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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 September 2011

Family Friday: We love The Wombles!

This review is a real family effort, produced with help from my littlest girl, who turned 8 yesterday.

Title: The Wombles
Author: Elisabeth Beresford
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Published: Nov 2010
Genre: Children's

Find it at Amazon UK

The blurb says:
The Wombles is the first ever Wombles book and introduces the stern but kindly Great Uncle Bulgaria; Orinoco, who is particularly fond of his food and a subsequent forty winks; general handyman extraordinaire Tobermory, who can turn almost anything that the Wombles retrieve from Wimbledon Common into something useful; Madame Cholet, who cooks the most delicious and natural foods to keep the Wombles happy and contented; and last but not least, Bungo, one of the youngest and cheekiest Wombles of all, who has much to learn and is due to venture out on to the Common on his own for the very first time . . .

Our verdict: A great read for 6+, (with an up-to-date eco-message).
I bought this for the Kindle because the youngest wanted to read on the Kindle and most of my books weren't suitable for her. She's adopted an Orinoco toy salvaged from my parents' house, so I thought she might like to read about him. I was right! Having enjoyed the book together, I thought it would be a good idea to let her review this one for her, with a few prompts:

The Wombles was written quite a long time ago now. Do you think it's still interesting to read today?
Yes, because it's not too complicated and it doesn't mention old words much.

The book isn't really one big story, but several episodes over a period a time. What do you like about the stories?
The book is mainly about Bungo growing up, but there are different stories that happen. There are very funny bits and very exciting parts. Some of the funny bits are when the Wombles don't understand human stuff properly, like they call things funny names or don't really know what things are for. The descriptions are very good and I found it easy to imagine the situation and the place. The illustrations also help.

Who do you think would enjoy The Wombles?
Children who like fantasy and adventure stories about made-up creatures. It isn't really written for one specific gender; I think boys and girls will like it.

Do you have a favourite Womble?
I like them all quite a lot but I do like Great Uncle Bulgaria best because he is responsible and sensible. 

So, there you have it. She greatly enjoyed The Wombles and is after the next in the series now, The Wandering Wombles. I also found that Bloomsbury have a Wombles website and much fun was had with the activity pack!

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Words on Wednesday: NaNoWriMo

Well, I've done it - signed up for this year's NaNoWriMo. You can find me as BethKemp (unsurprisingly!). I'm still not certain whether this is the best or worst idea I've had this year, but we'll see.

For those who don't know (where HAVE you been?), NaNoWriMo = National Novel Writing Month and the aim is to produce 50k words in 30 days. It should more properly be International Novel Writing Month now, since it is a worldwide venture, but that wouldn't be so easy to pronounce. Since it is essentially a quantity over quality exercise (arguably, like all first drafts), it's important to not get bogged down in minutiae and to just keep throwing words down on the page.

I've never done it before, but I did follow Hestia's and Ania's NaNo adventures with interest last year. I'm hoping it will help me to stop pushing my writing to the back of my life, something that's happened a fair bit lately. Although most of that has been due to new term - er 'stuff' at work, it's still a habit I don't want to embed.

I'm currently working on a major rewrite of a story for 5-8s and that will be finished in October, so the NaNo project will give that some drawer time. I also have an end of October deadline for a non-fic project, so the timing's working nicely for me.

I'll be returning to a YA story that I outlined, decided was dull and shelved for the 5-8 piece before coming up with a twist that freshens it nicely (I think!). Beyond jotting the twist as a 'what if' at the top of my outline, I haven't touched it since early summer. I reckon I'll have time to double check and tweak the outline and do the most important research before NaNo starts. Details can come later (see, I have already embraced the NaNo spirit!).

Are there any other NaNo-ers out there?

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

In My Mailbox 3

In My Mailbox is a weekly meme (but you can do them less often, as I am) which is run by The Story Siren. I've let this one accumulate over a month, as my summer book buying frenzy has slowed down.

