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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.

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

What Would You Risk Everything For?

Today, the #darkdaysofjanuary blog tour stops here at the Hearthfire.  This tour is to celebrate the publication of  Sara Grant's gripping dystopian debut Dark Parties, published by Indigo at the start of this month. In this final stop on her tour, Sara discusses risk and commitment - a topic she explores fully in the novel. For more information about Dark Parties: my review and its Goodreads page.

Dark Parties explores how far someone will go to stand up for what she believes in. My main character Neva risks everything to rebel against an overbearing government and save those she loves. If I was faced with Neva’s dilemma, would I do the same? It’s a question I asked myself over and over while writing Dark Parties. It’s probably at the heart of why I wanted to write this story.

I would like to think I would be a rebel and stand up and speak out for what I believe in – no matter what the cost. But that’s an easy thing for me to say from my comfy flat in London. That’s a much different decision when there’s a gun or Protectosphere standing in your way – or worse yet when your actions would hurt a loved one. I want to believe that I would have walked along side Martin Luther King, for example. I want to believe that I’d step in when I see injustice. As Edmund Burke said: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men to nothing.”

But for most of us, improving the world doesn’t often come down to life or death decisions, nor is it focused on one moment in time. It’s constant baby steps. It’s making small decisions on a daily basis.

More than twenty years ago, I attended a Franklin-Covey seminar on time management. I’m a compulsive list maker and planner. I have an electronic to-do list but also often have adjunct Post-it note lists tacked all over. This seminar talked about planning each day based on what you want to accomplish long-term. The presenter asked us to imagine a two-by-four plank placed between the Twin Towers. He asked us what was important enough to make us cross that narrow beam. What would we risk everything for?

The list of worthy causes seems endless: protecting human rights, ending poverty, curing cancer...all the way and including, well, world peace. But if I’m honest, there’s only thing for which I’m 100 percent certain that I’d risk life and limb – those I love. I’d cross a wire strung between the Twin Towers in a raging wind storm for my family and close friends.

The presenter in the Franklin-Covey seminar asked us to generate a list of our top long-term goals. He asked us to break those goals down to what we could accomplish in one year and then identify what we could do each month, week, day and then spend the next hour and minute in activities that are directed toward those goals. It’s a lesson I think about often and still endeavour to plan my time using this principle.

I’m not doing enough to improve the world or even my little corner of it, but I keep trying. I hope that Dark Parties encourages action and rebellion and inspires the belief that one person can make a difference. I love the quote from Anne Frank: “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”

So....how do you want to change your world?

Wow, thank you Sara - so much to think about there. Again, I would recommend having a look at Dark Parties if you haven't already. It certainly does raise questions about conformity and rebellion, as a good dystopian novel should.

Monday, 30 January 2012

Review of Venus Rocks by Fiona Dunbar

This sassy ghost-focused story for tweens and young teens was great fun!

Author: Fiona Dunbar
Title: Venus Rocks
Genre: Paranormal (kids/teen)
Series: Kitty Slade (this is book 3)
Publisher: Orchard
Published: Jan 2012
Source: Kindly sent by the publisher

Find it at Goodreads or Amazon UK

The blurb says:
Hey, Kitty Slade here. Just hanging out, doing ordinary things. You know, like seeing ghosts. It's been happening for a while now, but this time - this time is different...

When Kitty sees a ghost ship, she knows her spooky powers are growing stronger. Plunged into a dark mystery from long a go, she soon encounters Beth, a lost soul who drowned on board. Kitty must uncover the secrets buried at the bottom of the sea - before it's too late...

My verdict: a great central character and fabulous voice make this a great read. Recommended for older children and younger teens (and adults too...).
NB: Since this is the third in the series, this review may contain spoilers for books one and two.
This is the first Kitty Slade book I've read. It will not be the last. Do you need to know more? :) Just in case you do...

By this, the third book in the series, Kitty is fairly comfortable with her ability to see ghosts (known as phantorama in the story), but she is quite surprised to see a whole ghost ship. This story takes place in Cornwall and is steeped in the lore of shipwrecks and pirates associated with the area. I like that the family live in a camper van (known as The Hippo), which gives Dunbar more flexibility with settings and additional characters. They are certainly a quirky family, and Kitty's abilities (and the issue of who knows and who doesn't - it's inherited from her late Mum so can't be a complete secret) make for some interesting family relationships.

