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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, 31 October 2011

Magical Monday: Samhain Celebrations

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

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

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

Friday, 28 October 2011

Family Friday: Picture Book Nostalgia

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Review: Death Sentence by Mikkkel Birkegaard

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

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

Find it at Amazon UK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

In My Mailbox 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Review: The Long Weekend by Savita Kalhan

A Thriller for Thursday - and a fab read.

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

Find it at Amazon UK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Words on Wednesday: Fry's Planet Word

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

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

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

Monday, 17 October 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 14 October 2011

Family Friday: Review of Dark Angels by Katherine Langrish

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

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

Find it at Amazon UK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 13 October 2011

More awards!

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

In My Mailbox 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Words on Wednesday: a Bit of a Grumble

I hate corporatespeak. I know I'm not alone in this, and it's at least part of the reason I'm not a businesswoman but a public sector worker. However, it's been creeping into the world of education for a while now. Rather than share the Big Rant (especially since I'm pretty sure many of you feel the same...), here are my top three current annoyances (all heard this academic year):

  1. Calendarise. "We'll get that calendarised for next term." It's not even easy to say. Ideally that would mean that it won't last long but given its regular use in emails rather than speech, it's hard to be hopeful...
  2. Agenda (as a verb). "Let's agenda that for next time." Whilst easier to say than calendarise, it's still clumsy and ugly and oh yes, I wasn't going to rant, was I...
  3. Evidence (again, converted to verb). "How do you evidence learning in a snapshot of a lesson?"* Ugh. What, may I ask, is wrong with "provide evidence of". Sorry, yeah, imminent rant engaged again. 
Am I just a grumpy old so-and-so or do you agree?

* If anyone knows, leave me a comment with the answer. Or alternatively, email me and we'll get a book out of it.

PS to any Language students who've wandered over here: I apologise for the prescriptivist nature of this grumble, especially when I tell you all to avoid sounding judgemental about new or non-standard uses of language. But, as we've discussed, we all have our little prescriptivist bugbears. This is (one of) mine. 

Monday, 3 October 2011

Review: Crippen by John Boyne

A brilliantly-organised thriller, dragging the reader towards the inevitable. A fabulous reading experience.

Title: Crippen
Author: John Boyne
Publisher: Transworld
Published: 2004
Genre: Crime/Thriller

Find it at Amazon UK

The blurb says:
July 1910: The grisly remains of Cora Crippen, music hall singer and wife of Dr Hawley Crippen, are discovered in the cellar of 39 Hilldrop Crescent, Camden. But the Doctor and his mistress, Ethel Le Neve, have vanished, much to the frustration of Scotland Yard and the outrage of a horrified London.

Across the Channel in Antwerp, the SS Montrose sets sail on its two week voyage to Canada. Amongst its passengers are the overbearing Antonia Drake and her daughter Victoria, who is hell-bent on romance, the enigmatic Mathieu Zela and the modest Martha Hayes. Also on board are the unassuming Mr John Robinson and his seventeen-year-old son Edmund. But all is not as it seems...

My verdict: fascinating and informative, while also creating something new out of the known. Highly recommended for crime readers.
I'm not a 'true crime' reader, but I do enjoy a good whodunnit or a strong crime thriller and this was right up my street. Although I knew some of the pertinent facts in this case, the strength of Boyne's writing still pulled me in and made me need to know what was coming next.

The novel's narrative is divided, with chapters alternating between the 'now' of 1910, after the murder has been discovered, and Hawley Crippen's life leading up to this point. As the book goes on, the two of course get ever closer, leading us to the inevitable climax of the story. This re-organisation of events is what underpins the highly successful reinterpretation of the Crippen case. Both narrative threads are told using a third person voice which is authoritative without ever being dry.

Period detail is crisp and clear and it is easy to plunge yourself into Crippen's world, and even to feel some sympathy for him, even as you know you're reading a murderer's backstory. Yet this sympathy isn't overdone and the story is neither sentimentalised nor sensationalised. Secondary characters, especially the passengers on the Montrose, whom we meet first, are beautifully drawn and contribute colour and movement to the story.

Overall, as a fictionalisation of true events, it is a gripping story. Boyne adds his own twists and details to turn the bare facts into a well-rounded novel. The organisation of the plot is ingenious and really adds to the reader's enjoyment in the book, really adding to the sense of a movement towards an inevitable conclusion. Although the ultimate conclusion will be known to most readers ahead of time, the journey Boyne takes us on to get there is more than worth it.

Big thanks go to Transworld for providing this book for review as part of their Transworld Book Group initiative.
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