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English teacher interested in language and culture, and also in fiction using magic, myth, folklore and the supernatural. Now teaching part-time in a Leicester Upper School (ages 14-19) and also writing for children, teens and teachers.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Family Friday Review: Lolly Luck by Ellie Daines

This charming debut is a timely tale of family hardship.

Author: Ellie Daines
Title: Lolly Luck
Genre: Contemporary realism (children's)
Series: none (to my knowledge)
Publisher: Andersen
Published: Jan 2012
Source: kindly sent for review by the publisher

Find it at Goodreads or Amazon UK  

The blurb says:
'I'm Lolly Luck by name, lucky by nature. I'm the luckiest person I know, and the luckiest person everyone else knows.'

But Lolly's luck begins to turn. When her dad loses his job and the family home, Lolly thinks things can't get any worse. Then she overhears her parents arguing and learns a secret that will change her life forever...

My verdict: Realistic characters and situations make this an effective and enjoyable read.
This tale of family difficulties leading to major changes in circumstances is well told and will be enjoyed by readers of around 9 and up. Lolly is a likeable and realistic character who narrates her own story in a lively voice. The idea of her being lucky and feeling she's lost her luck adds a different angle to the story and contributes to her generally positive outlook on life, while her penchant for making paper fans is a cute and realistic quirk to her character. Her relationship with her parents and sister and others at school are believable and will have familiar aspects for many readers, including the teasing from the 'mean girl' and her hesitation in sharing some of her problems with even her best friend.

The triggering issue here - her father losing his job - will, unfortunately, be familiar to some readers who are likely to find a story like this reassuring. Lolly's resilience, especially since we see her optimism sometimes struggling, offers hope. This is no sugar-coated version of the world and Daines does not go easy on Lolly and her family, but it is all handled well for the target age group. The life-changing secret is also believable, as are the circumstances surrounding its revelation.

I enjoyed this book and my 8 yr old is keen to read it next, thanks largely to the cute cover. It's worth a mention that I probably wouldn't have noted Lolly's intended racial identity without this cover, and I think this is a good thing. It's great that there is greater representation of diversity in children's books now, and that there can be black and minority ethnic characters in kids' books without the story being somehow about their race. Any kind of family can experience what Lolly's family does, so there is no need for such stories to default to white kids any more, like they did when I was a kid.

Overall, this is a very good example of contemporary realism for the 'middle grade' reader. It doesn't shy away from difficult situations, but it isn't miserable either. Lolly is a great character who carries the tale beautifully.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Words on Wednesday: the Meaning of Epic

What a great word! Applied to a story, it describes the sweep of a complex tale, usually incorporating a quest. It seems now, like many other words before it, to have broadened and weakened its meaning in some contexts, to mean something like "really really good". 

It's been our teenager's adjective of choice for things she's really pleased about for a while. For example, most of her Christmas presents were declared epic (to our great delight). I don't know exactly how widespread this weakened teenage use is, but my students don't tend to use it in this way. That could be due to age (my daughter's 13, my students 16-19) or geography (we're in Leicester, I teach in Nuneaton). Students in the college I work in are aware of it, though. GCSE students working on writing film reviews criticised a sample student review of Pirates of the Caribbean because it used the word epic, which they saw as slang usage and therefore inappropriate.

Is this a sign that some of these words which are used differently by teens could gradually lose their original meaning, as people no longer are aware of them? It hasn't happened to some of the reversed meaning teen slang words like 'sick'; the earlier meanings still stand alongside the new ones, but I'm pretty sure many teens don't know any other meaning for 'blatantly' than 'clearly'.

Is epic a teen word for good/great where you are?

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

In My Mailbox 10

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:

Someone Else's Life by Katie Dale: a heartwarming YA story full of twists and turns. I enjoyed this one immensely - see my review for more detail.
The Mourning Emporium by Michelle Lovric: children's historical fantasy set in Venice. I loved Talina in the Tower and have high hopes for this.
Lolly Luck by Ellie Daines: a charming children's contemporary novel. This was a great read, which I'll be reviewing on Friday.
Hope Road by John Barlow: the first in a new crime series set in Leeds, which I'm looking forward to reading.
Road to London by Barbara Mitchelhill: this children's historical is coming out in April. Elizabethan London, Shakespeare, adventure - who could resist?