The story is narrated by Kitty, so we get to enjoy her individual point of view and entertaining voice. She appears confident and sassy, but her narration allows us to see some less confident feelings and to sympathise with her. Some sections are presented as Kitty's blog, which she maintains privately like a diary to set out and explore her feelings. I also enjoyed her interaction with other characters, including her quirky-bordering-on-weird Grandmother Maro and her cousin Ashley, who lives a much more normal teen life including a cute crush.

Although there are scary moments, this is not a creepy ghost story - more like junior urban fantasy than horror. The lively voice and the confidence of the children in their investigations ensures that it is on the lighter side and would be unlikely to terrify any delicate souls. 

Overall, I really enjoyed this and would definitely recommend it (and the series).

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Coming Up in February: Kids' and YA books

There are loads of exciting new releases heading our way in February, so I thought I'd put up a quick post highlighting some of the ones that I'm interested in.

In the Children's shelves, I'm looking forward this month to reading Talina in the Tower, while the YA releases I'm most excited about at the moment are Hollow Pike, Someone Else's Life, This is Not Forgiveness and An Act of Love.

Talina in the Tower by Michelle Lovric (Orion Children's, 2nd Feb) is a fantasy adventure set in Venice featuring scary hyena-like creatures and Talina, who discovers the power to turn into a cat. How cool does that sound? And it's a beautiful hardback; very purply and atmospheric with gold lettering.

Hollow Pike by James Dawson (Indigo, 2nd Feb) is this month's big paranormal release. Centred on Lis, who moves into an area with a history of witchcraft, this is a classic chiller and I loved it. Look out for a review later on this week.

The other three February YA releases I'm highlighting today are all contemporaries.

Someone Else's Life by Katie Dale (Simon & Schuster, 2nd Feb) is an emotional story focused on Huntingdon's Disease and its effects on Rosie as she loses her mother Trudie to the illness. As if that weren't enough to deal with, Rosie discovers that Trudie wasn't in fact her biological mother and, naturally, seeks to discover the truth. Again, there'll be a review of this rollercoaster ride of a book shortly.

This is Not Forgiveness by Celia Rees (Bloomsbury, 2nd Feb) is a tense drama exploring the relationship between Caro (a 'bad girl' type) and Jamie, together with Jamie's brother Rob who's been fighting in Afghanistan and is not coping well with everyday life back home. It's all a bit sinister and dark and something is clearly going to go badly wrong. I'm in the middle of this one at the moment and will certainly be reviewing it in the near future.

Finally, An Act of Love by Alan Gibbons is being released in trade paperback by Indigo on 2nd Feb, having been previously published in a larger format in the summer. This is a thriller weaving 'big ideas' of terrorism and trust together with the story of a specific friendship. I reviewed this one last year and recommend it highly as dealing with important issues in an individualised way which makes it easy to relate and empathise.

Which other titles are you excited about at the moment?

Friday, 27 January 2012

Family Friday: Some Recent Highlights

A few snippets of kid-related fun from the last few weeks:

  • "Are they real acting meercats in the adverts?"
  • 13 yr old special: "Eeew. I've just realised. You've done icky stuff (this means 'had sex') at least twice." (We have two daughters. Remember that moment of realisation? This one came in a shop - Boots. We were buying cold medicines.)
  • The Tooth Fairy Visit. "My tooth's fallen out (in bed) but I don't want to leave it out tonight because I need to write her a letter." OK, letters are nice, right? Of course, she also wanted a letter back and this meant that paper needed to be left out for the fairy to use. Paper which she had decorated specially. Thankfully she fell asleep quickly, so it wasn't a Christmas Eve style event. There were considerable nerves about getting the letter right though, since there could be no second chance. And then when she wanted to take the letter to school as other kids had, we were worried about handwriting not matching, until she mentioned 'X's tooth fairy does this and Y's tooth fairy does that"...

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Thrilling Thursday: Review of Fifteen Days Without a Head by Dave Cousins

This amazing family-based tale mixes comedy with gut-wrenching realism.

Author: Dave Cousins
Title: Fifteen Days Without a Head
Genre: YA Realism
Series: no
Publisher: OUP
Published: 5 Jan 2012
Source: purchased (Kindle version)

Find it at Goodreads or Amazon UK

Description from Amazon:
Fifteen-year-old Laurence Roach just wants a normal life, but it's not easy when your mum is a depressed alcoholic, and your six-year-old brother thinks he's a dog. When Mum fails to come home one night, Laurence tells nobody, terrified he and his brother will be taken into care if anyone finds out. Instead, he attempts to keep up the pretence that Mum is still around: dressing up in her clothes to trick the neighbours and spinning an increasingly complicated tangle of lies. After two weeks on their own, running out of food and money, and with suspicious adults closing in, Laurence finally discovers what happened to his mother. And that's when the trouble really starts . . . A compelling thriller filled with some hilarious and surreal moments. Fifteen Days Without a Head is a tender, honest story about family, forgiveness and hope.

