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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 December 2012

An Early New Year's Resolution

I came over here today to do my December monthly round up, but I've decided not to do them any more. They're time-consuming and don't really add anything. So I'll just stick to the three times a week routine here, and updating my teacherly website regularly too. I've set up a Facebook page this month that I'm using to feed English- and Language- related stories and to show when I've updated the website (along with occasional blog links too), so if you were reading the website update stuff, just click on the Facebook feed link on the right and 'like' the page to get the updates in your timeline.

Thank you for reading and Happy New Year!
Here's to a fab 2013.

Friday, 28 December 2012

UK YA Book Bloggers Secret Santa: Thank You!

This year, I signed up to take part in the first UKYA-specific book blogger secret santa and it was so much fun!

The lovely Lynsey at Narratively Speaking organised the whole affair. We were all asked some questions by email to indicate our tastes and current bookish desires, and then each of us was allocated someone to purchase our gifts for. I had a lot of fun choosing mine: stalking the blogger's goodreads lists to make sure I didn't choose anything they already had etc. I received my beautifully wrapped gifts in the post in plenty of time for Christmas - in fact, they were the first under my tree!

Like a good girl (yes, certain other bloggers, I am looking at you!) I waited until Christmas Day to open my lovely gifts and the anticipation did not lead to disappointment, I can tell you! My lovely Secret Santa sent me two books I'd specifically wished for, plus three others to discover, AND some lovely cookie candy canes.

  • Entangled by Cat Clarke (I've wanted to read her for ages; I'm looking forward to a tautly-written UKYA thriller)
  • The Apothecary's Daughter by Charlotte Betts (this caught my attention on a blog sometime last year; it seems like the kind of historical I enjoy)
  • Defiance by C J Redwine (this sounds like a YA fantasy with feminist overtones, so I'm pleased this was selected for me)
  • My Life Next Door by Huntley Fitzpatrick (I'd never heard of this, so am curious to read this contemporary family/romance story which several of my Goodreads friends rate)
  • Shooting Stars by Allison Rushby (this sounds like an interesting contemporary with comments to make about fame and celebrity)

I'm taking this opportunity to publicly thank my lovely Secret Santa, and the lovely Lynsey for organising it all. I hope everyone who took part had as much fun as I did, and I look forward to enjoying my books over the next few months.

Friday, 21 December 2012

2012 Round-Up and Review (Part Two): The Books

Instead of doing a Top Ten, I've decided to organise my Books of the Year by category (which also allowed me to cover more books *cackle* - this has ended up as a Top Twenty). All links will take you to my original reviews.

Best YA Romance: Emma Hearts LA by Keris Stainton
YA Romance Honourable Mention: Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley

Best YA Dystopia: Breathe by Sarah Crossan

Best YA High Fantasy: Throne of Glass by Sarah J Maas
YA High Fantasy Honourable Mention: The Gathering Dark by Leigh Bardugo

Best YA Urban Fantasy: Poltergeeks by Sean Cummings

Best YA Crime: Street Duty by Chris Ould
YA Crime Honourable Mention: Envy by Gregg Olsen

Best YA Thriller: Heart-Shaped Bruise by Tanya Byrne
YA Thriller Honourable Mentions: The Storyteller by Antonia Michaelis and Mortal Chaos by Matt Dickinson

Best YA Chiller: Hollow Pike by James Dawson
YA Chiller Honourable Mention: Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake

Best YA Historical: VIII by H M Castor

Best YA Contemporary: Fifteen Days Without a Head by Dave Cousins

Best Children's Fantasy: The Sleeping Army by Francesca Simon
Children's Fantasy Honourable Mention: Lance of Truth by Katherine Roberts

Best Children's Historical: Road to London by Barbara Mitchelhill

Best Children's Adventure/Mystery: The Case of the Good-Looking Corpse by Caroline Lawrence

Best Adult Read: Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

Clearly, I'm loathe to choose between all the fabulous books I've read in the past year! I've also selected my UKYA top five over at the UKYA blog.

I'll be posting less often over the holiday period. My next post will be on Friday 28th, then I'll post a December round-up on the 31st, another post on Friday 4th Jan and will then return to normal from Monday 7th Jan. Have a lovely Christmas and thank you for supporting my little blog x

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

2012 Round-Up and Review (Part One)

This has been quite a year. I'm going to offer some of my highs and lows for the year in two posts. This is the non-bookish post - come back on Friday for my Books of the Year.

Communal highs and lows

These are some of the shared experiences that have shaped the year for me:
The London Olympics - who could forget the amazing spectacle laid before us this summer?
(and did you see Carol Ann Duffy's marvellous Olympics poem?)
The GCSE fiasco - the moment that crystallised just how far Gove's department is willing to go in 'proving' the need for systemic change in our curriculum and exams.

My personal year

This, as I said above, has been quite a year. My work pattern has changed considerably in the last twelve months, and I am no longer on the path I was following this time last year.

I started the year as a Faculty Leader in a Sixth Form College, managing a large curriculum area (English, MFL and Law) and struggling to fit writing in around the ever-extending days. I'm finishing the year working on a more flexible basis, combining supply teaching with writing much more successfully. On the one hand, it can be scary to not have a guaranteed (as far as such things ever are) income, but on the other hand, I'm greatly enjoying the opportunities I'm getting in supply to work with different age groups and the choice to work part time or to take a break between teaching placements to focus on writing for a bit. I've been able to take on more writing work than I could previously, to overhaul my website and to set up a facebook feed which points to changes on my site and collects other interesting stuff for English students (and their teachers).

What would your highs and lows of 2012 be? And don't forget to come back on Friday for the Hearthfire 2012 Book Awards!

Monday, 17 December 2012

Review: Heart-Shaped Bruise by Tanya Byrne

Powerful and lyrical writing questioning crime, mental illness, revenge and identity

It's taken me a while to get around to reading this book: more fool me.

Heart-Shaped Bruise purports to be the contents of a notebook found in an abandoned mental institution for young women. It's lyrical and grittily engaging, dramatic and thrilling without a shred of indulgent self pity. If you're interested in psychological thrillers or crime novels, I'd strongly recommend you grab a copy of this.

Written in the first person, with awareness of an imaginary audience (a future inmate, who would therefore understand), the novel confides, explores and discusses what has happened, how the narrator came to be where she is, without revealing her actual crime immediately. Since the crime made the headlines, Emily assumes that we, the audience, already have assumptions about her. This conceit works brilliantly as a mechanism for withholding information and creating suspense without it seeming artificial. I love that she tells us at the start that we can be like a stranger on the bus - that unknown person you tell all your secrets to, while hiding them from people who actually care.