I've won:
Full Dark House by Christopher Fowler
in a competition on Notes of Life, hosted by the lovely Nikki-Ann.
This is the first in a highly unusual crime series featuring Bryant and May of the Peculiar Crimes Unit. Reviews for this series feature adjectives like "offbeat", "quirky" and "eccentric", so I'm betting this will be fun!

and made the following purchases:
Medal Mayhem by Tamsyn Murray: the fourth Stunt Bunny book, linking classic SB madness to this year's Olympic excitement. My 8 yr old was so excited when this arrived and promptly made off with it.
How Beautiful the Ordinary: Twelve Stories of Identity edited by Michael Cart. These short stories explore a range of LGBT experience, in this collection for teens. I'll be reviewing this for Portrait of a Woman's LGBT week next week.
Writing for Children by Linda Strachan: unsurprisingly, a book about writing for children! Surprisingly comprehensive though, covering non-fiction as well as fiction, and explaining a lot of the business side of writing - contracts, royalties, ALCS, PLR etc.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Magical Monday: Review of Talina in the Tower by Michelle Lovric

This magical tale of spells, cats and creepy hyena-wolf-things is a great read.

Author: Michelle Lovric
Title: Talina in the Tower
Genre: Fantasy (children's)
Series: third in a sequence of Venice-set novels (following The Undrowned Child and The Mourning Emporium)
Publisher: Orion
Published: Feb 2012
Source: kindly sent for review by the publisher

Find it at Amazon UK or Goodreads

Book description from Amazon:
Savage hyena-like creatures threaten Venice - the Ravageurs are on the prowl and seizing men, women and children. On the night of 30 June 1846 Talina's parents disappear and she and her cat, Drusilla, are forced to go and live with her Guardian and his three savage dogs in his lonely tower in the northernmost edge of the city. Here she discovers that she has the ability to change herself into a cat, but changing herself back into a girl isn't quite so easy. As a cat she learns about the Ravageurs and how over the centuries they have become semi magical creatures, visible only to children in the human world, and that they are intent on destroying Venice. She is determined to save the city - it's time for desperate measures - and her adventures are about to begin.

My verdict: brilliant fun! A lively fantasy adventure for 8+. 
I enjoyed this book a lot. Reading it, I was enveloped in a cocoon of magic, taking me to a nineteenth century Venice where magic openly exists. The Ravageurs were the first example of this magic, being rowed about by rats and stealing away people for some horrible purpose.

The cover is gorgeous - all purple and gold, while the image of the Ravageur on the back cover is suitably hideous (my 8yo referred to this book as 'the one with the scary thing on the back'). I do wonder, though, whether the pretty cover would deter boy readers who are likely to enjoy the story. Talina is no girly-girl and the story is essentially a quest-type adventure.

I really liked Talina as a character. I do have a soft spot for bold girls and Talina is certainly that. Famous for her impudence and temper, she has the nerve to go against adult characters (who can be in the wrong) and to fight to save her parents and Venice as a whole. She also does develop through the course of the story and isn't quite the same Talina at the end as at the beginning.

The narration is third person, allowing some comment on and description of Talina from the outside and there are some wonderful touches in the dialogue. I appreciated the way some of the male cats spoke, showing their masculinity and roughness (like "dat's da troof"), and the fake French accents used by the Ravageurs to hide their true origins.

I haven't read Lovric's earlier Venice novels, so I can't comment on their connection, but I believe that this story does stand alone, with no need to read the others first. The story certainly felt complete to me, with no sense that I was missing something.

Once of the things I loved most about this book was the addition at the back of a section entitled "What is real and what is made up". These few pages precisely outline which elements of the story are factual and which are invented (unsurprisingly!). I would have loved this kind of detail as a child, and I'm sure my daughter will lap this up too. I was surprised at some of the small details which had come from historical fact; this section definitely added to my enjoyment of the book.