My verdict: an incredible debut, making great use of humour to deal with a decidedly unfunny scenario. Highly recommended.
Dave Cousins is a gifted writer. The grimness of life with an alcoholic mother is conveyed convincingly here, and our hearts break for these two lads. And yet, at the same time, this is a laugh-out-loud, enjoyable story.

Laurence narrates his own story, in the present tense, lending it immediacy and freshness. His voice is realistic as a fifteen-year old boy and as our narrator, we see the worries which he keeps back from everyone else, especially his brother Jay. Jay is also a great character, obsessed with Scooby Doo and given to pretending to be a dog. Their mum is also sensitively - but not sentimentally - drawn and we can see both how difficult her actions make life for her kids and the love they have for her.

The story is pacey and we have a real sense of things closing in on Laurence, while the tension is ramped up by his determination to protect Jay. Of course, since Jay is only six, he is too young to be confided in, so Laurence's isolation is total. It is also impossible to fail to be impressed by the way Laurence grows up and takes responsibility - even if sometimes this is approached via crazy half-baked schemes such as a desperate teenager might come up with. The 'dressing up as Mum' episode in particular is hilarious!

I can see how this book has made such an impact online and would absolutely add my voice to all those urging people to read it. It has broad appeal - both genders, a range of ages - and is important in terms of making lives like the Roaches' visible in a sympathetic and highly entertaining way. I'm certain Dave Cousins is destined for a great future in books.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

In My Mailbox 9

In My Mailbox is a meme run by The Story Siren, in which bloggers can share a peek at the lovely books they've acquired over the past week (or month, as the case may be ...)

In this instalment of IMM, I've received the following lovely books for review:
Don't they look great together?

Hollow Pike by James Dawson is coming out on 2 February and has already caused a lot of online excitement. This is the spookiest book I've received lately: a creepy combo of witches, woods and ominous birds. The trailer is gorgeously chilling (see the end of the post).  James Dawson's website says:

She thought she'd be safe in the country, but you can't escape your own nightmares, and Lis London dreams that someone is trying to kill her.

Lis thinks she's being paranoid - after all, who would want to murder her? She doesn't believe in the local legends of witchcraft. She doesn't believe that anything bad will really happen to her. You never do, do you?

Not until you're alone in the woods, after dark - and a twig snaps...

Welcome to Hollow Pike.

See - spooky! I do love witches though, and James Dawson's countdown on his site has been whetting my appetite with hints of historical reference to witch trials and burnings contributing to a local legend.

Opal Moonbaby by Maudie Smith was launched on 5 January and is a fabulous debut novel for the 7+ age group. It features a crazy alien trying to understand Earth, with the help of Martha, who's decided she doesn't need friends anymore, and her brother Robbie. I reviewed this one last week and Maudie Smith stopped in on her blog tour to talk about the fantasy genre and her writing.

Talina in the Tower by Michelle Lovric is coming out on 2 February in gorgeous hardcover and is another supernatural mystery, but with a younger target audience than Hollow Pike. The dustjacket flap tells us:

Magic is attracted to Talina, and Talina is attracted to magic, with startling results. When, in the dead of night, terrifying creatures start to prowl the waterways of Venice snatching men and women, not to mention children, cats and rats, Talina knows desperate measures are needed. But before she can do anything, her parents disappear and she and her loyal cat, Drusilla, are forced to live with her sinister Guardian in his gaunt and lonely twittering tower on the northernmost edge of the city. It's here her adventure begins . . .

I haven't read any of Michelle Lovric's books before (I've got my eye on The Mourning Emporium too, though) but I have high hopes of this historical fantasy set in Venice.

Venus Rocks by Fiona Dunbar was launched on 5 January and is the third Kitty Slade book. The back cover blurb says:

Hey, Kitty Slade here. Just hanging out, doing ordinary things. You know, like seeing ghosts. It's been happening for a while now, but this time - this time is different...

When Kitty sees a ghost ship, she knows her spooky powers are growing stronger. Plunged into a dark mystery from long a go, she soon encounters Beth, a lost soul who drowned on board. Kitty must uncover the secrets buried at the bottom of the sea - before it's too late...

I'm reading this at the moment and loving its great voice. Although Kitty sees ghosts, the tone so far is sassy rather than spooky - a great fun read for younger teens and older kids.