My exciting win this month is Catwalk Queen (Million Dollar Mates) by Cathy Hopkins, which I won from the fabulous Girls Heart Books blog.  My resident very-nearly-thirteen-year-old (eek!) was the proud recipient. If you like books for girls from about age 8, this blog is fantastic, with contributions from loads of authors.

I also received two great books for review this month:
Linda Sargent sent me her lovely novel Paper Wings, which I found to be a brilliant nostalgic read (even though I can't be nostalgic for the post-war period since I wasn't there, but I'm sure you know what I mean!). My review for this one went up last week. 
Also for review, this time through the wonderful Transworld Book Group, I have John Boyne's Crippen, which I'm currently reading and finding dangerously absorbing on the train.  Watch out for the review soon, but so far so great.

And finally, just two purchases this month:
Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus is attracting all kinds of attention in the blogosphere at the moment and it is just a gorgeous book to behold.  For more images, visit this post on My Favourite Books but take care - it's this post that made me pre-order it. Don't say I didn't warn you!
My final choice for this month is Nicole Peeler's Tempest's Legacy, which I had pre-ordered for my Kindle and had the pleasure of seeing simply appear on release day.  Having loved the previous two Jane True books, I had to have this one.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Magical Monday: The Everyday Magic of Autumn

The leaves around here are looking gorgeous. Driving down the main road closest to my house, the foliage on either side is phenomenal just now: rich reds, russety browns, golden yellows as well as the last vestiges of green.

Now we're firmly in the dark half of the year (the equinox was last week) it's all longer and longer nights until the tipping point of the Winter Solstice. For some, this is a reason to lament, and of course in less developed times, it was a genuine reason to fear, but for us in our heated homes with water literally on tap, that old primal fear is just residual and we can (mostly) enjoy the changing seasons for their beauty. I really like Autumn for its crunchy leaves and crisp mornings. I'm not a fan of hot weather, or of snow and ice, so Spring and Autumn are my favourite times of year.

That is until the first 'leaves on the track' announcement which makes me late for home or traps me at the station when I want to get home... :) Is that a UK-only thing? International readers - please let me know if that's a familiar thing to you too!

Do you have a favourite season?

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Thrilling Thursday: Review of Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick

A spellbinding tale of love and death. What could be more thrilling?

Title: Midwinterblood
Author: Marcus Sedgwick
Publisher: Indigo
Publishing: 6th October

Find it at Amazon UK

The blurb says:
Have you ever had the feeling that you've lived another life? Been somewhere that has felt totally familiar, even though you've never been there before, or felt that you know someone well, even though you are meeting them for the first time? It happens.

In 2073 on the remote and secretive island of Blessed, where rumour has it that no one ages and no children are born, a visiting journalist, Eric Seven, and a young local woman known as Merle are ritually slain. Their deaths echo a moment ten centuries before, when, in the dark of the moon, a king was slain, tragically torn from his queen. Their souls search to be reunited, and as mother and son, artist and child, forbidden lovers, victims of a vampire they come close to finding what they've lost. In a novel comprising seven parts, each influenced by a moon - the flower moon, the harvest moon, the hunter's moon, the blood moon - this is the story of Eric and Merle whose souls have been searching for each other since their untimely parting. 

Beautifully imagined, intricately and cleverly structured, this is a heart-wrenching and breathtaking love story with the hallmark Sedgwick gothic touches of atmosphere, blood-spilling and sacrifice.

My verdict: beautiful, haunting and unlike anything else I've read. Highly recommended for those who enjoy a well-crafted story. Don't let the teens keep it to themselves!
This book gripped me instantly. I read it over three days of a very busy working week, which says a lot on its own. I'm not going to leave it there though *grin*. The novel has superb writing and makes intelligent use of folklore/myth, so it was always going to be a winner for me. I still managed to be surprised by just how fantastic it was though. I read recently somewhere that Marcus Sedgwick spends a long time planning (I think I read months), and this book is testament to that degree of careful thought.