Overall, this is a classic children's fantasy with magical creatures, well-rounded characters and plenty of twists and setbacks.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Thrilling Thursday: Review of This Is Not Forgiveness by Celia Rees

This superb novel is no light, fluffy read - but is an experience well worth having.

Author: Celia Rees
Title: This is Not Forgiveness
Genre: Thriller (YA)
Series: no
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Published: Dec 2011 (e-book) Feb 2012 (paperback)
Source: purchased on my Kindle

Find it at Goodreads or Amazon UK

The blurb says:
Everyone says that Caro is bad . . . but Jamie can't help himself. He thinks of her night and day and can't believe that she wants to be his girlfriend. Gorgeous, impulsive and unconventional, she is totally different to all the other girls he knows. His sister, Martha, hates her. Jamie doesn't know why, but there's no way he's going to take any notice of her warnings to stay away from Caro.

But as Jamie falls deeper and deeper under her spell, he realises there is more to Caro - much more. There are the times when she disappears and doesn't get in touch, the small scars on her wrists, her talk about revolutions and taking action, not to mention the rumours he hears about the other men in her life.

And then always in the background there is Rob, Jamie's older brother, back from Afghanistan and traumatised after having his leg smashed to bits there. Jamie wants to help him, but Rob seems to be living in a world of his own and is increasingly difficult to reach.

With Caro, the summer should have been perfect . . . but that isn't how things work out in real life, and Jamie is going to find out the hard way.

My verdict: A harrowing, can't-look-away thriller. Strongly recommended to teens and up.
The bulk of this novel centres on Jamie and is told in his voice. We know from the start that Rob is dead (Jamie is focusing on his ashes and thinking about his poorly-attended funeral), and that his was not the only death. Then we skip back in time, knowing we are being inexorably propelled to the catastrophic event that led to Rob's sorry little funeral.

Before long, we are involved in Jamie's life, with some chapters in Caro's or Rob's voice. These additional voices enrich the narrative and provide some context, but they do not divide our loyalties. Jamie is definitely the sympathetic character here. Yes, we feel some pity for Rob (with his clear PTSD and physical injuries), but our true sympathies are clearly drawn to Jamie. At least, that's my experience. I quickly lost count of the number of times I wanted to say "No Jamie! Don't ....!". Both Rob and Caro have reasons to act the way they do, and are subject to past hardships, but ultimately both behave in ways that are difficult to justify, especially towards Jamie.

As a thriller, this novel is totally absorbing. It's clear things are going to end badly, but we don't know the specifics, and that is what keeps us reading. The characters are all fully-fleshed, interesting, and believable, if we can't easily like them all. Each character's voice is clearly differentiated and reflects their personality; there is no way you could read this and be confused by the three narrators.

I haven't read any other Celia Rees novels (I know, I'm hanging my head typing this), but I certainly will. I understand that this is different to many of her other works, but regardless of topic, genre or setting, it demonstrates her ability to create compelling characters and an airtight plot with twists and turns.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Words on Wednesday: Guest Post by Katie Dale

Someone Else's Life, Katie Dale's fabulous YA debut, came out this month. I loved this emotional read encompassing family secrets and the trauma of living under the shadow of Huntington's Disease. Naturally I was thrilled that Katie agreed to visit the Hearthfire as part of her blog tour. So, it's over to Katie:

My Top Ten Childrens/YA Authors in the History of Time!
As my first books hit the shelves it’s got me thinking about the authors who inspired me, and the stories that stick with me even today.
Here are my Top Ten!
JM Barrie The story of the boy who never grew up has stuck firmly in my heart since I was a child, waiting by my bedroom window for Peter to take me flying off to Neverland! My all-time favourite.
Enid Blyton Blyton has to be the most prolific children’s author ever. As a child I couldn’t get enough of her series, from the childhood magic and mischief of Noddy, Naughty Amelia Jane and The Magic Faraway Tree, through the midnight feasts and escapades of St Clares and Mallory Towers, right to the mystery and adventures of The Secret Seven, The Famous Five and the Adventure series, Enid Blyton was wonderful company throughout my childhood, and every book I opened was a wonderful adventure.

