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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 December 2011

Family Friday: Peace and Love

As we near the midpoint of the traditional twelve days, a period of 'time out of time', I hope you're all enjoying the holidays in whatever fashion works for you.

Here are some of the aspects of Christmas/Yule holiday tradition that I particularly enjoy:

  • all the light/fire references, reminding us that it all stems from a celebration of the return of the sun as the balance shifts from dark to light again
  • the greenery decking the halls, a lovely piece of sympathetic magic encouraging the non-evergreen life to remember that life goes on
  • the rich, warming, spicy food and drink (as I write this, I can smell a ham boiling away merrily in apple and orange juices with cinnamon, cloves and allspice) to nourish ourselves for the coming winter
  • the sense of self renewal which has become the tradition of New Year Resolutions, possibly stemming from a natural inward-turning impulse in these longer and darker nights
This is my last post for 2011, so: whatever holidays you celebrate, I hope you're making great memories and that 2012 will be a great and positive year for you.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Thrilling Thursday: Review of The Bomber by Liza Marklund

Author: Liza Marklund
Title: The Bomber
Genre: Thriller
Series: Annika Bengtzon (1st written but 4th in series chronology)
Publisher: Transworld
Published: 24 Nov 2011
Source: review copy kindly provided by Transworld as part of their Book Group

Find it at Amazon UK

The blurb says:
Crime reporter Annika Bengtzon is woken by a phonecall in the early hours of a wintry December morning. An explosion has ripped apart the Olympic Stadium. And a victim has been blown to pieces.

As Annika delves into the details of the bombing and the background of the victim, there is a second explosion.

When her police source reveals they are hot on the heels of the bomber, Annika is guaranteed an exclusive with her name on it. But it soon becomes clear that she has uncovered too much, as she finds herself the target of a deranged serial killer...

My verdict: tense Nordic thriller offering lots of insight into Bengtzon's world as a female journalist. Strongly recommended to those who enjoy police procedurals and fancy something a little different.
This was a great read for the festive period, as it takes place during the week leading up to Christmas and reveals Annika's struggles to get Christmas 'right' as a working Mum, as well as the pressures she faces at work and the very real danger she courts as leader of the crime section of the newspaper. There is plenty of atmospheric detail in this novel and Marklund makes it very easy to lose yourself in the world she captures on the page. Marklund was a journalist herself and it is plain that details such as procedures, legal concerns and office behaviour all come from an experienced voice.

There is also a great deal of domestic and personal detail in the story, which I found mostly constructive in establishing character, but I have seen reviews criticising the inclusion of (for example) each cup of coffee drunk. I found it overall an immersive experience and, for me, it helped in ratcheting up the tension, although this is on the whole a drawn-out rather than top-speed pacey kind of thriller.

The narrative is third person past, mostly from Annika's perspective, but there are occasional sections from others' points of view. There are also some short journal-type sections dotted throughout the novel which seem to be some kind of justification of the bomber's motivation and values, offering a very different view of the world.

Annika is a complex character, who seems to be struggling with balancing her demanding career with her family ties. I feel that this aspect of her is particularly well-drawn from a feminist viewpoint without implying that she should have to choose between work and family. She is shown suffering from sexism at work, and worrying about her ability to be a good wife and mother, but she is a realistic creation and does behave as an individual under stress. Again, I know there have been some reviewers who have struggled to accept her as a likeable narrator, but my personal opinion is that her environment is presented clearly enough for us to see her as a product of it. In other words, she may be sometimes moody, but I would suggest she has a right to, under the circumstances.

Overall, I would recommend this as a crime thriller from a slightly different angle, using a reporter as the main character rather than a police detective or private investigator.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Tuesday Tidings: British Books Challenge Wrap-up

I signed up for the British Books Challenge last December and was keen to get going in January. The challenge was simply to read and review at least 12 British books. This was my first blogging challenge and gave me an excuse a reason to start doing reviews on this blog, which I have greatly enjoyed, so my thanks go to the Bookette for that!