As a recollection narrative, the plot jumps between the 'now' of Emily's incarceration and her therapy, and the past of events leading up to her crime. Everything about this novel ensures that you are gripped, desperate to know exactly what Emily did and how it all fits together.

The novel is complex and elegant, exploring themes of mental illness, the nature of notoriety and crime, identity and guilt. I'm recommending it for teens of 14+, and for adults. Definitely one to watch!

From the Book Description:

A compelling, brutal and heart-breaking story about identity, infamy and revenge, from debut author Tanya Byrne. Shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger 2012

They say I'm evil.
The police. The newspapers. The girls from school who sigh on the six o'clock news and say they always knew there was something not quite right about me.
And everyone believes it. Including you.
But you don't know. You don't know who I used to be. Who I could have been.
Sometimes I wonder if I'll ever shake off my mistakes or if I'll just carry them around with me forever like a bunch of red balloons

Awaiting trial at Archway Young Offenders Institution, Emily Koll is going to tell her side of the story for the first time.

Heart-Shaped Bruise is a compulsive and moving novel about infamy, identity and how far a person might go to seek revenge.

Published September 2012 by Headline
For more info, visit the publisher's site
My grateful thanks to the publisher for this review copy

Friday, 14 December 2012

Review: Envy by Gregg Olsen

Brilliant YA crime thriller with supernatural overtones

The first book in the promising Empty Coffin series, this introduces the Ryan twins. Teen daughters of a true crime writer, with an intriguing backstory and psychic abilities that they guard as a precious secret, Hayley and Taylor are driven to investigate when a neighbour girl is found dead in her bathtub.

I hadn't read any of Gregg Olsen's writing before (this is his first YA novel, but his background is crime fiction and true crime for adults), but I really enjoyed his style and am keen to keep reading this series and to investigate his adult fare. The book has a cinematic feel to it, with scene changes feeling very much like camera cuts. The novel is related in the third person and in the past tense, allowing Gregg Olsen to shift perspectives with ease and to show us what different characters are feeling, as well as offering some of the town's backstory.

The twins as central characters are engaging and sympathetic. As the novel progresses, we learn more of their fascinating history (with, I'm sure, plenty left to come in future instalments) and their abilities. They don't seem to describe themselves as 'psychic' as such, and their gifts are revealed to us gradually, becoming more important as the plot develops.

Plot-wise, there is much here for fans of crime mysteries and thrillers. The novel is tightly-plotted and offers plenty of twists and red herrings. The murder-or-suicide death at the centre is suitably tragic and will give teen readers plenty to think about. Themes of bullying, popularity and the natural life cycle of children's and teens' friendships are at the core of the book, ensuring emotional recognition for all readers.

Overall, I'm absolutely recommending this for lovers of crime fiction, especially if you also enjoy a hint of the supernatural.

From the Back Cover:

Evil comes in all sorts of flavours. Some bitter. Some deceptively sweet. That's what Katelyn discovers on the day she dies. Was it suicide? Murder? Who's to blame?

Twins Hayley and Taylor Ryan stumble upon the disturbing truth, which sheds light on another secret, a hidden past even they didn't know about.

Inspired by a ripped-from-the-headlines true crime, Envy is the gritty first volume in a new bone-chilling series that takes you to the edge - and pushes you right over.

Published September 2012 by Splinter
For more info, visit the series website
My grateful thanks go to the publishers for providing a review copy

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Miss, Why Can't We Study Happy Books?

This is something I've been asked many times, by different groups of students. It's true that we rarely do study books which are entirely happy (or sometimes, happy at all). Here's a representative list of some texts I've taught over the last few years, most for A Level, some for GCSE:

  • Alexander Masters: Stuart, A Life Backwards (features homelessness, addiction, crime)
  • Shakespeare: Othello, King Lear (great tragedy)
  • Arthur Miller: Death of a Salesman, A View From the Bridge (modern tragedy)
  • John Steinbeck: Of Mice and Men (isolation, dashed plans, inevitable death)
  • Sylvia Plath: Ariel (mental illness, marital breakdown, suicide)
  • Khaled Hosseini: The Kite Runner (rape, cowardice, betrayal)

See? But then, when did you ever see a 'happy' text on a reading list? Here are some of the things that usually feature in my answer:
  • Conflict IS story. There's simply no narrative in 'everyone has what they want/need; everything's fine'. (The common answer to this is: But what about a happy ending? Couldn't we at least have that?)
  • 'Serious' literature, which provokes thought, is often heavier in tone than more 'popular' literature. I can't explain why in any kind of satisfactory manner (which might tell you something about my views on the canon...), but happier writing is often taken less seriously.
  • Have you ever tried writing a happy story, or poem, or song: it's hard! Or at least, hard to do without producing something cheesy, and cheese is not usually welcome on GCSE/A Level/uni reading lists.
Do you have any suggestions for other answers I could give? What would you say?

Monday, 10 December 2012

Review: Emily Windsnap and the Land of the Midnight Sun by Liz Kessler

Adventure, friendship and romance for the 9-12s

Emily Windsnap is a half-mermaid, so she appears human on land and her tail appears in water. This is her fifth adventure (although the first I've read), so you may find spoilers in this review for earlier titles.

One of the best things about this book is Emily's character. In so many ways, she's like a typical tween/early teen, so she's very easy to relate to and I'm sure there are hoards of readers who will love these books. At the same time, the mermaid angle, which in this book leads her on a top-secret mission for King Neptune himself, adds all sort of excitement. Emily narrates her own story, so her feelings are easily accessible and we have no difficulties sympathising with her point of view.

The plot is twisty enough to keep us turning the pages without being over-complicated, and the cast of secondary characters offers such gems as the grumpy Neptune. Relationships are very important in this book (as they are for tween-into-teen readers) with tensions between a budding romance and a bff, as well as eternal issues like mother-daughter relationships.

All in all, this is a delightful read which offers gentle reassurance on various perennial concerns for the middle grade readership, packaged into an exciting quest narrative.

From the Back Cover

Have you ever had nightmares? King Neptune has, and that's why he sent me on a top secret mission.

When I discovered a kingdom with everyone turned to ice, I knew why the nightmares had terrified him. What I didn't know was how to complete my mission. I needed help, but my best friend, Shona, was miles away and my boyfriend, Aaron, had just told me a secret that left us barely speaking. The question was, could we work together to save our world - and our relationship?

Swishy wishes,
Emily Windsnap

Published September 2012 by Orion Children's Books
Find it at Goodreads

Friday, 7 December 2012

'Tis the Season to be ... Creepy

·         Are you the kind of person who takes delight when people slip on ice?

·         Do you often wonder what dark plans that angel must be forging while stuck at the top of the tree?

·         Have you ever noticed that your snowman is in a slightly different position from before?