The novel as a whole is like an orchestral suite, with different movements all sharing a key theme and a set of motifs which flow through the whole, adding cohesion and providing (I'm sure) satisfying recognition on re-reading. As always, Sedgwick's prose is relatively sparse yet beautifully lyrical. He doesn't waste words, nor does he need to use complex vocabulary to weave a clever story.

A particularly effective aspect of the opening story was the Wicker Man-style creepy vibe. This helps build the sense of inevitability which propels us through all the stories back to the beginning of it all. The trailer conveys this dark and spooky tone brilliantly.

Overall, I enjoyed this book immensely and it's a real contender for the best book I've read this year. I think it's worth saying that, for all the 'doomed lovers' stuff implied in the blurb, it's not a 'romance' title. Also, as an Indigo publication, it's being targeted at the Young Adult market, but I think there's life in it as a literary chiller for adults too.

My grateful thanks go to Orion for providing me with a proof copy of this wonderful book for review.
This is my nineteenth review for the British Books Challenge. 

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Words on Wednesday: Review of Paper Wings by Linda Sargent

A beautifully written tale of childhood innocence for this week's Words on Wednesday.

Title: Paper Wings
Author: Linda Sargent
Publisher: Omnes
Published: Feb 2010

Find it at Amazon UK

The blurb says:
A Kentish woodland; hot, endless days of summer; a strange and touching friendship...

Ruby and Peter think of the woods as their own: a place for adventure, for plans and projects, for secrets. But when Ruby is hurt in an accident, they find that a stranger is hiding there: Gabriel, a man haunted by wartime guilt and by the loss of ideals. Soon an alliance is formed - but others are watching, and the children unwittingly provoke long-held resentments, bringing themselves and Gabriel into danger.

Atmospheric and beautifully-realised, Paper Wings is a grown-up story about childhood, bringing innocence and experience into dramatic conflict.

My verdict: A novel which is quietly crafted with plenty of intrigue.
A lot of the power in this gentle book lies in the unsaid, the merely-hinted-at, and that (for me) is what makes this an adult read. It's not inappropriate for children in any way, but it is likely to go over their heads. This largely results from the child's-eye-view adopted for the bulk of the novel.

The narration is in the third person, but hugs a specific character's viewpoint at any one time. The shifts in narrative perspective are clear and flagged by scene titles such as 'in the woods' to avoid confusion. This allows Sargent to 'zoom in close' and really immerse us in the characters' experience, which sometimes allows us to read the situation differently from the child characters, or at least to understand a little more about some events and actions.

The story itself is gentle and nostalgic (another reason the book is more likely to appeal to adults), with lots of detail to transport us to its environment. The language is not by any means impenetrably old-fashioned or contrived, but it does avoid contemporary usage and contributes to the overall sense of a story which is very rooted in its time and place. The hops growers based setting was not familiar to me, so I enjoyed the vividness of Sargent's descriptions and the use of different senses to take me there. There is inherent mystery to the plot, with the shadowy and haunted figure of Gabriel hiding in the woods, and there are unexpected twists and turns.

Overall, I found this a charming read which, while exciting, has a gentleness which befits its post-war countryside setting. I've chosen to post this as a 'words on Wednesday' piece as I feel the book is representative of a high degree of craft, especially in terms of narration and understatement. Readers like to have some work to do to get inside a story, and this book is a great example of avoiding the impulse to over-explain.

