the feudal fae of folklore who lack human sensibilities but are perfectly capable of love and loyalty in their own way. Her main characters certainly gain both love and loyalty from her readers.

Seth's first-person narration, which was one of Firebrand's strengths, remains strong and engaging while showing some character development since the beginning of the saga (not too much, though - we love him for his moody teen-style aspects!). Passages of third-person narration also allow us insight into others' perspectives,with a different but equally effective voice. Like most readers of the first instalment, I fell in love with the central characters, and Philips has gleefully toyed with that emotion in this novel, whilst also providing new characters to share our devotion.

It's impossible (for me at least) to talk about plot without giving too much away, but take my word that the story will grip you and not let you put this down (just ask my poor neglected family!). The pace is relentless and sustained, with occasional humour, albeit of the dark variety, to lift the mood. There are two more books in this series to come, and I cannot imagine what they will contain, but no doubt I will once again be thrilled and gutted by turns.

This is my fourteenth British Books Challenge review.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Review: Soul Beach by Kate Harrison

A fascinating start to a new YA trilogy, publishing 1st September by Orion under their new Indigo imprint.

Find it at Amazon UK

Amazon description:
When Alice Forster receives an email from her dead sister she assumes it must be a sick practical joke. Then an invitation arrives to the virtual world of Soul Beach, an idyllic online paradise of sun, sea and sand where Alice can finally talk to her sister again - and discover a new world of friendships, secrets and maybe even love . . . . But why is Soul Beach only inhabited by the young, the beautiful and the dead? Who really murdered Megan Forster? And could Alice be next? The first book in an intriguing and compelling trilogy centred around the mystery of Megan Forster's death.

My verdict: intriguing and inventive. Left me desperate for the next instalment.
I haven't as yet read widely in the YA paranormal genre, but I found the premise of this book highly original. Combining social media, a murder mystery and the paranormal is inspired! 

The characterisation of Alice is strong and she fully had my sympathy. Harrison has drawn her well at a few months after such a shocking loss, and deals effectively with the alienation she experiences from her friends, and her parents' grief-stricken behaviour. Her growing obsession with Soul Beach is also entirely believable, as are her initial reactions to it. I found this a fairly quick read, as it drew me in and I struggled to put it down. As well as Alice's character, her feelings for her sister and the relationship they have through Soul Beach are also convincing and formed part of the book's apppeal.

The intriguing premise of a paradise acting as a kind of limbo (but only for the young and attractive dead) creates enough interest to sustain the reader, with many associated mysteries (why can't other guests see Alice? what are the rules? who decides these things?) but Harrison doesn't rely only on this. Her voice is effective at keeping us reading on its own, and there are other mysteries to ponder also, such as the unsolved murder. Occasional passages in the murderer's voice heighten the mystery and encourage us to ponder who might be guilty.

My one complaint is that there is no overall wrap-up to this book. It's very definitely instalment one of a series. Now that I have finished it and thought about it a bit more, I suppose that the book does present Alice, the main character, with a problem which she does solve to bring about the book's finale. It's just that this particular problem has been a subplot rather than the main narrative thrust. It's hard to talk about clearly without being spoilery, which I don't want to do. But trust me, after my initial reaction (but I want to KNOW...), I can see that there is some resolution which brings about progress from the start of the novel. I suppose I just usually expect each book in a series to conclude more strongly and definitively than this one does. Leaving questions unanswered is fine, but this book does that far more than any others I've read. That said, I would still recommend it as it is a good read - I just wish that the second and third books were available now!

This is my thirteenth British Books Challenge review.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Good Luck to Everyone Collecting AS & A2 results Today!

I hope you all get what you need for your next step, but I know there will be those that don't. If that's you, please do the following:

  • DON'T run off home in a panic without speaking to anyone at your college or school. Or, if you've already done that, take a deep breath and phone them to see when people are there to help you. Most colleges and schools will have people in all day on Thursday and Friday to help you.
  • Take a serious look at Clearing. There are places worth having available.
  • Think seriously and properly about what you want and what you can do. Don't jump on the first opportunity that presents itself.
  • Don't freak out. It feels like the end of the world, but it isn't. Shhh, don't tell anyone but some people are successful in life without going to a top uni; some even without going to uni at all. Take the opportunity to think about what you, personally, really, actually want. 

