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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, 25 November 2011

Family Friday: Advent Plans

Sorry, we've no pics of our stockings
I really enjoy the lead up to Christmas. We've evolved a great family tradition that really helps to get everyone geared up for the season, using a refillable advent calendar. Ours is a pretty little series of hessian stockings with numbers printed on them, but we first did this using a stack of matchboxes which I'd covered in wrapping paper, assembled in a vaguely attractive pile, and painted numbers onto.

I have quite a lot of fun planning the filling of the stockings, and it's a great way of building up excitement. Some days I'll put chocolate or sweets in, some days it's vouchers and others little toys or (now they're older) little girly stuff like nail stickers or lip balm. If something doesn't fit, I hide it somewhere and put a clue to what it is and its location into the stocking.

The vouchers are everyone's favourite though, and I print these myself. Mostly, these are family things and mark some kind of focused time that we don't always remember to build into our busy lives. Some of the things I'll include on vouchers this year include:

  • trip into town on the bus to see the Christmas lights (and get a hot chocolate in a nice coffee place)
  • baking session(s)
  • crafts - making decorations or gift boxes to share the baking around
  • family movie night (sometimes this is cinema vouchers, sometimes a new DVD)
  • family games night (again, this might be accompanied by a new board game, or Wii game, or a set of pen and paper game ideas)
  • trip to the zoo (when they were younger, we took them to the local city farm to see the 'reingoats'!)
As you can see, many of these are quite old fashioned and somewhat simple ideas, but they always go down really well. I think the girls like the mixture of family stuff, weird little toys (Hawkins and Yellow Moon are brilliant for these), cutesy girly gifts and sweet stuff. It's definitely a tradition I'm glad we started and we all get a lot out of it.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

In My Mailbox 6

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).  It's been about a month since my last one. A month in which I have:
  • received two books I'm looking forward to reviewing
  • won a bundle books on Twitter
First up, my review reads are as follows:

New Beginnings was sent to me for review by the lovely Rebecca Emin, who I met online via her blog during the Writers' Platform Challenge. She saw that I like to review children's books and sent me a charming email inviting me to review her debut novel for older children on the theme of bullying. The book is due to be published in late January. I'm looking forward to reading it and probably sharing it with one of my girls.

My other review read for this month's post came from the Transworld Book Group and is Liza Marklund's The Bomber. Publishing next week on the 24th November, this seems like an exciting winter read: a thriller with a smart female lead, set in December. Look out for my review in the next couple of months.

And finally, my exciting win this month comes from the generous team at Scholastic. I won via a Twitter promotion for National Non-Fiction Day and the prize was an amazing set of non-fiction books.  Just look at this:

The parcel contained the following titles:
Horrible History Annual 2012
Horrible Science Annual 2012
Both kids (aged 8 and 13) have been flicking through these and muttering 'cool!' and giggling. Job done, I think!
How to Draw Horrible Science
The 8 yr old dived straight into this and has been practising drawing people and all sorts of creatures. She's particularly impressed with this one, and we're all impressed with her results. Maybe when we review these, she'll let me scan in a picture.
How to Change the World with a Ball of String
This is a quirky volume, showing how coincidences and mistakes have made history. Again, both kids have dipped in and declared their findings 'cool'.
The Murderous Maths of Everything
This was less attractive to the girls to begin with (both are a little maths-shy), but the younger one recognised the author name, since Kjartan Poskitt also wrote Agatha Parrott (which we enjoyed in the summer).

Big thanks to Rebecca Emin, Transworld and Scholastic for enhancing our household with these lovely titles!

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Tuesday Tidings: So, How's NaNo Going?

This is a phrase that fills me with dread at the moment. Dread and shame. I have been struggling away, adding shamefully few words every day to arrive at my current word count (7578 at the time of writing but see the widget on the right for an updated figure). I have been writing mostly on the bus and train on my daily commute (on my BlackBerry), with a few additional sessions at home at my desk. It has been going well while I'm writing: I'm happy with my idea and feel like it's going somewhere. The problem is, I am failing to give it enough time. There are excuses I could make, some of them are even legitimate, but I'm finding it way too difficult to put in the necessary time to get up to the word count. It probably didn't help that the first two days of November were both extended work days.