Monday, 23 January 2012

New Beginnings launch today

Today is the official publication date of New Beginnings by Rebecca Emin.

Join us over on Rebecca’s blog Ramblings of a Rusty Writer to find all of the details of how she is planning to celebrate today, or you can read some reviews of the book itself on Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com or the novel's Goodreads page.

Rebecca kindly sent me a review copy of her book and I read it last week. You can find my review here.

About New Beginnings
Sam Hendry is not looking forward to starting at her new school. Things go from bad to worse as the day of truth arrives and all of her fears come true... and then some.

When Sam meets a different group of people who immediately accept her as a friend, she begins to feel more positive.

With her new friends and interests, will Sam finally feel able to face the bully who taunts her, and to summon up the courage to perform on stage?

Friday, 20 January 2012

Family Friday: Review of Rebecca Emin's New Beginnings

This sweet story launches on Monday.

Author: Rebecca Emin
Title: New Beginnings
Genre: Children's Contemporary
Series: no
Publisher: Grimoire books
Published: 23 Jan 2012
Source: kindly received from the author

Find it at Goodreads

The blurb says:

Sam Hendry is not looking forward to starting at her new school. Things go from bad to worse as the day of truth arrives and all of her fears come true... and then some.

When Sam meets a different group of people who immediately accept her as a friend, she begins to feel more positive.

With her new friends and interests, will Sam finally feel able to face the bully who taunts her, and to summon up the courage to perform on stage?

My verdict: a lovely story conveying a clear message about bullying. Girls of around 8 and up will lap this up, absorbing its comfort and advice.
The story told here is charming and engaging. Sam is realistically drawn in her feelings and reactions and it is easy to empathise with her. The bullying is also conveyed realistically, both in terms of the way it builds and the way others react to it. Sam's interaction with the Bullying UK website to get advice is well integrated and clearly demonstrates to any readers in need of their support (or with friends who could use it) that they can be helpful. The novel avoids being overly didactic on what Sam 'should' do about her situation.

Sam's talent and love for singing and drama is a nice touch, which allows for some lighter episodes as well as opportunities for her to develop her confidence. It is important in children's books that the child protagonist solves their own problems and this is particularly difficult in bullying stories, where the best real world advice is to seek adult help and not to fight back. Sam's talent and the increasingly positive feedback she gets for it help her to gain confidence and feel able to begin to take control.

Overall, this sweet story will engage its intended age group, whether or not they have experience of being bullied, but it will be particularly valuable to any girl who is currently being bullied.

Edited to add: Pop back on Monday when Rebecca is celebrating her launch with a blog splash and some exciting competitions!

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Opal Moonbaby Blog Tour: Fantasy Writer? Moi?

For Words on Wednesday this week, we have a real treat. Maudie Smith, author of the fabulous Opal Moonbaby (see my review) is stopping off on her blog tour to talk about genre.

Fantasy Writer? Moi?
If you'd asked me a couple of years ago whether I liked fantasy writing I'd probably have said no immediately. There would have been no need for soul-searching. As an adult I don't tend to pick up fantasy literature. I've never read a Terry Pratchett for example (don't know what I'm missing?) and the term 'sci-fi' has always been something of a turn off. Sci-fi's not for me, I'd say. It's more of a boy thing.

So when I started writing OPAL MOONBABY and it turned out to be about an alien from another planet, that was something of a surprise, even to me. I've always thought I liked my literature to be set firmly in the real world. But I now realise that I only have to scratch the surface of my childhood reading to see that this never used to be the case.

We're all plunged into fantasy as soon as we start listening to stories. Fairy tales, myths and legends are full of fantastic worlds and amazing creatures the like of which we will never see on Earth. These strange environments and weird and wonderful creatures fire our imaginations and make us laugh but they do more than that too.

When we are children the adult world seems a mad and complicated place. Fairy tales help us make some sense of it but our need to do so doesn't just end when we grow out of Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella and The Pied Piper. We're always having to try and make sense of the world we inhabit. I think that's why I loved books where real world characters bumped into fantasy ones, each having to figure out the logic behind the other's world.

It's that moment where fantasy and reality collide that gets me going. The moment when Mary Poppins flutters down to London with a roomful of belongings in her carpet bag. The moment when Tommy and Annika discover their new neighbour, Pippi Longstocking, has superhuman strength and can lift her horse with one hand. It's the wardrobe moment when Lucy pushes her way past all the coats and finds herself in Narnia and comes face to face with Mr Tumnus.