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

The Three Key Ways School English Lessons Let Writers Down

For Words on Wednesday this week, issues which trouble me as an English teacher who writes.
  1. The assessment of creative writing (e.g. at GCSE) encourages students to use many adjectives and adverbs, which can lead to overwriting.
  2. In Primary School, pupils are encouraged to use as many different speech verbs as possible. The word 'said' is Number One in my daughter's list of banned words from Year 2.
  3. Students' writing is assessed in timed conditions. A typical example is the Key Stage 2 Longer Writing Test: Write a story/instruction leaflet/biography. You have 45 minutes. Ugh!
Note that I am not criticising teachers - we have to teach our students to succeed in the system. Unfortunately, those students who want to be professional writers have to master the style required in the classroom whilst also understanding that it is a specific genre and different to published writing. This applies particularly to the first two issues above while the third one helpfully creates a link between writing and stress.

I feel sorry for those teaching on Writing degrees in the UK - they must be spending ages undoing all this! We are able to do some work at A Level, but there isn't that much writing in those courses. At least where original or productive writing* is assessed at that level, the requirements are more 'real world'. Although the extent to which it is fair to expect an eighteen year old to produce an intelligent, well-argued piece about a linguistics issue in the style of a Guardian feature or an Independent comment column is debatable, following only two years on from "describe the room you are sitting in" with as much sensory description as possible... 

*It's not called 'creative writing' to avoid the excesses that GCSE taught them were creative.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

In My Mailbox 1

This is my first In My Mailbox posting. Having read many other IMM posts, I thought I'd join in too. The meme is run by The Story Siren.

Apologies to Google Reader users for my inadvertent posting of this briefly yesterday as well (I took it down when I realised). I've got the Blogger blues :( 

Here are details of the lovely books entering my house in the last couple of weeks:

The Adventures of the New Cut Gang
The Adventures of the New Cut Gang
Philip Pullman (David Fickling Books), 9-12 - ARC obtained through a Waterstones giveaway

Description from Amazon:

Thunderbolt, Benny, Bridie and Sharky Bob are a mixed bunch of vagabonds and urchins who come together to form the New Cut Gang in two comic tales of stolen silver, skulduggery and desperadoes.
Fake coins are turning up all over Lambeth and the finger of suspicion is pointing at Thunderbolt's dad - could he really be the forger? The crime-busting New Cut Gang come to the rescue!
And when just two clues - a blob of wax and a Swedish match - are discovered at the scene of a break-in, the children find themselves on the trail of an extremely cunning criminal.
Set in late Victorian London, these two action-packed thrillers have now been put together in a single volume - with new illustrations throughout from Horrible Histories illustrator, Martin Brown.
This is being released on the 1st September and looks really good. Look out for a review in the next few weeks.

Magus of Stonewylde
Magus of Stonewylde 
Kit Berry (Gollancz), YA fantasy - sent by the lovely SciFiNow from their blog giveaway

Amazon description:
Sylvie is dying. A victim of crippling allergies, poisoned by the pollution and chemicals of modern life, Sylvie is trapped in a hospital bed while her mother and doctors watch her life slipping away. But one of them offers her a chance. There's an alternative community - Stonewylde - hidden away behind high boundary walls in a corner of Dorset. If their leader, the charismatic Magus, would let Sylvie visit then perhaps the clean air and green lifestyle may restore her vitality. Or at least give her some measure of peace before she dies. It's a chance, and when Sylvie and her mother take it, they find themselves in a haven of tranquillity and beauty. But it's not all idyllic. The Magus sends a moody, secretive Village boy to work in their garden as a punishment. He warns them to stay away from him - he's rebellious and in deep trouble. But Sylvie is curious about Yul and, as their forbidden friendship grows, she sees that all is not quite as it seems at Stonewylde. Why was she told to keep away from Yul - and why are she and her mother so drawn to the Magus? Is the crone on the hill really a powerful wise-woman, or just a crazed old hag bent on destroying the peace with her wild prophecies? And what exactly is the magical secret at the heart of this seemingly perfect community?
The first three Stonewylde books were originally self-published between 2005 and 2007 and have now been snapped up by Gollancz; four are out now, with the fifth and last to come in 2012. I devoured the self-published editions a few years ago, but the gorgeous new covers and the promise of "tighter, grippier" new versions (as stated by Kit Berry on Twitter) made me add the Gollancz versions to my wishlist. I couldn't believe my luck when SciFiNow chose this as my giveaway title for supporting their blog! Again, I'll be reviewing this at some point, together with the rest of the series.