Thanks go to the author for kindly providing a copy for review. As Linda Sargent is a British author, this is my seventeenth review for the British Books Challenge hosted by the lovely Bookette.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Tuesday Tidings: Why we'll stick to toys from now on

These days are gone ...
We had a bit of a scary time on Sunday (but all's well now) when our lovely little Jessie hurt her throat playing with a stick. She had run to fetch it and made the most hideous high-pitched noise. We ran to her, thinking she'd fallen and hurt her leg or something, and it took us a while to figure out what was wrong. It seems the stick had gone down her throat and bruised the back of it, making it difficult and painful to swallow. There was no blood, so we were confident she hadn't cut herself, and we could see the stick on the ground, so we were able to check it was all there and not splintered in her mouth.

She was clearly a poorly girl, slinking home and then not moving around once we were home. Her gorgeous beard was all slimy with drool and we couldn't get her to drink, so we had to call the vet and see if we could take her in (I should mention again that this was Sunday). They felt they should see her, and gave her an antibiotic just in case of splinters and potential infection, and a painkiller/anti-inflammatory, with instructions to bring her back the next morning. If she wasn't better then, they'd anaesthetise her and explore her throat for cuts and/or splinters. Luckily, she was much improved on Monday morning and was her happy usual self by last night.

Don't worry, she can still play!
Whilst seeing what we should do for her, I naturally googled for advice on dogs hurt by playing with sticks and found some very scary stories. We have had a lucky escape and a fairly light warning. Jessie seemed very unwell and unhappy indeed, but it must just have been bruising for her to recover so quickly. We won't let her play with sticks again, and will make sure we always have a toy with us. She did pick up a stick within 100 yards of entering the park today, but thankfully she's pretty obedient and knows "leave" and "drop". Jessie has lived with us for just over a year now and she's about two years old (we got her from the Dogs Trust). We ought to have many more years with her yet.

Please, if your dog likes sticks too, I would urge you to think about alternatives. We would never have thought something like this could happen, but it's absolutely not worth it when there are other ways of playing the same game. The vet was all-too accustomed to dealing with 'stick damage', as they called it.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

It's Award Season, apparently

This blog's been given not one but two awards this week:

the Liebster ('beloved') Award 

and the Versatile Blogger Award.

The Liebster Award, intended to show bloggy love to blogs with fewer than 200 followers, has come from the lovely Claire Hennessy who is a very funny British writer living in California. Her blog is well worth checking out for writerly fun. I particularly enjoyed her entry for the recent 200-word writing challenge.

The Versatile Blogger Award was sent my way from the Lifebeyond blog, which belongs to M C Rogerson and features lots of lovely booky stuff. It was here I first saw the trailer for Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, which jumped onto my wishlist immediately!

Liebster Award - the rules:
1. Show your appreciation to the blogger who gave you the award by linking back to them.
2. Reveal your five picks and let them know by leaving a comment on their blog.
3. Post the award on your blog.
4. Bask in the camaraderie of the most supportive peo­ple on the internet.
5. And best of all have bloggity fun and spread the love.

The Versatile Blogger Award - the rules:
1.) Thank the person who gave you the award and link back to them in your post.
2.) Share 7 things about yourself.
3.) Pass this Award along to 15 recently discovered blogs and let them know about it.

My Seven Things:
  1. I am allergic to dogs but we still have one. I had realised that I can become immune to animals I live with, so we planned to get her at the start of the summer holidays last year to allow me to (hopefully) be ok by the time I had to return to work.
  2. I hate it when people ask who my favourite writer is. How am I supposed to choose?
  3. I very rarely wear makeup, and am not into shoes or handbags. I was a tomboy as a kid, too. :)
  4. I used to sing in folky pubs as a teenager.
  5. I am fascinated by symbols and archetypes and have a small collection of tarot decks.
  6. I can't drive and have never had a lesson. I don't believe it's something I could do and don't understand why the world assumes everyone drives.
  7. I also can't ride a pushbike.

My selected blogs:
I have chosen four excellent blogs to recommend. With lots of networking going on due to the campaign, some people whom I would have wanted to include had already received one or both of these awards. I also think that a few recommendations are perhaps more helpful and likely to get followed up than a great long list.