I loved THE HOBBIT but I wasn't such a fantasy addict that I wanted to tackle THE LORD OF THE RINGS. I liked books where there was more of my world involved, where I could identify with the main characters and their problems. Narnia was enthralling but I was always keen to hang around quite near the entrance to the wardrobe.

In my book Opal is the title character and she's the catalyst for the story but the real hero is Martha. I wanted my human hero to be as rooted as possible in the everyday world and it was her story I wanted to write. Martha has everyday problems with friendships and family, of the type we can all identify with, and she has to solve them herself. Sometimes Opal is helpful and sometimes she makes things more difficult than ever but I hope she always adds spice and sparkle, and some humour, to any adventure.

Opal isn't the only fantasy character I'm working on just now. Reluctant witches, elusive mermaids and jealous cloud creatures are all milling around up there in my brain cogs. So I suppose I must be a fantasy writer after all.

Maybe I'd better sample some more adult fantasy then. Stephen King, here I come....?

Thanks for such an interesting post, Maudie. I must admit, I tend not to read much 'pure' fantasy written for adults either. I love Pratchett , but don't see his books as 'pure' fantasy because of the satirical element. I've recently loved Sarah Addison Allen's books for a touch of fantasy in a real world setting.

Any suggestions for Maudie, anyone? (Oh, and I suggest you take a look at Opal Moonbaby if you like children's books or want a good read for a  7+ girl).

The next stop on the Opal Moonbaby tour is the magical Book Angel Booktopia. If you want to check out the other places Maudie's visited, click on the tour button for a list. (I'd particularly recommend the Serendipity Reviews stop, where a fabulous tea party for Opal with fictional characters was planned)

Monday, 16 January 2012

Magical Mondays: Review of Opal Moonbaby by Maudie Smith

This marvellous debut has all the magic of classic children's books, yet is bang up to date with a quirky and lively voice.

Author: Maudie Smith 
Title: Opal Moonbaby
Genre: Children's Fantasy
Series: yes (see Smith's website)
Publisher: Orion
Published: Jan 5 2012
Source: kindly provided for review from Orion

Find it at Goodreads or Amazon UK  

The blurb says:
Martha's decided friends are stupid. She never wants another friend. Ever. So when Opal Moonbaby comes along, with her mad silver hair and huge violet eyes, claiming to be an alien, Martha is definitely NOT interested. But Opal isn't the kind of alien who takes no for an answer... Sparkling with originality and charm, this is a heart-warming, hilarious story about friendship.

My verdict: Brilliant story, great characters. Highly recommended for 7+, especially girls.
This warm and quirky book will appeal to many girls, whilst avoiding some of the more obvious girliness that is sometimes seen on the shelves for this age group (and which puts off my 8yo; I'm sure there are others like her).

Martha is a brilliantly written character: easy to relate to and well-rounded. What's impressive and effective about this debut is that the other characters are also efficiently drawn and clearly differentiated. Martha and her brother are good kids, shown through their concern for their mother and for Opal. Opal, of course, steals the show with her enormous personality and all-round craziness. Violet eyes? Silver hair? Lack of regard for rules and authority? How could we fail to fall for her?

The wackiness of Opal's character and the overall unlikeliness of an alien arrival is countered by these characters who behave in realistic and understandable ways, allowing us to suspend disbelief and enter Opal's world. The plot itself is also believable, and Martha's issues with friends will be familiar to many readers. This aspect of the plot is the heart of the story and has a valuable message without being didactic or clumsy.

Overall, I loved the lightness of touch and general humour of this. I'm pleased to see there will be more and know my 8yo will love them. She's a fan of Kes Gray's Daisy chapter books and Joanna Nadin's Penny Dreadful series, and this has a similar kind of warmth and voice (although those series create most of their wackiness through the first-person narration of their colourful main characters, while Opal Moonbaby is told in the third person).

To celebrate the publication of Opal Moonbaby, Maudie Smith is embarking on a blog tour this month and I am thrilled to announce that she will be here at the Hearthfire with a Words on Wednesday post this week, talking about genre.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

In My Mailbox 8: Kindle Special

Just like many others, I spent some of the lazy post-Christmas days adding to my Kindle books collection, with no small amount of help from the 12 Days of Kindle promotion. Since this is quite a list, I'm going to try to restrain myself from rambling on! All links go to Amazon.