Black Swan Rising
Black Swan Rising
Lee Carroll (Transworld), Urban Fantasy - sent from Transworld as part of their Reading Group promotion (click the logo to the right for more info; signup closes end of August)

Back cover blurb:
Jeweller Garet James isn't the same as everyone else.She just doesn't know it yet.With her fair share of problems – money (lack of), an elderly father, a struggling business – Garet should be just like any other young, feisty, single New Yorker. If only it was that simple...
It begins with the old silver box that had been soldered shut. All Garet has to do is open it. A favour for the frail owner of the antiques shop. Who wouldn’t help?
Only it’s then that things start to change. Garet doesn't notice at first, the shifts barely perceptible. But the city in which she grew up is beginning to reveal a long-hidden side – darker, and altogether more dangerous: parallel world of chaos, smoke and blood.
And now it’s out of the box...and it has no intention of going back in.
This came out in paperback in May. It looks like a smart urban fantasy and I'm looking forward to reading it - I'll review it when I have.

Agatha Parrott and the Floating Head
Agatha Parrot
Kjartan Poskitt (Egmont), 5-8 - purchased

Hiya! This book is about Odd Street School where I go with mad Ivy who always jumps down stairs four at a time WAHOO! And Martha who is big and can sort out boys anytime.
The oddest teacher we've got is Miss Barking who wears goggles and gloves to use a pencil sharpener. This story is about when she tried to execute Martha with a floppy cardboard axe, but instead Martha's head floated off and exploded ha ha brilliant!

This is newly published (1st August) and is a smashing read for 7+. Click here for my review

Dead Man's Cove
Dead Man's Cove
Lauren St John (Orion), 9-12 - purchased

Amazon description:
When orphaned Laura Marlin moves from a children's home to live with her uncle in Cornwall, she longs for a life of excitement just like the characters in her favourite detective novels. A real life adventure is on hand as she is deposited at her uncle's spooky house . . . Why does her uncle, Calvin Redfern, forbid her to go to Dead Man's Cove? What's the truth about Tariq, the silent Indian boy who lives with the flamboyant Mukthars? Who is J? Who has left the message in a bottle for Laura to discover? Mysteries abound and who better to solve them than Laura Marlin, ace detective? Accompanied by her trusty companion, Skye, a three-legged husky, the dog she's always wanted, Laura's adventures begin in this first captivating mystery, winner of the 2011 Blue Peter Book of the Year Award.
This came out last year, and the second in the series - Kidnap in the Caribbean - has been published since. I've been meaning to get my hands on this for a while. It seems like Famous Five for the 21st century, so we'll see how the youngest and I get on with it. 

Tweet Right: The Sensible Person's Guide to Twitter
Tweet Right
Nicola Morgan (Crabbit Publishing), reference - purchased on my Kindle

Amazon description:
Tweet Right is your guide to getting started on Twitter. Nicola Morgan leads you gently but firmly through the whys, the hows and the how nots. Whether you are intrigued or confused, sceptical or raring to start, whether you are a complete beginner or you’ve already taken tentative steps, Tweet Right will guide you from the beginning until you are ready to fly. 
Nicola Morgan is a highly successful author for all ages. She wrote the best-selling Write to be Published and many acclaimed books, including Wasted, Fleshmarket, Blame my Brain, and Mondays are Red. She created the renowned blog Help! I Need a Publisher!, and was responsible for a No 1 worldwide trending topic on Twitter, the compulsive game #lessinterestingbooks. Although many of the examples of good Twitter-use in Tweet Right come from her experience as a writer, her advice is designed for any sensible person wanting to enjoy and benefit from Twitter, personally and professionally.

I got this on the Kindle yesterday and am really pleased with it so far. I've been using Twitter seriously for a few months (like many Tweeps, I signed up, failed to 'get it' and left it alone for a bit before returning and getting properly stuck in), but have still picked up a couple of useful tips here. And I really like Morgan's style (see my review of her Write to be Published here).

Friday, 12 August 2011

Family Friday: Review of Agatha Parrot and the Floating Head by Kjartan Poskitt

For Family Friday this week, a children's book review

Title: Agatha Parrot and the Floating Head
Author: Kjartan Poskitt
Publisher: Egmont
Published: 1 August 2011
Genre: Children's (5-8 yr olds)

Find it at Amazon UK

The Blurb says:
Hiya! This book is about Odd Street School where I go with mad Ivy who always jumps down stairs four at a time WAHOO! And Martha who is big and can sort out boys anytime. 