If you have, then you sound like someone who enjoys a bit of a scare at Christmas time and will surely love the brand new ebook from Chris Priestley – Christmas Tales of Terror.

In this specially written ebook you will find malevolent snowmen, carol-loving corpses and a toy with an evil mind of its own.  Chris Priestley is on top form in these atmospheric, clever and thoroughly chilling stories. Add a new kind of chill to the fluffiest of seasons with seven brilliantly conceived examples of why you'd better be good at Christmas time.

The book can be bought on Amazon for the very festive price of £2.48

To celebrate publication of this new collection, Chris Priestley has written a very special 247tale on the subject of A Creepy Christmas for Bloomsbury’s short story writing competition. The competition is then open to budding writers aged between 10 and 16 to create their own frighteningly festive story. For full details go to www.247tales.com, but you should know that the closing date is next week, so get scribbling quickly (or get your classes scribbling, as the case may well be - thank you, Bloomsbury, for giving me such great lesson material!)

And here is that story, for those of you brave enough to read on:

A Creepy Christmas

That end of the park was empty and Lilian’s footsteps were the only ones to trouble the pristine blanket of pure white snow. It was so beautiful, so magical. She was breathless with excitement and, looking back only once at her now distant friends, walked on.

Lillian’s neat and charmless park was utterly transformed. The grim old archway that stood as a lone reminder of the workhouse that had once stood here was smothered in snow and feathery snowflakes fell and tickled her face. Lilian stepped through the arch as though stepping into another world.

The park was unrecognisable here. Lilian felt she was walking through a deserted wood as she reached an area thick with trees where the snow was especially deep and her whispered footfalls were the only sound. She had never thought of the children who lived and died in the workhouse but now they came unbidden into her thoughts. She even thought she could hear them whispering.

Then looking up she saw children sitting in the branches above her head. They looked like roosting owls. They were ragged children, poorly dressed and pale, eerily lit from below by bright snow. Their thin, wan faces looked down at her with large eyes twinkling in the snow light. They bore an expression she thought at first was one of tragic longing, but which she realised too late was in reality some kind of terrible and cruel hunger.

And, before she could even scream, they jumped.

Chris Priestley (247 words)

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Why There Are No Negative Reviews Here at the Hearthfire

Firstly, it's not because I'm super-nice. Although, of course, I am quite nice :)

My reasoning is simply that:

  • life's too short to continue reading a book I'm not enjoying 


  • there are already so many good books that I can't read them all and people still keep writing them ;) 


  • if I haven't read the whole of a book, I don't feel I should review it

I know not everyone feels this way, and I do see the whole professionalism argument, but at the same time, I'm not a reviewer or book blogger by profession.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Review: Mortal Chaos by Matt Dickinson

An exhilarating and ambitious read for the YA market

This book is amazing! It's really 'high concept' (chaos theory in novel form) and yet nobody could accuse it of being too 'commercial' (you know, that way people say it to mean poor quality or 'dumbed down').

The novel starts with a butterfly hatching, which startles a race horse in its training. This means that our focus shifts from the butterfly to the trainers working with the race horses. The whole novel is told in really short sections (most were just over a page on my Kindle), shifting focus from person to person using tiny links between them. One of the pleasures of this book is figuring out how different characters and stories may be linked, as it isn't always immediately apparent. As per the title, many of these plot threads are high octane and concerned with life and death scenarios: a climber on Mount Everest, a man setting off to bomb his ex-wife, boys in the woods with Daddy's shotgun.

The novel's pace is another strong point of interest. Who would have thought that a novel including a dozen or so different plot strands, with only tiny links between them, could be pacy? And yet it is. The snapshot chapters/sections help with this of course, as we effectively only see a single scene from each interlinked story before shifting focus again. This also helps to ensure (I think) that we don't get so bogged down in one angle that we forget the others. Again, I might have expected to find it challenging to keep up with so many different characters/plot threads, but it really isn't.

Just in case you're not sure, I'm strongly recommending this one. It does things that should make it difficult, and yet the experience of reading it wasn't that at all. I was absolutely hooked and disappointed when it all finished (but not disappointed with the ending). There is already another Mortal Chaos book out and there will be another next year. I will definitely be reading them.

Edited to add: Mortal Chaos is on the longlist for the Carnegie this year, which is what prompted me to shunt it up the TBR pile, after languishing on my Kindle.

From the Book Description:

'The Butterfly Effect ': the scientific theory that a single occurrence, no matter how small, can change the course of the universe forever.

When a butterfly startles a young rabbit, and the rabbit makes a horse rear, it starts a chain of events, over the course of one day, that will change people's lives . . . and end people's lives.

From a climber on Everest to a boy in Malawi . . . from a commercial pilot to an American psycho . . . the chaos knows no bounds.

This heart-stopping adventure by writer, film maker and climber Matt Dickinson will leave readers breathless. It's the book Jack Bauer would have read as a teenager!

Published 2 Feb 2012 by Oxford University Press
Find it on Amazon UK

Friday, 30 November 2012

Round-up for November

It's that time again already! Here's a round-up of what's been going on over the last month, both here and at my website. I'm shifting to doing these on the last day of the month, whenever it falls (I was doing them on the last Sunday of the month). This change means that two of the posts listed in this round-up were actually from October after the round-up.

November Reviews

Other November Bookishness

Other posts for November

Material on my website this month:

My website is focused on the teaching of English A Levels, especially Language, and is built around a collection of revision notes for students. I recently began a big revamp project, including new material which is updated fortnightly - a series of features for students, along with tips/activities/ideas/resources for teachers. The notes are fairly extensive at this point; this round-up will focus on the regularly updated content.

For teachers: a record of the students' features (with occasional linked resources) and teaching tips:
  • Marking reduction ideas 
  • A new online resource about grammar teaching
  • Ways of checking set reading

On the students' page:
  • Features on: whether anyone really speaks 'properly'; quotatives and age; 
  • Vocabulary pieces on: discreet and discrete; imply and infer
  • Books for wider reading: The Color Purple; So Long a Letter
  • Reads to relax with: Leigh Bardugo's The Gathering Dark; Cath Crowley's Graffiti Moon

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Top Five Reasons I'm a Tweeter, not a Facebooker

I really don't know why I still have a Facebook account; I barely look at it. Possibly keeping tabs on my teen online... Anyway, here's why I prefer Twitter.

I can read what interesting people have to say without having to 'friend' them

The one-sidedness of Twitter - 'following' someone rather than 'friending' them - makes it okay to listen in and gain the benefit of others' wisdom without them having to have any reciprocal interest in you.