Crime (adult books)
The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths
Devil-Devil by G W Kent
There's an 'interesting setting' vibe going on with these three (for me at least) - East Anglia ('back home' to me - gotta love the combination of familiar and shocking!); exotic island; English country house (and I love Beaton's Agatha Raisin series for light and cosy crime - like an endless sitcom where all the characters end up back where they started every time).

Women's (adult books)
Results Not Typical by Catherine Howard
Both of these were free when I downloaded them, and both are currently the grand sum of 77p! I read Talli Roland's over New Year and really enjoyed it. It's the first of hers I've read, as I haven't really got into chick lit before. It was a fun read, and Results Not Typical sounds like a great satire on the slimming industry.

Non-Fiction (adult books)
Tweeting the Universe: Tiny Explanations of Very Big Ideas by Marcus Chown and Govert Schilling
Writing a Novel with Scrivener by David Hewson
This is quite a mix of stuff I thought I could do with (a bit of Scrivener clarity - there's so much to get your head around) and stuff that sounded intriguing. So far, both of the others are great examples of dip-into non-fiction, which is brilliant on the Kindle when you've got a few spare minutes.

Children's and YA - Fantasy (including Urban and Dystopia) 
Frozen in Time by Ali Sparkes
Daughter of the Flames by Zoe Marriott
Paranormalcy by Kiersten White
The Future of Us by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler
Unique by Alison Allen-Gray
The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson
Delirium by Lauren Oliver
There are some titles in here that I've had on my wishlist for ages, and others that I've only recently heard of. Quite a range though, from classic fantasy (albeit with a kick-ass female flavour) like Daughter of the Flames, to the intriguing The Future of Us where 1990s kids somehow get sight of their Facebook statuses from the future and can influence them. And how intriguing does Delirium's world where love is outlawed as craziness sound?

Children's and YA - Realism
This Is Not Forgiveness by Celia Rees
Fifteen Days Without a Head by Dave Cousins
Della says: OMG! by Keris Stainton
The Truth About Celia Frost by Paula Rawsthorne
Almost True by Keren David
Again, this is a mix of new titles and some that I've been after for a while, as well as being a mixture of 'gritty' realism and contemporary humour - sometimes in the same book.

I know this is a load at once, but hey, that's what Amazon vouchers are for, right? :) I'm bound to be reviewing at least some of these over the next few months.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Thrilling Thursday: Review of Dark Parties by Sara Grant

I really enjoyed this and will absolutely be looking out for Sara Grant's future books.

Author: Sara Grant
Title: Dark Parties
Genre: Dystopian YA
Series: standalone
Publisher: Indigo
Published: Jan 2012
Source: kindly provided for review by the publisher

Find it at Goodreads

Goodreads description:
Sixteen-year-old Neva has been trapped since birth. She was born and raised under the Protectosphere, in an isolated nation ruled by fear, lies, and xenophobia. A shield "protects" them from the outside world, but also locks the citizens inside. But there's nothing left on the outside, ever since the world collapsed from violent warfare. Or so the government says...

Neva and her best friend Sanna believe the government is lying and stage a "dark party" to recruit members for their underground rebellion. But as Neva begins to uncover the truth, she realizes she must question everything she's ever known, including the people she loves the most.

My Verdict: Fab dystopian with excellent world building and realistic characters.
Bleak though Neva's world is, being lost in it was a thrilling experience. Grant has the knack of sharing information concisely through tiny details and light touches. It's great to read something set in such an intriguing and different world without a ton of 'essential' information being offered via the handy outsider or history lesson. There are plenty of things I still don't know about this world, and I would love to read a sequel or companion novel set in the same context, but I'm intrigued rather than frustrated.

The characters are beautifully drawn and engaging. Neva has our sympathies from the start, with her torn loyalties and desire to rebel. There are many interesting characters in the novel, many of whom impact on Neva's growing unease and isolation at some point. The question of who can be trusted is raised multiple times in this story and the plot offers more than one twist which I didn't see coming. Ultimately, it's a classic dystopian tale of the clash between totalitarianism and the individual. Neva's position as that individual is precarious and her resolve is clear, but so is her fear - particularly her fear for others. Although Neva's strength and determination are admirable, it is her weaker moments and her uncertainty due to possible effects on others that endear her to us.

This is a pacy thriller, speeding us along Neva's seemingly inevitable journey into rebellion, largely due to the immediacy of the present tense narration and the text's efficiency. There isn't a single wasted word and Grant is therefore able to compel Neva on in her twisting quest while also fleshing out characters and setting enough to make this an involving read.