I have mostly reviewed children's and YA books, and my 22 UK titles this year are:

An Act of Love by Alan Gibbons
Birdman by Mo Hayder
Bloodstone by Gillian Philip
Dark Angels by Katherine Langrish
The Double Shadow by Sally Gardner
Firebrand by Gillian Philip
Flood and Fang by Marcus Sedgwick
The Iron Witch by Karen Mahoney
Kaspar - Prince of Cats by Michael Morpurgo
Lob by Linda Newbery
The Long Weekend by Savita Kalhan
Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick
Paper Wings by Linda Sargent
Soul Beach by Kate Harrison
West of the Moon by Katherine Langrish
When I Was Joe by Keren David
Witch Hill by Marcus Sedgwick
Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver

I'm definitely signing up for next year's challenge, which is now being hosted by Kirsty at The Overflowing Library, and I'm now inspired to look out for other interesting challenges for 2012. Do you take part in reading/reviewing challenges? Would you like to recommend any? 

Friday, 23 December 2011

Family Friday: Review of Flood and Fang by Marcus Sedgwick

A great mystery for kids, with delightful gothic touches.

Author: Marcus Sedgwick
Title: Flood and Fang
Genre: Kids
Series: Raven Mysteries (Book 1 of 6)
Publisher: Orion
Published: 2009
Source: purchased (on Kindle)

Find it at Amazon UK

The Blurb says:
Meet the wonderfully weird Otherhand family and their faithful guardian, Edgar the raven, and discover the dark secrets of Castle Otherhand. Edgar is alarmed when he sees a nasty looking black tail slinking under the castle walls. But his warnings to the inhabitants of the castle go unheeded: Lord Valevine Otherhand is too busy trying to invent the unthinkable and discover the unknowable; his wife, Minty, is too absorbed in her latest obsession - baking; and ten-year-old Cudweed is running riot with his infernal pet monkey. Only Solstice, the black-haired, poetry-writing Otherhand daughter, seems to pay any attention. As the lower storeys of the castle begin mysteriously to flood, and kitchen maids continue to go missing, the family come ever closer to the owner of the black tail...

My verdict:  Hilarious with gentle gothic elements for children. A good choice for sharing/reading aloud or for more confident readers.
There is much to praise in this book, but I think I've finally settled on its key strength being the narration. Having the family raven (called Edgar, of course) tell the story is a fabulous feature of this very entertaining book. There are aspects which I think the younger end of its target audience (8-9 year olds) might miss, but at the same time, I think there's plenty here to keep them reading while also being sharp enough for 12 year olds to enjoy. Despite the many gothic elements, the book is not scary for younger readers: this is zany-gothic rather than creepy-gothic.

The pace is lively, with short chapters and quirky illustrations, making it suitable for newly-independent readers, while the content (particularly the unreliable narrator, in that Edgar doesn't always understand everything immediately) offers enough to engage older and more experienced readers (myself included!).

The characters are wonderful. Edgar, of course, is closest to us and we learn a little of his history and that of the house. His absolute belief in his superiority is endearing (and befitting a raven), as is his loyalty. The family are, of course, hilariously crazy, and the castle itself (in fine Gothic tradition) is effectively a character too. Using an animal to narrate, and spreading the focus around the whole family means that this is easily a gender-neutral choice and will appeal to both boys and girls.

I would absolutely recommend this for anyone of 7 or over, and will be reading further instalments in the series.

This is my twenty-second British book reviewed this year. Are you signing up for next year's British Books Challenge?

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Thrilling Thursday: Review of Tempest's Legacy by Nicole Peeler

The third fabulous Jane True novel. I am loving this series!