The oddest teacher we've got is Miss Barking who wears goggles and gloves to use a pencil sharpener. This story is about when she tried to execute Martha with a floppy cardboard axe, but instead Martha's head floated off and exploded ha ha brilliant!

My verdict: hilarious fun for young readers. Strongly recommended for children of 7-9 (or younger as a shared book).
Agatha Parrot is a brilliant character with a bright and witty voice. She narrates her own story (which is why the book is described as 'typed out neatly by Kjartan Poskitt' - Agatha is the author and Poskitt has just recorded her story for her). As a first-person story, Agatha introduces us to her friends before the story properly begins, and she is able to lead the reader through in quite an explicit way, which is good for newly independent readers as well as fitting with her quirky style.

The plot concerns Agatha's class, who are going to be taken on a special trip as a reward for all having full attendance for the half term. Agatha's friend Martha has an incident with a crazy pizza (octopus paste...)  and gets sick. Naturally, Agatha has to pretend that Martha is not sick and is at school, with the help of a balloon, Martha's coat and some newspaper-stuffed trousers. Hilarity ensues as she battles to save the class trip.

This series is bound to be compared with Mr Gum, as they share an illustrator, but I would say that this book is somewhat gentler in its humour than Mr Gum. At the same time, although the main characters are girls, this is not a girly-girl book - Agatha is too feisty for sparkly pink princessy fluffiness, I should think! The plot is crazy and hilarious, but it isn't as far-fetched as Mr Gum, possibly due to its school setting. I felt it was more like Kes Gray's recent Daisy chapter books in tone and style.

Overall, I found this a really entertaining read, which had me laughing out loud in a couple of places. The plot is appropriately simple and linear and although I knew what was likely to happen, the delivery itself was so funny and well-delivered. My seven year old is going to love this! 

This is my twelfth review for the British Books Challenge.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Review: All Teachers Great and Small by Andy Seed

Title: All Teachers Great and Small
Author: Andy Seed
Publisher: Headline
Published: 21 July (hardback), paperback to follow in 2012
Genre: memoir

Find it at Amazon UK

The Blurb says:

Twenty-five years ago, newly qualified teacher Andy Seed moved to a remote village in the Yorkshire Dales with his wife Barbara, anticipating breathtaking views and the gentle simplicity of the countryside.

The picturesque scenery did not disappoint. But life as a primary school teacher was anything but simple. With a classroom full of colourful characters whose capacity for misunderstanding was exceeded only by their enthusiasm and their ability to leave him incredulous, Andy fell in love with teaching and with village life.

ALL TEACHERS GREAT AND SMALL tells the true story of Andy's first year at Cragthwaite Primary School - how he bravely negotiated the vagaries of the local dialect, made disastrous bids to provide a family home, naively and hilariously tried out new-fangled ideas in a school stuck in a 1950s time warp, and ultimately discovered a little part of England he was proud to call home.

Warm, touching and very funny, All Teachers Great and Small transports you to a time that may be gone but has never been forgotten.

My Verdict: an engaging summer read, especially, but not exclusively, for teachers.
Essentially a nostalgic read, this is perfect summer holiday fare. As a teacher, I had tremendous sympathy for Seed's tales of juggling new government edicts with the demands of the actual classroom, and enjoyed his depictions of parents' evenings, school trips and attempts to modernise the curriculum. He perfectly captures the clash between the old and new, in the rural community and in education more broadly, without being excessively sentimental and without a trace of cynicism. This is not at all a book that is specifically or exclusively for teachers, however, and the child characters will engage any reader, I've no doubt. The adult characters that populate Seed's version of the Dales are also rounded, quirky and entertaining characters who enrich the story immensely. As the blurb indicates, this is by no means only about Seed's classroom experiences, or the learning curve of the probationary teaching year, but deals with the whole deal of moving into a new area.

What I particularly appreciated about the book was its structure and organisation. It is exceptionally well-planned. Each chapter is titled by a child's name and includes an episode starring that child. Our knowledge of the children from Seed's first class therefore grows with each chapter, and he is careful only to include children who have already had 'their' chapter. This feat of planning ensures that although the book by necessity has a large cast of characters, we are never confused.

I enjoyed reading this and will look out for further books, as it is mentioned on Seed's website that this is the first in a series.