Overall, I'd recommend this as a thrilling and engaging story above all, with great world building and characterisation. It's instructive for those of us seeking to write speculatively, and is likely to be thought-provoking, especially for teens, on the tension between government protection and control. I'll certainly be recommending it to my students.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Magical Monday: 10 Fabulous Full Moon Facts

  1. Today's full moon is known as the Old Moon, the Wolf Moon or the Ice Moon. (NB: different traditions have different names for each moon).
  2. Violence and crime is said to increase at the full moon, with more cases of assault, murder, arson and suicide.
  3. The rutting season for deer (and other herbivores) appears to be related to the full moon.
  4. More babies are said to be born at the full moon.
  5. Trying to conceive at a full moon is supposed to increase your chances of a son (it's the new moon for a daughter).
  6. The Old Moon is said to be a good time for spells and rituals relating to the home and family and material matters.  
  7. Salmon and other animals are noted to migrate in greater numbers at the full moon.
  8. Cutting your hair at the full moon is claimed to make it grow more quickly.
  9. The full moon is associated with the Mother aspect of the Goddess.
  10. Herbs harvested at the full moon are believed to be more potent, as they contain more essential oils.
So, which of these have you heard before?

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Thrilling Thursday: New Releases from Orion

Today, @fiercefiction and @the_orionstar - the YA and children's branches of Orion publishing, respectively - have a crop of exciting new releases.

Opal Moonbaby by Maudie Smith
Synopsis from the Orion website:
Sparkling, original and fun - meet Opal Moonbaby, the alien who came to stay, in this brilliant new series for 7+ girls.

Martha's decided friends are stupid. Especially if they're anything like Colette and Chloe. She never wants another friend. Ever.

But it's the first day of the summer holidays, and there's not that much to do... until she spots a strange little furry creature who leads her to Opal Moonbaby. Opal's been sent down from her planet on a mission: to work out what on earth people are (and my goodness - people are strange) and to make a friend.

Maudie Smith will be here as part of her blog tour on the 18th January, and I'll be reviewing this one soon. Doesn't it look like a fun new title?

Dark Parties by Sara Grant
Synopsis from the Orion website:
Sixteen-year-old Neva plots to escape her world, where everyone looks the same and no one is allowed to leave, in this compelling thriller about identity, trust and freedom.

Neva keeps a list of The Missing - the people like her grandmother who were part of her life but who have now vanished. The people that everyone else pretends never existed.

In a nation isolated beneath the dome of the Protectosphere - which is supposed to protect, but also imprisons - Neva and her friends dream of freedom. 

But life is becoming complicated for Neva. She's falling for her best friend's boyfriend - and she's learning more than she ever wanted to know about what might be happening to The Missing...

I'm reading this one at the moment and really enjoying it. Watch out for my review coming soon, and Sara Grant will be here for her Dark Days of January blog tour at the end of the month, posing the tricky question: What would you stand up to protect?

Crossing Over by Anna Kendall
Synopsis from the Orion website:
The Land of the Dead is a dangerous place to be...and so is the Land of the Living.

Whether it's a curse or a blessing the fact remains: whenever Roger is in enough pain he can cross over to the Land of the Dead and speak to the people there. It's an unexpected gift - and one that, throughout Roger's life, his violent uncle has taken advantage of. Roger has been hauled from fairground to fairground, and beaten into unconsciousness, in order to bring word of the dead to the recently bereaved. It's a hard, painful way of life, deceiving the living for a crust of bread.

So when Roger has the chance of a new life, it seems a gift. He has a chance at safety and at living a life of his choosing, tucked away in the royal court. But life is unexpected, and when Roger falls in love with the bewitching, willful Lady Cecilia he has no idea what he is letting himself in for. With every step he takes towards her, he is drawn deeper into court intrigue, into politics, and even into war . . .

. . . and when Roger's curious abilities come to the Queen's attention, everything changes forever.

Trapped in courtly politics, bound by secrets, Roger is torn between his own safety and that of his friends. He can save them . . . but only if he can bring himself to perform a deed so unthinkable that the living and the dead shrink from it alike. . .

Intriguing, isn't it? And what a gorgeous cover!

The Hunting Ground by Cliff McNish
Synopsis from the Orion website:
Can Elliott escape the terrifying ghost of Glebe House or will he be trapped in the mansion, forever hunted by the dead?

When Elliott and his brother, Ben, move into the old and crumbling Glebe House they don't expect to find themselves sharing it with ghosts.

But soon sinister events are unfolding. An old diary reveals glimpses of the mansion's past - and of a terrible tragedy. A mysterious woman talks to the dead. And evil lurks in the East Wing - a hideous labyrinth of passageways devised by a truly twisted mind. 