I think I've managed to whittle down my list only to those who haven't. So, if I've made a mistake or you don't want to be included, please accept my apologies!

A Wanderer in Paris is Michele Helene's lovely blog, discussing her writing life and sharing memories in photographic form. I've been following Michele's blog almost as long as I've been blogging, and she always has something interesting to say.

Ramblings of a Rusty Writer is Rebecca Emin's writerly blog, on which she is currently celebrating the publication of her debut novel. I came across her blog through Rachael Harries' Writers' Campaign, and we are both in group 1: picture books, early readers, MG and YA. Expect to see a review of her novel on this blog in the next couple of months.

Helen Writes belongs to Helen Anderson. She is one of the bloggers I've met through the Writers' Platform-Building Challenge, so I've only been following her for about a month, but I'm really glad I found her blog with its well-thought out and always interesting posts about writing.

Stacy S Jensen's blog is focused on writing, sharing her personal experiences twice a week. I particularly enjoy her "Thankful Thursdays" feature, where she shares a helpful writing resource. Hers is another blog I've been fortunate enough to discover through the Writers' Campaign. 

Friday, 16 September 2011

Family Friday: top tips for walking with kids

We've taken our kids walking for several years now. The youngest was probably three when we started regularly walking as a family (she'll be eight in a fortnight). We're not enormous distance hikers - five miles is a long walk to us, and we probably more regularly do around three.

One of these has been helpful but you absolutely can enjoy family walks without one! (She's only been with us for a year, and is out first family dog.)

So, here are my top things that encourage kids to enjoy the great outdoors:

  1. Checklists of things to spot. This has easily been the most helpful single thing to get the kids involved. We have a book of family walks which helpfully includes checklists tailored to each route, but we also make out own for other walks. It's important for the list to be a mixture of easily-spottable things (depends on the route and sometimes the time of year, of course, but cows, acorns, swans are good standbys for us), specific features of particular walks (a windmill, a standing stone) and sometimes number-based challenges (how many herons can you see etc). 
  2. Snacks - ideally hidden ready to be produced at a 'flagging' moment. As well as the obvious boiled sweets, dried fruit is good. Water is, of course, essential.
  3. Stiles, brooks and livestock (ideally separated from you by a fence!). I could never have predicted the amount that stiles increase the fun of a walk by :) and paddling in or crossing a brook is also a joy. Spotting livestock is popular as well, but some kids are made nervous by walking through a cow or sheep field.
Do you have any to add?

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Thrilling Thursday: Gimme Shelter...

... is what everyone should be saying today, as Harlan Coben's fabulous new YA series starts with Shelter. I read this in the summer and loved it (here's my review).

Have a look at the trailer!

If you like witty crime novels with quirky non-stock characters, Shelter is a great read.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Magical Monday: Black Swan Rising by Lee Carroll

An excellent Urban Fantasy novel with thriller aspects, this is my first Transworld Book Group review.

Title: Black Swan Rising
Author: Lee Carroll (husband and wife team Carol Goodman and Lee Slonimsky)
Published: 2010
Publisher: Transworld (Imprint: Bantam)
Genre: Urban Fantasy

Find it at Amazon UK

The blurb says:
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, single New Yorker. If only it was that simple...

It began with the old silver box that had been soldered shut. All Garet had to do was open it. A favour for the frail owner of the antiques shop. Who wouldn’t help?

Only then things start to change. Garet doesn't notice at first, the shifts are barely perceptible. But the city is beginning to reveal a darker, long-hidden side. Figures, shadows, flit in and out of her vision. She finds herself drawn to the mysterious Will Hughes. He’s a stranger and yet Garet feels she has known him for an eternity?

And whatever escaped the box has no intention of going back in...