I can discover additional interesting people via RTs, MTs and mentions

Every so often, something interesting will get RTd (or MTd) into my timeline that will lead to me discovering another person to follow. That kind of interconnectedness just isn't there on Facebook, as far as I can see.

I can get involved in conversations with people I don't even follow (yet) via hashtags

Again, sometimes this leads to a new connection, but it might also be that I have a single exchange with someone via a mutual interest in a particular topic. And again, this is about the web-like connectedness of Twitter (to my mind), whereas Facebook is much more linear in my experience.

No silly games!

I hate Farmville, Mafia Wars and all that stuff. I'm not a gamer, and I don't want to collect 'hugs' or 'hearts' or 'teddies'. Just ugh.

I have made genuine friendships via Twitter and truly feel part of a community.

This is not my Facebook experience, where you have to know someone already to then find them online.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Review: Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

Child's-eye view of London life after Ghana

This is a wonderful read, offering Harri's 11-year-old perspective on the world he's moved into. The strongest feature here is the voice: Harri's version of Multi-Ethnic Youth Dialect combined with his natural innocence provides us with an endearing, optimistic take on what is often grim reality. There are many features of Harri's narrative which flavour the story. My favourites include 'hutious', 'asweh' and 'advise yourself', alongside more familiar features of kids' language like the prolific use of 'even'.

But I'm pretty sure that this is a great read even if you don't happen to teach English Language :).

Harri is sweet and charming. He knows that the gang on the estate could be a force for good, if someone just explained to them about how to help others. And some of the uglier facts in his life are clear to us, but seemingly less so to him. Stephen Kelman's use of the naive child narrator is executed with precision and charm, providing an upbeat, often funny, and enjoyable read even as deeply unsavoury truths about life in the UK are explored. Harri's guardian pigeon is also a nice touch, showing Harri's natural sympathy for other creatures, and providing an occasional broader view of events (although this was a bit strange a first, the brief pigeon's-eye sections are illuminating in their own way).

The plot revolves around 'the dead boy', whose identity we never fully know. He was stabbed ('chooked') shortly before the novel opens, and the football boots on the cover are part of the community's display of grief for him. Harri and a friend decide to turn detective and investigate the murder. After all, Harri's friend watches all the CSI programmes, so they're clearly experts. Their enthusiasm for this task is another sweet touch, as well as an effective mechanism to have the boys run around the neighbourhood, blissfully unaware of the chaos in their wake.

As well as Harri, the book is peopled with fabulous supporting characters: Harri's sister Lydia, other kids - both bad and good, but all seen as potentially good by Harri, and various adults just trying to survive.

Overall, I can see why this was nominated for the Booker, and why it's now being promoted to a YA audience. I'd love to see lots of teens reading it, as it raises so many questions. I'll certainly be recommending it to many of my students.

From the Back Cover:

Newly arrived from Ghana with his mother and older sister, Harrison Opoku lives on the ninth floor of a block of flats on a London housing estate. The (second) best runner in the whole of Year 7, Harri races through his new life in his personalised trainers - the Adidas stripes drawn on in marker pen - unaware of the danger growing around him.

But when a boy is knifed to death on the high street and a police appeal for witnesses draws only silence, Harri decides to start a murder investigation of his own. In doing so, he unwittingly breaks the fragile web his mother has spun around her family to keep them safe.

Harri will come face to face with the very real dangers surrounding him. A powerful, unforgettable tale, importantly relevant for young adult readers of today.

Includes a Q&A with the author, Stephen Kelman, and a piece about what inspired him to write Pigeon English.

This edition published in Oct 2012 by Bloomsbury Childrens
My grateful thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy
For more information (including an extract to sample), visit the Bloomsbury website

Friday, 23 November 2012

Top Five Things I Get From a Good Read

These are my personal defining characteristics of a good read. You'll see that all them can be met in many different ways (which might explain my fairly broad reading tastes - from adult crime thrillers to children's books!).

Vicarious Experience

A good read will let me 'see' or 'feel' what it's like to do things I can never do, go to places I never can visit and - most importantly - live through things that I never can, possibly because they're unreal, in the past or otherwise just not available to me, or simply things that I would never do/see/experience in reality. This, for me, is a key reason everyone should read - to get out of our own experience and to safely taste other possibilities. It's also a key reason that teens (for example) should be allowed their 'edgy' reads - to explore and think about possibilities that actually, in real life, they should avoid.

Emotional and Psychological Realism

For me, a book fails if it doesn't 'ring true' emotionally and psychologically. To sympathise with a character (or to feel ambivalent about those love-to-hate-them characters), they have to have psychological truth. Equally, a situation can be outright ludicrous, but if the characters react to it in a way that feels real, an author can get away with anything.

The Thrill of the Well-Chosen Word

Yeah, that's right - here's the English teacher bit. You may be assuming that these are the complex and delicious words, the ones we rarely hear, but that's not necessarily the case. In my current read, Pigeon English, that well-chosen word that makes me smile might just as well be a non-standard word like 'hutious' or, quite often, a well-placed 'even' like "It's even too easy." :)

Escape from Mundane Reality

Who doesn't read for escapism? Really? To get lost and be somewhere else, in some other world or other time? And yet, at the same time, we learn more about ourselves doing it. Amazing.

The Joy of New Knowledge

As a kid, I learned so much about the countryside from books like Enid Blyton's, about the world and its animals from Willard Price, and I still love to pick up the odd nugget from books. I tend to get this particularly from historical reads at the moment, and I always have to look up the period when I finish a historical to see where the edges are.

So, those are my top - but of course, not my only - reasons for reading fiction, or things that make a good book good. Would yours be different?

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Are you ready for the season?

I'm reposting this (with just a few small changes) from last November, as it's that time again...

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 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, lip balms or charm beads. 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 included on vouchers last 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 - the latter also for great crafty stuff), 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.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Review: VIII by H. M. Castor

Fascinating, engaging and fresh presentation of a well-known figure

In many ways, reading a fictionalisation of the life of Henry VIII was always going to be like watching a car crash in slow motion. We know (at least broadly) where it is all going, where he'll end up, and I'm confident that most of us would go into the novel with little expectation of being sympathetic to Henry (or Hal, as he is known in the book).

And yet, H. M. Castor makes us root for Hal, longing for him to make good choices, to not head off down the destructive path that we know he's destined for. By starting in a dramatic moment in his childhood, she contextualises his beliefs and later actions, giving him purpose and reason for decisions which otherwise are incredibly hard to explain and rationalise.

The narrative is presented in the first person and the present tense, and it is masterfully done. I don't always like this PoV, but it works perfectly here to severely limit the novel's perspective and to locate us firmly in Hal's mind. The little touches, where you recognise names or events and realise what's coming next (speaking as someone with little formal History study), are very pleasing, and yet much of the novel's content and focus was new and fresh. This may be because of my ignorance of the specifics of Henry's life, but I feel that it's more to do with the narrowness of the perspective which fixes us firmly into Hal's experiences and his own interpretation of events.