That said, the bottom line is clearly positive: I've written words that I wouldn't have done and I've established a new routine of writing on my commute. That will, of course, reduce my reading time but you can't do everything, can you? And there's still time. I will keep going and see how far I get, but the 50k is not looking very likely at this point (although today I did add more new words than the daily target to get me there on time, but I don't think that's repeatable on a daily basis). I do feel, though, that NaNo may have achieved for me what I needed it too.

I'm still going to grit my teeth when people ask me how it's going, though...

Thursday, 10 November 2011

All I Want for Christmas Is No Surprises

"I want a Barbie car for Christmas." My husband and I exchanged looks as our then five-year-old told a family friend this was her dearest wish for Christmas. It was December 23 and this was the first we'd heard of a bloomin' Barbie car. Imagine our delight. Thankfully the extremely generous family friend went shopping and picked up a cute little purple Beetle for her (and she was still pleased with all her gifts), but still... 

So if we look a little shifty leading up to Christmas these days, you know we're just wondering whether the kids still want what they said they did. Did we leave it long enough? If we'd waited, would they have changed their minds? What if we can't get X in time? Argh! So yes, my dearest Christmas wish is for a complete absence of surprises of that nature.

This post is part of a blog party launching the lovely Cally Taylor's new book, Home for Christmas out today. Since her own gorgeous little bundle arrived just over a month ago, she's going for the reduced-stress, stay-at-home launch. She managed to find time to co-write a cute trailer for it though! (see below)

The blurb says:
Beth Prince has always loved fairytales and now, aged twenty-four, she feels like she's finally on the verge of her own happily ever after. She lives by the seaside, works in the Picturebox - a charming but rundown independent cinema - and has a boyfriend who's so debonair and charming she can't believe her luck! There's just one problem - none of her boyfriends have ever told her they love her and it doesn't look like Aiden's going to say it any time soon. Desperate to hear 'I love you' for the first time Beth takes matters into her own hands - and instantly wishes she hadn't. Just when it seems like her luck can't get any worse, bad news arrives in the devilishly handsome shape of Matt Jones. Matt is the regional director of a multiplex cinema and he's determined to get his hands on the Picturebox by Christmas. Can Beth keep her job, her man and her home or is her romantic-comedy life about to turn into a disaster movie?

Monday, 7 November 2011

Review: Spider Bones by Kathy Reichs

Spider Bones is Temperence Brennan's thirteenth outing. Do take note that the hardback edition had a different title (Mortal Remains) - several people on Amazon and Goodreads are unhappy about accidentally buying the same book twice.

Title: Spider Bones
Author: Kathy Reichs
Publisher: Arrow
Published: July 2011
Genre: Crime (forensic)

Find it at Amazon UK

The blurb says:
Dr Temperance Brennan spends her life working amongst the decomposed, the mutilated and the skeletal. So the two-days-dead body she is called to examine holds little to surprise her. Until she discovers that the man is John Lowery, an ex-soldier who was apparently killed in Vietnam in 1968. So who is buried in Lowery's grave?

The case takes Tempe to the heart of the American military, where she must examine the remains of anyone who may have had a connection to the drowned man. It's a harrowing task, but it pays off when she finds Lowery's dog tags amongst the bones of a long-dead soldier.

As Tempe unravels the tangled threads of the soldiers' lives and deaths, she realises there are some who would rather the past stayed dead and buried. And when she proves difficult to frighten, they turn their attention to the one person she would give her life to protect.

My verdict: Full-on, typical Brennan fare. Recommended for Reichs fans.
I always enjoy a good Kathy Reichs novel - lots of procedural and scientific fact, plenty of detail that I half regret reading momentarily, a good dose of uncertainty about Brennan's private life, and all delivered with a healthy dollop of dry humour. This novel doesn't disappoint at all. I've seen other reviews which complain about some of these aspects, but it's not like Reichs has suddenly started writing a different kind of book. To those who don't like scientific and forensic detail in their crime novels, I would point out that there are many crime writers out there to choose from and perhaps reading books by those who are forensic professionals might not be the best idea.

The plot centres around the appearance of a body which suggests that another body was misidentified forty years ago. Naturally, this requires investigation and, also naturally, this is not the end of the matter. On top of this, Brennan is pulled into another case while working on this one, leading to plenty of complexity, red herrings and many character names (several of them already dead!) to remember and keep straight. I did feel a bit like making notes at one point about who was who, but Reichs includes enough reminders to help her readers out, and this never actually became necessary.