My verdict: beautiful writing and an exciting plot. I can't wait to read the rest in the trilogy. Highly recommended.
This book is superbly written. Garet's voice as narrator is involving and draws you to her effectively. Descriptions are deftly handled and it is very easy to submerge yourself into the world the authors have created. There is plenty of real-world grounding before the more paranormal aspects come into play and this ensures we have a good sense of Garet's character before the more surreal things begin to happen to her. The conflicts in this novel come from the real world as well as the supernatural - it is not so simple as the clash between the two causing all the excitement - which lends the book more depth than is sometimes expected of the genre.   

This is a thrilling adventure with a big supernatural quest plot spiced with a little romance. I really enjoyed Garet's tale of awakening and discovering her abilities and place in the universe, and I was also thrilled to see a range of supernatural/paranormal characters throughout the story, many of whom were familiar from mythology and literature. I also appreciated the shades of grey in this novel: trust is a major theme and this adds realism to a highly fantastic story.

The novel resolves its initial conflicts, whilst leaving us keen to see where the story will go next, and the final chapter makes clear that there is more to come and sets up the second book, to some extent. I am glad that Watchtower, the second in the series, is available immediately (although that won't help me once I'm waiting for the next one!).

Overall, this is a great choice if you like the paranormal and enjoy urban fantasy, particularly if you also enjoy the crime or thriller genre. It offers more depth than the 'paranormal romance' or 'dark fantasy' genre, as it is essentially a quest or good-versus-evil type story (although it isn't always clear exactly where those lines are drawn which adds more interest and complexity).

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Thrilling Thursday: Post Number One Hundred!

OK, so it's probably only thrilling to me but hey, if I don't mark it, no-one will, right?

I have now been blogging for 9 months and this is the one hundredth post I've published. These are my blogging highlights:
  • I've made lots of new online friends, many of them writers or book bloggers. The online book community rocks and I'm so happy to have my small place in it.
  • I got to go to Orion's Indigo book blogger event, which was awesome!
  • I've written 21 book review posts.
  • I completed the A-Z Challenge, have reviewed the required 12 books for the British Books Challenge (don't think I'll make the magic 50, but I'll keep tagging them and see where I get to), and am participating in the #writecampaign too (see my last post for my entry on the first challenge).
  • I've been interviewed on Michele's blog A Wanderer in Paris. Most exciting to visit another blog!
  • Most importantly, it's given me a focus for regular writing that complements my other writing. I love the range of stuff that's possible on here. It really does reflect my diverse interests at this point, which is great.

Here's to hundreds more posts! 

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Words on Wednesday: First Campaign Challenge and Tag!

Rachael has posted her first Writers' Campaign Challenge and this is it: a 200-word (or less) flash fiction beginning with "The door swung open". For a further challenge, you can write precisely 200 and end with "The door swung shut".

In for a penny, in for a pound! I've gone for the full set of challenges. Here is my first flash fiction piece:

Into the Otherworld
The door swung open and stayed open. Yes, she’d done it! One eye open, then the other. Yep, still there. The doorway that she’d seen a thousand times in her mind was shimmering in the air in front of her.
“Thanks be to thee, who hast shown me the way. I beg thy continued assistance as I journey into the Otherworld.”  She could hardly get the words out, but spirit guides can be dead funny if you don’t follow protocol.
She snuffed out the candles and stepped into the light. She didn’t know where to look first; everything was so bright. She rolled the air around her tongue – could it really have an actual taste? Sweet and rich at the same time. She closed her eyes to rest them for a moment. Probably mere human senses would get a bit overwhelmed here.
“You’ll adjust soon.”
She stared at the guide’s new appearance as he smiled at her. She hadn’t seen his teeth before. Well, apparently, she hadn’t seen him before.
“We don’t appear as ourselves in your world,” he explained. “You only see what you want to.”
She saw him clearly now. She turned back as the door swung shut.
Head over to Rachael's blog to read more of these and vote for your favourite!