Title: Tempest's Legacy
Author: Nicole Peeler
Publisher: Orbit
Published: 2011
Series: Jane True (Book 3 of 6; my review of 1 & 2)
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Source: purchased (on Kindle)

Find it at Amazon UK

The Blurb says:
After a peaceful hiatus at home in Rockabill, Jane True thinks that her worst problem is that she still throws like a girl - at least while throwing fireballs. Her peace of mind ends, however, when Anyan arrives one night with terrible news... news that will rock Jane's world to its very core. After demanding to help investigate a series of gruesome attacks on females - supernatural, halfling and human - Jane quickly finds herself forced to confront her darkest nightmares as well as her deepest desires. And she's not sure which she finds more frightening.

My verdict: Just as sassy, pacey and sexy as the first two, with oodles of interesting character development. This series is strongly recommended for urban fantasy fans (and curious newbies to the genre!).
I am really enjoying this series. I love the voice, the realism of the characters (yes, even the supernatural ones - their motivations and behaviour 'feel' real, and that's what makes a character!), and the fact that this isn't a static series with the status quo maintained or restored so that the characters are always the same. Jane, in particular (but not exclusively) changes, adapts and develops through the series, adding to the effective characterisation I already mentioned.

The whole fabulous package is delivered in Jane's voice: a voice with its tongue firmly in its cheek, never taking itself too seriously and located firmly in the now, thanks to various pop culture references. I know that some people feel that 'sassy heroine' is a cliche, but I think that's a sign that it's often poorly done, which is not the case here.

The plot is involving and action-packed. Peeler has ramped it up each time and I'm wondering what on earth she can do for the last three books, but I'll find out! The romance aspect is also intriguing and I'm enjoying the development of Jane's love life alongside her personal development - and these two are clearly linked. As a feminist reader, I have little patience with over-dominant males and passive females held up as the ideal, so I appreciate Peeler's work here.

Overall, this is a great continuation to the series, and I'm keen to read the rest. Peeler is definitely an auto-buy writer for me now and I'm looking forward to seeing what else she comes up with.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Still here

Well, term has ended, I've had my refreshing nap and here I am. We've all had the particularly lovely cold bug that's been doing the rounds this year (*cough cough*) and work got a bit frantic there at the end. But that, as they say, is all over now. I have a lovely pile of poetry analysis coursework to tackle, new lessons to prep for next term and more than a couple of things left to do for Christmas to work as it should.

I will be back to posting more regularly now. Look out for some wonderful kids' books to be reviewed, as well as more language-focused posts and some folklore-infused pieces over the next couple of weeks. A certain seasonal influence may even creep in at some point...

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Guest post: Stunt Bunny by Tamsyn Murray

This is a special guest post (of sorts) featuring a book review produced by my 8 year old as homework.  Her class were asked to choose a book to recommend to their classmates, as many of them were saying they did like reading but didn't know which books to read. What a great homework idea!

Here's what she wrote under each of the set headings:

What is the book about?
It's about a bunny called Harriet Houdini who's a stunt bunny. She can do somersaults. There's also a bunnynapper named The Great Mouldini. The Great Mouldini is a magician.

Who would this book be suitable for? Age/interests
The ages are probably about 7 to 11. The interests are about heroes and a little bit of adventure.

Would you/ would you not recommend the book? Why?
I would definitely recommend all of the Stunt Bunny books because it's a great story, it creates tension and they all have a proper ending.

Rating: five stars

And finally, her fabulous drawing:

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Thrilling Thursday: Review of The Double Shadow by Sally Gardner

Sally Gardner's new YA novel is an ethereal literary experience, which I would urge you to treat yourself to.

Title: The Double Shadow
Author: Sally Gardner
Publisher: Indigo from Orion
Published: 3 November 2011 (HB) - coming Aug 2012 in PB
Genre: hmm, tough one. Fantasy maybe (since it's not realism)? Magic realism perhaps? Sci-fi (since it posits a fabulous machine)?  I suppose you'll have to read it to decide :)

Find it at Amazon UK

The blurb says:
Once there was a girl who asked of her reflection, 'If all I have is fragments of memories and none of them fit together, tell me then, do I exist?'