I read this in two days, as it just kept pulling me back in. If you've enjoyed other Tempe Brennan novels, I'm sure you'd like Spider Bones as well.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Double Shadows Blog Tour: Can You Police the Past?

Today, Thoughts from the Hearthfire is visited by the lovely Sally Gardner. She's here as part of her Double Shadows blog tour to promote the marvellous and myseterious-sounding The Double Shadow, released today. The hardcover looks gorgeous (with a lovely matte dust jacket - I'm such a book-stroker...) and I'm looking forward to reading this (it's somehow jumped to the top of my TBR pile *whistles innocently*).

Anyway, over to Sally and her take on the idea of Political Correctness in writing historical fiction for children.

The past is a foreign country, and we did do things differently there. There is a tendency to whitewash it in fiction – especially for younger readers. This robs them of the knowledge of the journey we’ve made and the lessons we’ve learned. You can’t pat-a-cake the past pretty, you have to be true.

The Double Shadow is set between the wars and in the 1930s they smoked a lot, anti-Semitism was prevalent in Britain as well as Europe, there was the use of drugs and alcohol, the facts of life were not taught and young girls were often in trouble. Things were swept under the carpet and not talked about, but in the writing of them you bring them out from under the carpet.

Then, if you upset a man’s moral machinery by being dressed in a sparkling skirt you would expect little sympathy for what happened to you. The two world wars can’t be made to look all right, they were a huge black cloud over Europe and they changed the fabric of our society. Not to talk about it is a terrible mistake.

Humans on the whole are very slow learners as history has proved. The wheel always goes back a little before it goes forward. Writers have a duty to be true to what history has given them, even when writing fiction and especially when writing for a young audience. There is an issue with patronising today’s youth. The dumbing down of history should not be condoned.

Thank you so much to Sally for sharing such interesting thoughts with us today. I agree completely: part of the excitement of reading is discovering different viewpoints and we can't do that if we re-colour and re-touch attitudes from past times (or from different places and cultures).

Don't forget to visit the other stops on the tour!

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Words on Wednesday: Teaching Political Correctness

One of the topics we have to cover in the A2 year of English Language is Political Correctness, as part of the broader topic of how and why language changes. It amazes me, the extent to which seventeen year olds seem to have been raised on the Daily Mail diet. It's always a far harder task than you'd think to get a class to accept that maybe - just maybe - there have been some good things that have come out of the PC movement.

But then there's the perennially popular topic of swearing, which can be beautifully aligned with PC to open up the idea a little bit. Swearing reveals something about taboos and a simple survey, asking people to rate words according to their acceptability, can be most effective in reminding students of the need for PC language. Once they've made the connection, students are never really surprised that their grandparents/elderly neighbours etc find a different category of words to be taboo compared to their own sensibilities. Racial epithets are usually rated worst by teens, while older people are likely to find sexual swearwords more offensive. And there it is, right there. We need alternatives to 'those' words because they have become unacceptable - and most seventeen year olds can agree with that and have horror stories about grandparents embarrassing them with inappropriate racial descriptors.

The big task is getting students to separate the clear and apparent need for new terms represented by topics such as race and disability (many teens are shocked that 'The Spastics Society' ever existed, for example) from the myths perpetuated by the tabloids on a slow news day. Of course, the problem is that so many well-meaning institutions have embraced some of these myths in their desperation not to offend. If one more student tells me I can't say 'brainstorm' (I can, actually) I might just spit.

exciting news for tomorrow's blog

Sally Gardner will be here tomorrow, celebrating the publication of her new book The Double Shadow. She will be continuing the PC theme, from her perspective as a historical novelist. 

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Tuesday Tidings: It's NaNoWriMo Day 1!

By the time you're reading this, I should have started writing my NaNo novel. I know, cool eh? I'm ready and raring to go - and a little bit nervous, since we're being honest.

In preparation I have:

  • done a little writing (on separate non-fiction work) on my BlackBerry on the bus and train, so I know I can claw back that time for writing
  • dug out, refreshed and reworked my notes for a YA novel I hadn't got round to working on yet
  • made notes on characters, setting, theme and structure (there is an outline, but it no longer works since I changed some key aspects of the premise, but I think it'll be ok)
If you're doing nano as well, and you want to be buddies, I'm over there as BethKemp (for I am nothing if not imaginative...)
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