Overall, I would strongly recommend this as an enjoyable read, and will definitely be mentioning it to the sixth formers I know who are taking History. I've had this hanging around on my Kindle for a while (shameful, I know, but my review pile is growing and I sometimes feel guilty reading books that I've bought when there are review books waiting and... but you don't need my blogger angst :)), and I was prompted to read it now by its position in the Carnegie longlist, which I can clearly see is well-deserved. I would not like to be a Carnegie judge - everything I've read off that list I've loved!

From the Product Description:

Destined for greatness - tormented by demons. VIII (Eight) is the untold story of Henry VIII, a gripping examination of why he turned from a charismatic teenager to the cruel tyrant he became in later life. Hal is a young, handsome and gifted warrior, who believes he has been divinely chosen to lead his people. But throughout his life, he is haunted by a ghostly apparition, and, once he rises to power, he turns to murder and rapacious cruelty.

Published in April 2012 by Templar
For more info, visit the author's website

Friday, 16 November 2012

Review: Operation Bunny by Sally Gardner

Magic, mysteries and a resilient heroine - fab start to a new series for 7+

Sally Gardner is so great! I've never been disappointed with one of her books, and this quirky magical tale is no different. With shades of Roald Dahl and Eva Ibbotson, this is classic young fiction at its best.

As the first book in a new series, it lays the groundwork for the future, showing how the wonderful cat Fidget and little Emily Vole on the book cover come to be working together at a Fairy Detective Agency. The gorgeous illustrations are perfect, starting with the cover style that shows us this is no 'pink and sparkly' fairy book.

Emily's life has fairytale elements: she's an orphan, found in a hatbox at Stansted Airport and quickly adopted by the incredibly wealthy Dashwoods, who soon grow frustrated by Emily's inability to perfectly complement their otherwise perfectly coordinated life and treat her shockingly. It's through Emily's adoptive parents that comparisons to Dahl are most valid, with their caricature-like superficiality and materialism. Once the magical elements start featuring, things look up for Emily and the adventure truly begins.

Children of around 7 and up will lap this up, revelling as they do in deliciously bad parent-figures and tough and resourceful child protagonists, not to mention magical talking animals. I know I would have loved this as a child (umm, actually I loved it now :) ) and my 9yr old will too.

Overall, this is definitely a fun read for newly confident readers (shortish chapters and lovely b/w illustrations throughout), or would work well as a shared bedtime read.

From the Back Cover:

When Emily Vole inherits an abandoned shop, she discovers a magical world she never knew existed. But a fairy-hating witch, a mischievous set of golden keys, and a train full of brightly coloured bunnies are just a few of the surprises that come with it.

With the help of a talking cat called Fidget and a grumpy fairy detective called Buster, it's up to Emily to get to the bottom of Operation Bunny.


Published in October 2012 by Orion Children's
My grateful thanks to the publisher for sending a review copy
For more info: publisher's website

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Stress and Aromatherapy

Who doesn't suffer from the effects of stress these days? Personally, I've had issues dealing with stress and anxiety since I was a student. Back at uni, I discovered that essential oils were one of the best ways to treat myself and try to bring back some balance, and they're still something I reach for regularly to deal with lots of small day-to-day things too.

Personally, I tend to use the stimulant-type citrusy oils quite a lot, like Bergamot and Grapefruit. Both of these can be used with depression and anxiety, and I find the citrus scents uplifting. They're great combined with a woody or resin base note like Frankincense (brilliant for stress, as it encourages you to regulate your breathing) or Sandalwood, or with a spice such as Ginger. This kind of blend works particularly well (for me) when I'm stressed/anxious but need to focus to get things done. I use these in traditional oil burners, evaporating off water with a tealight below (I have burners all over the house!), and also usually have a nice citrusy blends in a roll-on to apply to pulse points when I'm out and about.

When I need help winding down, or sleeping, Clary Sage or Marjoram are the ones I reach for, often combined with Vanilla for its warm and comforting smell. Again, this can be in a burner, but I'm just as likely to pop a few drops onto a tissue and slip it in my pillowcase.

If you're interested in finding out more about aromatherapy, I've been using Valerie Ann Worwood's books for years, and would highly recommend them. The Fragrant Pharmacy is where I started - that gives a great overview of essential oils for medicinal purposes. There is also The Fragrant Mind, which (unsurprisingly) focuses on "Aromatherapy for Personality, Mind, Mood and Emotion" and The Fragrant Heavens, about oils for spirituality.

Monday, 12 November 2012

The CILIP Carnegie Longlist

The longlist for this year's Carnegie (and Kate Greenaway) medals was announced this week. I was excited to find that I have read several of the nominated titles for the Carnegie, and have several others lying around waiting for me (poor neglected books!). The ones I have read made me glad I don't have to choose, as all were great.

So, here are the ones I have read:
15 Days Without a Head by Dave Cousins (my review)
The Double Shadow by Sally Gardner (my review)
This Is Not Forgiveness by Celia Rees (my review)
Pendragon Legacy: Sword of Light by Katherine Roberts (my review)
Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick (my review)
The Sleeping Army by Francesca Simon (my review)
A Waste of Good Paper by Sean Taylor (my review)

And here are the soon-to-be-read ones:
VIII by H M Castor
Mortal Chaos by Matt Dickinson
Unrest by Michelle Harrison
The Girl in the Mask by Marie-Louise Jenson
The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Guess which six books have just jumped a few places in the TBR pile? :)

Friday, 9 November 2012

Review: A Dog Called Homeless by Sarah Lean

Heartwarming tale of friendship and hope after loss for the 9-12 crowd (and teens, and adults...)

How much do I love this book? It's a delicious piece of writing, warm and emotional without being schmaltzy or manipulative. I'm pretty confident that it's the only book that both my daughters (aged 9 and 14) and I have all read within a short space of time and all loved. I think it was on the teen shelves in Waterstones, and it was the 14 yr old who asked for it and devoured it very quickly, telling me that I should read it. Then when I did, I realised that it was labelled as 9+ (thankfully the teen hadn't noticed that...) and the younger one had it off me quick as a flash. I think a single book appealing to both my girls at the same time is pretty unusual and goes to show how fab this book is: gentle enough for a 9 yr old, yet also enough to sustain a teen's interest. Pretty damn impressive, I would say!