In a bluebell wood stands a picture palace. Arnold Rubens built it to house an invention of his that could change the war torn world forever. It is to be given to Amaryllis, his daughter, on her seventeenth birthday.

But it's a present she doesn't want, and in it is a past she has to come to terms with and a boy whose name she can't remember.

Who knows what her past has been, or what the future might hold for Amaryllis, lost as she is in this place with no time?

My verdict: beautiful, haunting and evocative, this is a real book to lose yourself in. Recommended for teens upwards.
This novel is extraordinary. Lyrical, elusive and utterly compelling, it draws you and hooks you long before you have any real sense of exactly what is happening.

When I first read the info about this book, it made me think of Angela Carter - probably because of the surreal machine plan and the uncanny double idea hinted at in the title. That comparison was borne out in the reading, due to the lyrical beauty of Gardner's writing, the surrealism and the mythic sense of symbolism created. But that isn't to say this is a derivative work, by any means. This is a truly original novel with genuine literary quality. It's great to see something so unashamedly literary produced for teens.

The characters of Amaryllis and those around her are beautifully drawn and the period detail (the novel is set largely between the world wars) is informative, creating a realistic backdrop to the crazy memory machine. As well as the gorgeous and imagery-rich writing, we are drawn in by the characters' feelings and behaviour, which, together with the setting provide a grounded realism to support the extravagant fantasy of the memory machine, sited in the picture palace. This glorious building stands as a symbol of the nostalgia and unreality which haunt the inventor Ruben.

The narration shifts around in time, adding an additional layer of complexity to the plot, and contributing to the theme of the nature of memory. These shifts in time are matched with changes in tense, switching between a dreamy and fairytale-like past and an immediate and more charged present, giving a sense of urgency to these sections. The narration is all third person in an omniscient style, adding a further sense of the past due to the old-fashioned tone of this narrative style.

The novel has dark overtones and touches on some unpleasant themes. As Gardner stated in her guest post here as part of the blog tour for this book, the past contains some unpleasant truths and it would be wrong to pretend otherwise and prettify them in writing. This darkness, as well as the novel's complexity, make this a book suitable for teens and adults rather than children. I would strongly recommend it to anyone of around 14 and up.

Thank you to Indigo at Orion for sending this lovely book for review.  This review is my twenty-first for the British Book Challenge at the Bookette (to be hosted at the Overflowing Library next year).

Thursday, 1 December 2011

One Year On: What I've Learnt Through Blogging

So it's one year ago today that I created this blog and first sent my thoughts out into the ether. I wasn't completely sure what I wanted out of blogging, but I certainly couldn't have predicted or expected everything that I've gained. I've made some great online friends through blogging (and dear Twitter, of course) and have had the opportunity to read a lot of books that I wouldn't have done otherwise.

I've read a lot of blogging advice in the past year or so, much of it specifically aimed at writers (with a view to building a platform). Some of it I've put into practice and discovered it didn't 'fit' for me; some of it I ignored and came around to later (we can all be stubborn, right?); some of it I've followed and found useful. So, in the spirit of paying it forward, here's what my one whole year of experience has taught me so far:

  • UK fiction writers don't need a platform before submitting, but blogging and tweeting etc is a good way to demonstrate willingness to contribute to promotion.
  • The writing and reading community online is incredible.
  • A writer's blog doesn't necessarily need a single unified theme - you can be your blog's theme and cover anything you're interested in. If you think about it, a writer who has no interests outside of writing is extremely hard to imagine: most are interested in particular places, times or cultures, or an area such as myth, physics, environmentalism. 
  • Blogging twice or three times a week seems to suit me best and is what I've settled into over the past few months (with a couple of notable exceptions recently). I think I'd lose sight of it if I were aiming for monthly posts, and I know I couldn't keep up with daily blogging!
So, all in all, I'm really glad I took up the blog and expect to be sticking around. 

What blogging gems have you picked up along the way?
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