Review copy kindly provided by Headline.  This my eleventh review for the British Books Challenge.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Riots and Looting in London (and elsewhere)

Never having lived in London, I feel unqualified to comment on its current situation, but at the same time I'm astounded by the simplicity and narrow-mindedness of some of the arguments I've seen in blog comments and on Twitter (including let's shoot them, it's because of single parents, this proves the BNP is right etc etc). I thought a simple round-up of some of the excellent writing I've seen on the subject would be a good idea.

I'm including the Telegraph's piece about the context. It has been widely retweeted, but that's because of its quality. Neither condoning the rioters' actions, nor simply dismissing those individuals, Mary Riddell explores various contributing factors.

Many of the most affecting pieces I've read have been on blogs, often written by Londoners.
Jen Campbell (of the fabulous 'Weird Things People Say in Bookstores') wrote a lovely piece entitled 'I Heart London'.
Stella Duffy has two excellent posts on her blog: from the early hours of this morning, musing on the coverage of the riots and what there is left to celebrate about London/Britain; from this afternoon sharing her experiences out in her local community.
From another bookshop blog (The Big Green Bookshop) - an initial post from Sunday about the devastation in their local area (Wood Green) and a follow up from today, explaining how things are looking in the neighbourhood now.

As well as all these, of course, I've taken comfort (as have many) from the @riotcleanup and #riotwomble campaigns and this wonderful picture of the community cleanup operation and this great image of solidarity and support.

I hope that normal service will be resumed shortly. I was going to post a book review today, but it seemed too frivolous to do so.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Family Friday: we love English Heritage!

We have been members of English Heritage for three years now and absolutely love it. It's been brilliant on UK holidays in particular, as there are so many places you can just visit on a whim. And there are often great events in the summer like jousting, falconry and medieval music - at no extra charge! Finally, quite a lot of their properties allow dogs in the grounds (or in the case of ruins like our local Ashby Castle, all over the site).

This week (on Monday in fact, in recognition of Lammas, the grain harvest), we went to Sibsey Trader Mill in Lincolnshire and had a great time. We were able to see it in full sail and saw some of the inner workings. More was available to view but cowardice got the better of us after two flights of, er, ladder. I didn't even manage to get an inside pic, as we were too busy being scared :(

Recovered from the ladders! 
Anyway, our youngest, who has recently become close to obsessed with the song "John Barleycorn" was thrilled to be able to actually see grain being crushed "between two stones" and was amazed to see that the mill can work with three different grains at a time.

We can also recommend the tea room :) I can personally vouch for warmed fluffy scones with jam and cream!

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Words on Wednesday: Review of Write to be Published by Nicola Morgan

Title: Write to be Published
Author: Nicola Morgan
Publisher: Snowbooks
Published June 2011
Genre: Reference (writing)

Find it at Amazon UK

The Blurb says ...
You want to make a publisher say yes? First, understand why they say no; then apply that knowledge to your book. Nicola Morgan - the Crabbit Old Bat of the renowned blog, Help! I Need a Publisher! - has made publishers say yes around ninety times. Now she offers her expert advice and experience, whipping your work into shape with humour, honesty, grumpiness and chocolate.

My verdict: easily the best overview on writing and the publishing business I've read, with tons of specific advice despite its extremely broad range. Recommended for those interested in publication: this and The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook could well be all you need.
Like many beginning writers, I've read a fair selection of 'how-to' books on writing and publishing: books on plotting, characterisation, setting, pitching to agents, specific markets (e.g. writing for children) etc. What I find most impressive about this book is that it gave me more specific advice on some aspects of writing than whole books devoted to that area have done in the past. This book really is gold dust. It considers both non-fiction and fiction writing, both of which Morgan has experience in. The fiction section has invaluable advice on plotting, characters and the elusive 'voice' which is more practical and usable than much I've seen elsewhere, and includes excellent nitty-gritty comments on genres and age categories which again really hit the mark although these are by necessity short sections in this comprehensive book.

I follow Nicola Morgan's blog and also follow her on Twitter and would strongly recommend you do the same, if you're a writer. This book grew from the blog, which has a large following and regularly dispenses no-nonsense advice and the occasional crabbitly rant about publishing and the world of books. Although her reputation is built on her 'crabbitness', this seems to me to take the form of a lack of patience with people who say stupid things, are unwilling to learn and quick to blame others (e.g. the type who bleat about agents' narrow-mindedness in rejecting their unsaleable book). I personally enjoy her writing persona. She's like a well-meaning (but not necessarily tactful) aunt with masses of knowledge and expertise who doesn't mind sharing that with you as long as you realise you'll have to do the work yourself.