The novel is narrated by Cally, who tells us in a statement preceding the first chapter that she hasn't spoken for 31 days. Her narration is pitch-perfect and gives us privileged access to all her thoughts and feelings, even as she's stopped sharing them with anyone else in her life. Poor Cally is mourning the loss of her mother a year ago, and struggling particularly with her father's awkward adult response of never talking about her. She sees a vision of her mother, but no-one believes her, and then the wonderful dog (a silver wolfhound, no less) enters her life. This dog, being huge, is not always welcomed by everyone else, and her teachers and her father particularly don't want it hanging around.

The plot moves along effectively, with all aspects of Cally's life - home, school, family, friends - explored and changed in the course of the novel. I think Sarah Lean captured Cally's grief and its effects on her beautifully, allowing us to share Cally's feelings without being overwhelmed by them. The grief is there, but this is no wallowy book. Instead, it's an optimistic read which offers up hope in the form of friendship, as well as the comforting subtext that adults aren't always automatically right.

Overall, I cannot recommend this highly enough. Just read it, ok? :)

From the Book's Website:

My name is Cally Louise Fisher and I haven't spoken for thirty-one days. Talking doesn’t always make things happen, however much you want them to.

Cally Fisher saw her mum bright and real and alive. But no one believes her, so Cally’s stopped talking.

A mysterious wolfhound always seems to be there when her mum appears and now he’s started following her everywhere. But how can Cally convince anyone that Mum is still with them, or persuade Dad that the huge silver-grey dog is their last link with her?

published in April 2012 by HarperCollins Children's
For more info and an extract see the book's website

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Hurrah for Creativity!

This is a Proud Mummy post, for which I make only the slightest apology (sorry!). My youngest adores the magazine Animals and You, which shamelessly targets little girls' love of all things fluffy and furry (and a bit of pink and sparkly). Recently they ran a competition to invent a new character for their 'Poppy's World' comic strip and (I expect you've figured this out), my youngest was the fortunate winner, seeing her creation realised and introduced to all the regulars. We didn't get advance notice - she just found her character in this month's issue when it arrived. Imagine the excitement I came home to!

Here's the strip featuring the new character:

And here's a cute little shout-out to Snowball from the facing page:

I'm really proud of her because it really was all her own idea, and they used her description and phrases exactly. At the moment, she wants to be a writer when she grows up, and is always scribbling, which is great to see. It may seem corny, but I'm also a bit proud of myself here for having encouraged her to be creative, to take pleasure in it and to have confidence in her own creations. Funny how it's easier to allow/encourage/nurture in others, isn't it? :)

Monday, 5 November 2012

Review: Katya's World by Jonathan L Howard

Great sci-fi YA set on a colony world without land

This novel is far more 'hard' sci-fi than I normally read, but I greatly enjoyed it and it made me wonder whether there might be other sci-fi I'd enjoy. That has to be a compliment (and suggestions in the comments are welcome...).

Katya takes centre stage in this, the first of the Russalka Chronicles. A talented and intelligent young navigator, she makes a resourceful protagonist who is easy to like and root for. The narrative is in the third person, past tense, and the presence of a narrator is felt in a prologue which contextualises the story by providing a potted history of Russalka. I wasn't sure about the book at this point, as it was somewhat dry reading and a bit of an infodump, but it was definitely worth continuing.

Russalka itself is a fascinating setting and I liked how the environment is credited with creating the Russalkans' character. It made sense to me that a lot of the mythology and naming etc was broadly Russian-based, as the people's pragmatism and pride in their heritage had quite a Russian feel and tone. The story takes place a long time after Earth's colonisation and subsequent war with the colonists, and Katya and some of the other Russalkans express strongly negative attitudes to the Terrans (those from Earth), as they are known in the book.

The plot begins with Katya's first voyage as a qualified navigator, and rapidly things start to go wrong. The bulk of the novel has a real quest feel, although it doesn't have one obvious quest from start to finish, more problem after problem to deal with. Jonathan L Howard certainly doesn't shy away from testing his characters! Katya's resourcefulness and integrity are well and truly put to the test and she emerges stronger and more impressive time and time again.

Overall, I would definitely recommend this. I wouldn't be surprised if it serves to get more girls reading sci-fi, with such a great female protagonist (although a few more secondary female characters wouldn't have gone amiss...).

From the Back Cover:

The distant and unloved colony world of Russalka has no land, only the raging sea. No clear skies, only the endless storm clouds. Beneath the waves, the people live in pressurised environments and take what they need from the boundless ocean. It is a hard life, but it is theirs and they fought a war against Earth to protect it. But wars leave wounds that never quite heal, and secrets that never quite lie silent.

Katya Kuriakova doesn’t care much about ancient history like that, though. She is making her first submarine voyage as crew; the first nice, simple journey of what she expects to be a nice, simple career.

There is nothing nice and simple about the deep black waters of Russalka, however; soon she will encounter pirates and war criminals, see death and tragedy at first hand, and realise that her world’s future lies on the narrowest of knife edges. For in the crushing depths lies a sleeping monster, an abomination of unknown origin, and when it wakes, it will seek out and kill every single person on the planet.


to be published November 8 2012 by Strange Chemistry
Review copy gratefully received from the publisher
For more info and an extract see the publisher's website

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Happy Halloween: marking the festival creatively

Are you trick or treating with the kids? Waiting in, prepared for the trick-or-treaters? Looking for something to do to tap into the spirit of Halloween but not sure what? Here are a few suggestions.

Decorate your windows

with simple paper cut outs for silhouettes and tissue paper to get a nice glow. Simple, strong outlines work best: orange tissue for a no-mess pumpkin face (use black paper or black marker to make the features so the orange face glows) or a circle of white tissue with a black wolf or bat silhouette against it also looks good, as do spider and bat silhouettes in black paper straight on the window.

Remember the dead

This time of year has always been about honouring those who have gone before. A simple and unobtrusive altar or shrine can easily be created using photographs, momentos or items which symbolise loved ones, perhaps together with a candle for focus.

Write something seasonal

Here's a couple of fun exercises I've used with a keen student creative writing group around Halloween:
  • Practice 'show, don't tell' by writing a paragraph in which a character is scared. You must demonstrate their fear as many ways as possible and avoid the word 'scared' and its synonyms.
  • Write a poem, a brief monologue or a flash fiction piece inspired by an unusual phobia. A handy list of phobias is available online at the phobia list.

Practise divination

Again, this is traditional at this point in the year, when the veil is said to be thinnest. If you've got divination tools such as tarot or oracle cards tucked away somewhere, now is a good time to pull them out and give them a go. If you've never really got to grips with them, try shuffling and concentrating on being open to whatever you most need to know right now. Draw a single card and see what it says to you. Don't reach straight for the book or leaflet - what does the image mean to you? Do take notice of ideas that appear in your mind; a lot of good information is too easily dismissed.