I've been tagged by Maria on her blog, First Draft Cafe, and now I must share ten random facts about myself. Funnily enough, it's the start of term tomorrow and I've planning all those getting-to-know-you things like two truths and a lie, human bingo etc, so this feels very appropriate just now. 

  1. I teach English but my degree is in Modern Languages.
  2. I wear DMs to work (my excuse is that I have to walk to the bus stop and then to the station and then to college and my feet hurt if I wear actual shoes, but really I love my DMs).
  3. I used to play the flute and was in the county wind band and youth orchestra as a teenager.
  4. My eldest daughter will be 13 next month and I can't quite believe it :)
  5. I love cheese and chocolate (but not usually together).
  6. I'm a feminist and hate the negative reaction the label gets.
  7. The first teaching job I had was when I was only 18. I taught an evening class in conversational French in my year out between sixth form and uni. I was the youngest there!
  8. My first ever job was in a butcher's shop, washing up and cleaning the walk-in fridge walls. I still eat meat.
  9. I'm a list addict. I don't think I could function without Remember the Milk.
  10. I'm named after Beth in Little Women - Mum loved the name from reading that book as a kid.
Finally, I need to share the tagging. I think I've picked people who haven't already done this, but if not, don't worry, no-one expects you to do it twice! Here are some lovely people I've met through blogging:
You're it Kelley @ http://writtled.blogspot.com/ 

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Review: Adventures of the New Cut Gang by Philip Pullman

Good old-fashioned high-jinks to cheer us up at the start of the school year!

Title: The Adventures of the New Cut Gang
Author: Philip Pullman
Published: 1 Sept 2011
Publisher: David Fickling Books
Genre: Children's (8-12)

Find it at Amazon UK

Note that these stories were previously published separately as Thunderbolt's Waxwork and The Gas-Fitters' Ball

The Blurb says:
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.

My verdict: Brilliant fun for kids aged 8+ (and parents!)
These are classic kids' stories: fast-paced, funny and exciting. The Victorian setting allows Pullman's gang to roam around, getting into scrapes and generally being much more independent than is possible for contemporary kids. And of course, that's at least half the fun - kids will love imagining they could have such adventures. Parents will also find these reminiscent of beloved stories from their own childhood. Although they are entirely suitable for a confident reader to read alone, they're a lot of fun shared too. The youngest readers may need help with the occasional piece of specific vocabulary (such as tanner or snide), although most is perfectly clear in context.

The characterisation is sharp, with great dialogue and a supporting cast of hapless grown-ups in need of help from the enterprising children. The child characters are endearing and funny at the same time - each has their quirks, and all contribute to the madcap schemes and general excitement. I also appreciated that there are boys and girls in the gang and this is definitely a book which will have cross-gender appeal.

Pacing is effective, with plenty of action to keep you turning the pages, and chapter ends that are suitable for bedtime reading (i.e. not too much of a cliffhanger to go to bed on!). The overall tone is warm and cosy: although the kids may not be perfect little angels, they are good-hearted and have a strong sense of right and wrong.

There is a cartoonish quality to these stories, due to the crazy improbability of the children's plans, and no doubt the illustrations will enhance this aspect (I was reading an unillustrated proof). Words like 'madcap' and 'hare-brained' keep trying to add themselves to this review, with good reason.

Overall, this is a great fun read. I definitely recommend it for boys and girls aged around 8 and up.
This is the sixteenth review I have completed for the British Books Challenge.
Although I received this book from Waterstones as a review copy, these remain my honest opinions :)

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Thrilling Thursday: Tempest Rising and Tracking the Tempest by Nicole Peeler

Title: Tempest Rising  
Author: Nicole Peeler
Publisher: Orbit
Published: Aug 2010 (Kindle version)
Genre: Urban fantasy

Find it at Amazon UK

The Blurb says...
Living in small town Rockabill, Maine, Jane True always knew she didn't quite fit in with so-called normal society. During her nightly, clandestine swim in the freezing winter ocean, a grisly find leads Jane to startling revelations about her heritage: she is only half-human. Now, Jane must enter a world filled with supernatural creatures that are terrifying, beautiful and deadly - all of which perfectly describe her new 'friend' Ryu, a gorgeous and powerful vampire. It is a world where nothing can be taken for granted: a dog can heal with a lick; spirits bag your groceries; and whatever you do, never - ever - rub the genie's lamp.