But back to the book. It is very well-organised, breaking down Morgan's simple theory that publication is a matter of submitting the right book which is written in the right way to the right person at the right time. The book is then divided into 'before the writing', 'the right book', 'written in the right way' and 'submitting in the right way', along with a detailed 'further resources' section. Each of these sections have many clearly labelled subsections, making it a very easy book to navigate. I read it cover to cover a few weeks ago, and have since returned to several sections as I was working. I would say that the book's strongest point is its practicality. Could I say anything better of a reference book?

I am aware that some people baulk at the 'functional' or market-centred nature of her advice, but I don't think that's fair. Her focus is on helping people get published, not write as therapy (which is a valuable activity, but a quite different one from seeking publication). And, influential as she is, she is not (I believe) single-handedly responsible for the state of the publishing market. Publishers seek to sell books. We should probably not see that as an inherently evil endeavour.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Tuesday Tidings: I need discipline and fear

According to Oliver Letwin, I do, anyway. That's the problem with us public sector workers these days - we've grown too comfortable and complacent. Probably the students are already too comfortable and satisfied as well; perhaps the cane would help? Or maybe they should bring it in for the staff? My college has a rather lovely quad - public floggings, perhaps?

Interestingly, in this same week I came across this article from Channel 4 News about the suicide rate among teachers (it's almost doubled in recent years, with teachers now 30-40% more likely to commit suicide than others). The article draws a fairly clear connection between teacher suicide and the Ofsted regime:
Teachers often cite the pressure they experience in the run-up to Ofsted inspections - the usually triennial assessment of schools and individual teachers, with grading from inadequate to outstanding. The inspections make them feel like they can "make or break their reputations, and by extension the school, so it is extremely high stakes", Mr Illingworth added.
"It's to do with teachers not trusting Ofsted, which has proved to be a very erratic inspection agency: a school can be outstanding one year and failing the next: so teachers feel there is no consistency among inspectors. They're therefore extremely nervous as they don't know what to expect, how to prepare."
In the past few years teachers have been held more accountable for students' achievements than ever before. Students making little to no effort; students with long-term personal or health problems; students working doggedly in very difficult circumstances. All assessed the same way - what the last school got out of them + x National Curriculum 'Levels' = their expected achievement. Unfortunately, people are neither machines nor products and it just doesn't work like that. Thankfully for us, some students will blossom in sixth form and 'outperform' based on the standards expected of them. Others will achieve exactly as expected and some will not. A Levels are still demanding academically, whatever you will read in the papers in a couple of weeks on results day. Hard-working students can do very well in GCSEs, but hard work alone will not get you to an A or A* grade at A Level  (gratifyingly, nor will natural ability alone - both are needed for the top slots). Students' results depend on considerably more than just the ability, commitment and talent of their teachers (just as they should).

I don't know where Oliver Letwin obtained his knowledge of the recent workings of schools, colleges, prisons, hospitals and other publically-funded institutions, but I think he'd find it difficult to do much to increase the culture of discipline and fear.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Magical Monday: The Corn King

Today, 1st August is Lammas or Lughnasadh - the ancient festival of the first harvest (corn and grain). Stories and rites of this time therefore centre around sacrifice, death, rebirth and abundance. In old stories, this is the time when the Corn King (or John Barleycorn) is cut down in order to feed the people. Although there is sadness in the death of the king, everyone understands that this stage is necessary. Harvesting the corn allows more to be planted and allows the ground to regain its fertility. If the corn were left to die on the stalk, there could be no future crop either.

Corn dollies (as seen in the picture above) are related to Lammas celebrations and seem to have different meanings in different communities. To some, they celebrate the corn (symbolic of the whole harvest) and remind us of the abundance around us. To others, they are used in ritualised slayings of the Corn King or God (who sacrifices himself willingly for us). For others still, they are a kind of offering, a way of setting aside the last bit of the harvest rather than consuming it. Safeguarding the corn dolly through the year is sometimes seen as a way of protecting next year's yield, showing gratitude for the harvest and thereby proving we deserve another one. Yet another belief is that the corn dolly houses the spirit of the corn over the winter. For those following this final system, the dolly would be buried when the new crop was planted, sometimes quite elaborately, or driven into the newly-ploughed ground in the spring. Either way, this ensured that the corn spirit was never lost.

For the original version of the picture above, along with others and instructions on making one design, visit this site.
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