For the more practised, here's a great Halloween spread, working on the principle of Samhain as a beginning and an ending and seeking guidance for the coming year. Simply draw three cards: what to cast off, what to hang onto, what to bring in. This can be done as a simple three card spread, or made more complicated by applying these three ideas to different areas that you want to focus on such as love, career, family etc.

What do you do at this time of year?

Monday, 29 October 2012

Review: How to Make a Heron Happy by Lari Don, illustrated by Nicola O' Byrne

Charming wildlife-focused picture book with plenty to say about empathy and the environment

This lovely little book centres on Hamish, a boy who notices that the heron at his local park looks rather grumpy. He tries lots of things to cheer it up before realising that maybe it's hard to smile with a beak, and that the heron could always fly away somewhere else if it was truly unhappy.

I'd recommend this as a shared read - or perhaps for new readers (an often overlooked picture book audience, I think). The text and illustrations focus rather nicely on things to do in a park and how to improve your local area, and are brilliant as a focus for discussion. I could imagine reading it to a primary class and asking for their ideas on how to cheer the heron up, or leading into discussions about local wildlife. It could also be used as a stimulus for a primary lesson on body language and facial expression cues and how these help us to understand what others are feeling (and how this can sometimes be misinterpreted!).

The pictures and text are attractively arranged. Several of the spreads feature what is, essentially, the same scene of the heron in a pond, with its surroundings gradually improving (including the weather!). Other spreads have more text and smaller drawings, showing different people planting flowers for example, or the heron doing different things. This breaks it up and would help maintain a small child's attention as a bedtime read.

Overall, I'd definitely recommend this, whether as a family read or for a primary classroom.

From the Back Cover:

The heron in the local park always looks sad and grumpy, so Hamish decides to cheer it up. He brings food, tidies the heron's dirty pond, plants flowers, and has a party.

But the heron still looks grumpy.

Maybe it isn't unhappy after all?

A charming story from Edinburgh-based writer and storyteller, Lori Don.


Published 2011 by Floris Books, and 2012 as a Picture Kelpie
Received with gratitude from the publisher in a Twitter giveaway
Check it out at Amazon UK

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Round up for October

It's that time again already! Here's a round-up of what's been going on over the last month, both here and at my website.

October Reviews

4 YA (2 fantasy, 2 realism), 2 kids' (1 fantasy fiction, 1 non-fiction) and 2 adults' (1 lit fid, 1 crime fic).

Other posts for October

Material on my website this month:

My website is focused on the teaching of English A Levels, especially Language, and is built around a collection of revision notes for students. I recently began a big revamp project, including new material which is updated weekly - a series of features for students, along with tips/activities/ideas/resources for teachers. The notes are fairly extensive at this point; this round-up will focus on the regularly updated content.

For teachers: a record of the students' features (with occasional linked resources) and teaching tips:
  • a no-prep end-of-topic starter activity
  • a tip about getting Language students writing about meaning as well as showing off their new-found terminology
  • a discussion of How Much Grammar students need for Language A Level
  • a tip on using exemplar essays

On the students' page:
  • Features on: child phonology; NaNoWriMo; semantic weakening (is it really 'epic'?); new words as a sign of the times.
  • Vocabulary pieces on: guiding the reader; being tentative about meaning; avoiding the vague adjectives 'positive' and 'negative'; using connectives logically.
  • Books for wider reading: Dante's Inferno; Jenefer Shute's Life-Size.
  • Reads to relax with: The Hunting Ground by Cliff McNish; Dark Parties by Sara Grant; The Storyteller by Antonia Michaelis; Poltergeeks by Sean Cummings.
My other big website announcement of the month is that I have collated all my 'Frameworks' notes (the key terms for English Language or English Language and Literature A Level) into an ebook and self-published it in Kindle format. Should you know anyone this would be helpful for, please do send them to my Frameworks pages for more info. The notes will continue to be freely available online, but the ebook version may be more convenient on the go.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Review: Knock Down (Street Duty Case One) by Chris Ould

Brilliant start to a new police procedural series for the YA market

As a lover of crime fiction, and an enthusiastic YA reader, I was really pleased to hear about this exciting new series. Reading it made me even happier, as it was everything I would have wished for in such a combination.

Chris Ould has written for The Bill amongst other things, and the knowledge he gained from this - of how the police operate and of what makes a successful crime narrative - is put to great use in this brilliant read. For this YA series, he has invented the rank of Trainee Police Officer (TPO) to allow the creation of 16 to 18 year old characters who can investigate crime. Although they are trainees and therefore often supervised, Holly Blades in this novel shows enough promise that the training officers allow her some slack and she is able to take something of a leading role, particularly in the crimes which focus on teens. I know that some reviewers are commenting on the realism of this, but I fail to see how it's any less realistic than the classic 'child sleuth' trope or the 'meddling little old lady who solves crimes on a regular basis' for that matter!

Holly Blades and Sam Marsden are the TPOs, although Holly has more of the lead in this instalment. Both show potential as police officers, and both are 'up against it' to some extent as the public and other officers don't always take them seriously. This is a classic trope in crime fiction (often it's the woman detective struggling to be accepted, or the older detective whose methods are viewed as outdated), allowing the characters to show their human sides and making it easier to sympathise with them. It certainly works in Street Duty as we easily root for Holly and Sam and admire their resourcefulness.

The focus is very much on the crimes and the plot centres on a few different criminal acts, some of which turn out to be connected. It feels (to me, with no such experience!) like a realistic representation of a short period in policing, with different events being reported in and the officers' attention being pulled in different directions. The narrative is in the third person and past tense, with the focus shifting around different settings and different characters and different fonts used to differentiate the police-focused sections (all headed with location date and time in a very precise way) from the sections concentrating on criminals, victims and suspects. Overall it feels quite visual, as though we are cutting from scene to scene in a TV drama or film. It's clear that as well as the TPOs and other police officers, some other characters and settings are going to be revisited in future cases, and I am looking forward to getting to know the area better.

Given the popularity of crime drama and fiction, this is bound to be a highly successful series, and (speaking as a teacher) I also appreciate its positive presentation of (some) teens in relation to crime. Many teens are responsible, resourceful and reliable individuals, and it is a shame that their presentation as such is relatively unusual. I would strongly recommend this series to readers of around 15 and up (it carries warnings about explicit content and strong language).

From the Back Cover:

Victim: Teenage female, 14 years old. Unconcious. Head Injury. Laceration to arm. Struck by lorry.

Why was Ashleigh Jarvis running so fast that she didn't see the lorry? Why was she so scared? And why was she barefoot on a cold winter's evening? It's Holly Blade's first case and she wants to know the truth. But how much is she willing to risk?

First in an arresting new series from BAFTA award-winning writer, Chris Ould.