Can Elliott and his family escape the clutches of Glebe House? Or will they be trapped in the maze of corridors, forever hunted by the dead?

This sounds really spooky and atmospheric, and that's certainly what the cover promises. Will I dare to read it? 

Dark Warning by Marie Louise Fitzpatrick
Synopsis from the Orion website:
Her past is a secret, but Taney Tyrell is haunted by the future. Brilliant new novel about a girl with the gift of the second sight, by Irish author Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick.

Ever since Taney was four she's known she could see things before they happened. She also knows that she must keep her gift a secret - at all costs. Teased and isolated by the local children for being strange, as Taney grows older, she has more and more questions. Why is her father so terrified of her gift? What happened to her mother? 

Then she meets the mysterious Billy, an outsider just as she is. Charming and attentive, Billy is the first person with whom Taney can simply be herself; with whom she can share her strange burden, and begin, instead, to feel proud of her ability.

But then the visions come - lone girls attacked as they walk home at night. And as Billy begins to withdraw further into himself, Taney must ask herself who to trust - her only friend, or the visions that torment her dreams...

This one's a younger YA title, aimed at readers of 12+. It sounds really interesting and I can't wait to find out more about Taney's abilities. 

Exciting reads ahead, wouldn't you agree?

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

In My Mailbox 7

It's been about five weeks since I last did one of these, as it all went a bit quiet over the holidays. That is until the strike of the deadly 12 Days of Kindle. Since that promotion is still ongoing and I just might possibly buy some more ebooks during it, I'll save the wrap-up from that for another day.

My exciting win, arriving just before Christmas was Troubadour by Mary Hoffman. I won this in a giveaway on the brilliant History Girls blog, which features daily posts from a crew of historical novelists writing for a range of age groups. I didn't know what I'd won (it was a pot luck thing), so I was thrilled to receive this, having had several of Hoffman's books on my wishlist for a while. I'm sure this will be the start of something!

Before Christmas, I downloaded several Kindle books by people I follow on Twitter or whose blogs I read. I'm looking forward to reading these, and all have been receiving rave reviews:

Mel Sherratt (who blogs at High Heels and Book Deals) has made her debut crime thriller, Taunting the Dead, available on Kindle. I really like the sound of this one and am excited at the possibility of beginning a new crime series.

Find it at Amazon UK

Gillian Philips has released a prequel to her Rebel Angels series, Frost Child, dealing with Seth's parents relationship. It's a novella rather than a full length novel and is therefore currently only available on Kindle. Just look at this gorgeous cover!

Find it at Amazon UK

Finally, Mondays Are Red by Nicola Morgan is now available under her Crabbit Publishing imprint. This was her first novel and centres on the theme of the power of words.

Find it at Amazon UK

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Reading and Reviewing Challenges for 2012

As I posted last week, I greatly enjoyed the Bookette's British Books Challenge this year and it has left me raring to go with other challenges.  As you may have noticed from the lovely badges currently adorning the left hand side of the blog, I've found some to sign up for.  Here's a quick run-down of what I'm pledging to do for these challenges (and do please note that a single book read and reviewed could, theoretically, count towards all three challenges!):

British Book Challenge 2012
For this one, I need to read and review a minimum of 12 books by British writers (any genre, any target audience, published at any time). In 2011, I managed 22, so I'm hoping to exceed this for this year.
Debut Author Challenge 2012
This is the first of the new (to me) challenges that I've signed up for. This one is also a 12-book challenge, and is (unsurprisingly) focused on debut authors in the YA and MG categories (even if they've previously published adult or non-fiction books). I'm hoping to reach 20 in this category this year.
New Authors Challenge 2012
This is a three-tier challenge: you can set yourself a target of 15, 25 or 50 books (I went for 25). Each of these books must be by an author who is new to you. Obviously, most books I read for the Debut challenge will count here, but they do not need to be debuting to count for this one.

There may also be other challenges I happen across and join in during the year. For example, in 2011, I was happy to spot Portrait of a Woman's Lesbian Teen Novels week and to shunt Malinda Lo's Ash to the top of my TBR pile for that week.

Finally, I'm setting myself a Goodreads target of 50 books for 2012, as I read precisely 40 in 2011. Obviously, this includes all books I record in Goodreads and not all of those will be reviewed here (like books I read for work).

Each of these challenges now has its own page where I'll record books I plan to read and link to reviews as they're completed. These pages (and the badges to the left) will also take you to the sign-up posts, if you want to join in!
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