My verdict: Sexy and well-executed combination of urban fantasy and detective novel.
This was such an enjoyable read. I loved Jane’s sassy voice and the fact that the novel is chock-full of fascinating characters. That doesn’t just mean the many and varied supernatural characters, by the way, fascinating though they are. The actual human people that the novel is peopled with are also great characters. I particularly enjoyed the porn-actress/bookshop-owner who gives gifts related to her career (let’s just be clear: she doesn’t give books).

Despite the risk of being all fangirly, I have to say that I was strongly encouraged to read this by following Nicole Peeler on Twitter. She has such a comedic persona on there and on her blog, and this is a real strength in the book. Although there is danger and all the excitement that brings, there were more than a couple of laugh-out-loud moments too. I also enjoyed the pop culture references, although I’ve seen other reviews criticise them. I realise they may well ‘date’ the text, but I also think they site it really firmly in a particular cultural context, which I don’t think is automatically bad. I’d say Peeler knows her audience well and draws them in with the in-the-know nods.

The range of supernatural characters included is also something that I particularly enjoyed while I know that some others didn’t. For me it makes perfect sense. If there are vampires in the world, why wouldn’t there also be elves and selkies and so on? It also allows you the fun of trying to second guess what race/species characters are or might be, particularly since Peeler has set up her world so that what we think we know about these creatures of folklore is not necessarily correct.

Overall, this was a blast! I’ll absolutely be reading the whole series. I can’t wait to see how Jane’s life pans out with her new knowledge of the supernatural realm, and to see her relationships within it develop.

Title: Tracking the Tempest
Author: Nicole Peeler
Publisher: Orbit
Published: Aug 2010 (Kindle version)
Genre: Urban fantasy

Find it at Amazon UK

The blurb says...
Tracking the Tempest begins four months - and one eyebrow sacrificed to magical training - after the close of Tempest Rising. During that time, Jane True has been busy honing her supernatural powers and enjoying her newfound sense of confidence. Rockabill may not yet be heaven, but she's realized it's home. Valentine's Day is fast approaching, however, and Ryu - Jane's bloodsucker boyfriend - can't let a major holiday go by without getting all gratuitous. This time his shenanigans involve a last-minute ticket to Boston and a hefty dose of direct interference in her life. But Ryu's best laid plans inevitably create more upheaval than even he can anticipate, and Jane winds up embroiled in an investigation involving a spree of gruesome killings committed by a being of tremendous power . . . . . . who, much to Jane's surprise, happens to be another halfling.

My verdict: Fabulous action-packed sequel. 
I was really looking forward to this one after the first and I wasn't disappointed. We're plunged straight into a training session with Nell the gnome, as Jane works on understanding and controlling her powers, and this is Peeler starting as she means to go on: no filler, no excess of recap, all story. The majority of the plot is, essentially, a crime thriller but don't worry - there are also developments in the romance plotline.

Again, the humour and characterisation are brilliant and what (for me) really stand out. Supernatural elements notwithstanding, all of Peeler's characters are convincing. Many of those familiar from Tempest Rising develop during the course of this novel, and we also get the pleasure of making new friends - and enemies of course. I was particularly pleased to see more of Anyan the barghest, and I'm sure there's more of him to come. This is not one of those series that feels formulaic and lacks character progression.

Overall, I've really enjoyed these masterful novels and would recommend them to anyone who enjoys urban fantasy and supernatural mysteries. The third will be appearing on my Kindle today, I believe - woohoo!
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