Warning: contains explicit language and content. Recommended for readers aged 15+.

Published October 1st by Usborne
Review copy gratefully received in exchange for my honest opinion
Check out more information (and the first chapter) at the Usborne Street Duty page

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

The Problem with NaNoWriMo ...

... is that it leads to some crazy coverage in the press and social media. Yes, of course, writing a novel in a month sounds absurd, but the spirit of nano isn't to produce the finished product in a month. It's all about getting the words out (well, 50,000 words anyway) and for many people it's extremely helpful to concentrate on word count and to give yourself permission to press on regardless. Anything can be fixed later - and perhaps there's the key. I suspect that most nano naysayers don't see this month of manic writing as the start of a long process, but rather as the whole process. Or perhaps more importantly, that's what they imagine the NaNoWriMo writers (or wrimos) themselves see it as. Or maybe less charitably, they simply don't want others messing around in their pool.

The Guardian's 'how to write a novel in 30 days' piece has hardly helped this year, encouraging many novelists on Twitter to snipe about what they presumably see as the misrepresentation of their craft. But if you actually read the Guardian piece, it's about producing a detailed outline in 30 days and not at all about a finished product ready to go to press.

If you want to know more about NaNoWriMo, your first stop should be the official website. I particularly like the list of published NaNo novels. If that's not evidence that NaNoWriMo can be a way to write a 'real' novel, I don't know what is. And OK, there will be many times more unpublished NaNo novels, but I would be surprised if the published/unpublished ratios weren't similar for NaNo novels and those produced under different circumstances. People write novels that don't get published, you know - and often they've still benefitted from the process.

I've seen two particularly good blogs about this NaNo snobbery over the last couple of days. Check out Catherine Ryan Howard's great piece about what NaNo is good for, and Keris Stainton's excellent stand against the 'that's not how you do it' brigade.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Review: Breathe by Sarah Crossan

Engaging and exciting dystopian YA set in an oxygen-deprived world

I was excited to read this, despite there being so many dystopias around now, and I wasn't disappointed. Controlling oxygen seems such an absolute way to keep control of the people and, as with all good dystopias, there is a clear hierarchy and social control through people knowing their place and being unable to break out of it. There is also clear danger at all times, ensuring that we are gripped and committed to finding out where it will all end.

The novel is told through three different and converging perspectives: Alina, a rebel, who opens the novel with "Breathing is a right, not a privilege, so I'm stealing it back". Her voice is lively and strong from the outset, as she prepares to take action. Bea comes next, an Auxiliary (i.e. second-class citizen) who is bold and clever. The final voice we follow is Quinn's - a Premium who has a lot of privilege in the novel's world and isn't always aware of this. The narration is all first person present tense, which works well for this kind of novel, creating uncertainty and tension and removing the possibility of hindsight. We are pulled along with the characters on their adventure and it's never quite certain who will survive or succeed.

Having two female and one male protagonists is effective in offering different perspectives and likely to widen the novel's appeal. There is a degree of romance but never as more than a sub-plot - survival and rebellion are far more important ideas here, which feels realistic despite the novel's extreme scenario. Sarah Crossan writes with an emotional and psychological realism which makes the story compelling, and allowing the novel to effectively combine being an entertaining read and raising questions about commitment, bravery and privilege.

The pace of the novel is a key strength. Although Sarah Crossan has created a world that is in many ways entirely unfamiliar, she succeeds in conveying the oddities of this world without heavy exposition or backstory. In some cases, we find out the society's history along with the characters, but always in a way that works with the plot and feels natural. This is book one in a trilogy, and I will definitely be taking the first opportunity to read the next book, as the ending of this one raises the stakes even higher and leaves you wondering what on earth can happen next (yet without leaving you unsatisfied and feeling cheated, as series books can sometimes).

Overall, I would absolutely recommend this to YA readers (who don't have to actually be young adults, of course) who enjoy dystopian novels and/or thrillers. I think those who aren't necessarily keen dystopian fans will enjoy this too, as it is such a good example of the genre.

From the Back Cover:

Years after the Switch, life inside the Pod has moved on. A poor Auxiliary class cannot afford the oxygen tax which supplies extra air for running, dancing and sports. The rich Premiums, by contrast, are healthy and strong. Anyone who opposes the regime is labelled a terrorist and ejected from the Pod to die.

Sixteen-year-old Alina is part of the secret resistance, but when a mission goes wrong she is forced to escape from the Pod. With only two days of oxygen in her tank, she too faces the terrifying prospect of death by suffocation. Her only hope is to find the mythical Grove, a small enclave of trees protected by a hardcore band of rebels. Does it even exist, and if so, what or who are they protecting the trees from?

A dystopian thriller about courage and freedom, with a love story at its heart.


Published in October by Bloomsbury
My grateful thanks to the publishers for providing a review copy
Check out the Breathe page at Bloomsbury for more information or go to Amazon UK

Friday, 19 October 2012

Breathe by Sarah Crossan - the Trailer

Breathe is a dystopian YA novel (published this month) set in a treeless world where oxygen has become a commodity and a form of control. I'll be reviewing this one properly next week, but suffice to say for now that I definitely recommend it. If the trailer has whetted your appetite, you may want to check out some of Sarah Crossan's blogtour posts for more info. 

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Recommended Writers' Resources 3: The DIY Special

I've been considering packaging the revision notes on my website into ebook form so students could download them onto their phones, so I've been investigating self e-publishing lately. Here are the most useful resources I've found:

The Writer's Guide to E-Publishing

is a website with an array of resources and been-there-done-that advice. In a blog-style format, with contributions from lots of different writers (including the marvellous Talli Roland), it's easy to lose a lot of time browsing here :)

Self-Printed: the Sane Person's Guide to Self-Publishing (2nd edition)

is a fabulous, entertaining read which outlines clearly and specifically exactly what Catherine Ryan Howard did (and does) when self-publishing her writing. Her advice is thorough and comprehensive, if a little bossy at times (but hey, it's her book, so why shouldn't she get bossy?). Publishing to Kindle and Smashwords are explained step-by-step, as is using Createspace to produce a paperback. She also covers how to sell and promote (in a non-annoying way...) using only free online tools such as an effective blog and social media presence. I found the answers to lots of nitty-gritty questions here, and would strongly recommend it to anyone thinking about self-publishing.

I particularly enjoyed her frank discussion about the quality of much self-published writing and her attempt to distance herself from the more rabid self-publishing rhetoric (usually focused on 'gatekeepers' and the many perceived failures of traditional publishing). I read in it the kindle version, but it is also available as a print on demand paperback.

It's also well worth checking out Catherine's site for more advice and opinions about successful self-publishing.
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