Jacqueline Wilson – Hot on Blyton’s heels, Wilson has earned her place as the tween girl’s favourite, writing two books a year – and what books! Taking serious and gritty issues and handling them with humour and vitality she creates vibrant, memorable, feisty characters who make us laugh and make us cry. My faves are The Story of Tracy Beaker and The Suitcase Kid.

Morris Gleitzman – Like Jacqueline Wilson, Gleitzman takes tricky/tragic situations and makes them both poignant and hysterical with his sparse, witty, sparkling books, particularly Blabber Mouth, about feisty fun-loving Rowena Batts – who just happens to be mute – and more recently Once and Then, about Jewish children trying to escape the Nazis during the Second World War.

Michael Morpurgo – Michael Morpurgo is the author of some of the most beautiful children’s books around today. The Dancing Bear, Why The Whales Came, The Butterfly Lion and War Horse simply sing with their lyrical prose, and deep emotional heart beating strongly behind every page.

JK Rowling – Rowling is unquestionably one of the defining literary talents of modern times. The vast, detailed and magical world she created around Harry Potter, the scope of her vision across all seven books, her use of allegory and themes, and her skill in weaving it all together into an adventure that kept children and adults alike gripped, nose-deep in her books right till the very end, will undoubtedly be enjoyed by generations to come.

Jane Austen – the original chick-lit author! Austen’s romantic novels describing a time of balls and manners are as well-loved today as ever. Absolutely timeless. But my favourite is not the beloved Pride and Prejudice, but the even more heart-wrenching Sense and Sensibility. Like the Bennet sisters, Marianne and Eleanor are dependent upon a good marriage for a viable future, but the fairytale ending doesn’t come quite so easily, and hard lessons must be learned first.

Bronte sisters Okay, this is a bit of a cheat, but I couldn’t choose between these talented sisters whose vibrant imaginations transported them from their restrictive parsonage upbringing into romance, danger, and adventure with two of the most classic love stories of all time, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights – with two of the most rugged literary heroes ever.
Caroline B. Cooney – I first encountered Caroline B. Cooney through one of her “Point Horror” books –The Train, which gave me several sleepless nights and had to be abandoned halfway through after a character got nailed into a coffin – alive. It took me a while to pick up another, but when I started reading Among Friends I was so thankful that I had. Cooney has such a knack for describing the trauma and triumphs of the teen experience, and Among Friends and her incredible Face on The Milk Carton series, in which a teenage girl discovers she was kidnapped as a toddler, are two of my favourite ever YA books.

Sharon Creech – I discovered Sharon Creech like a hidden jewel when I picked up Walk Two Moons. I’d never heard of her before, but became so captivated by the story of Salamanca – a girl on a road trip with her Gram to visit the mother who recently left her and her father –  that I have sought out all her other titles. Part coming-of-age, part family mystery, completely charming and moving and heart-breaking, Walk Two Moons is a treasure I will keep forever.

So those are my top ten – what are yours?
Chosen by Katie Dale
Published by Simon & Schuster February 2012
Twitter: @katiedaleuk

Wow, thanks Katie - so many great memories and recommendations there. Thank you so much for visiting and sharing your Top Ten with us. Caroline B Cooney is new to me. What about you?

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Love and Magic

So, it's Valentine's Day. The day that the birds traditionally pair up for mating, and people celebrate the idea of love and romance (or fertility, since 'true love' seems to be a relatively modern idea).

There's a ton of information around about love spells, for example:

  • different coloured candles can be used to focus on different kinds of love (e.g. new love = pink; faithfulness = green; passion = red)
  • over 150 different herbs have been associated with spells to attract love over at least the last few decades
  • contemporary books on magic tend to emphasise the need not to remove someone's free will, and often advise creating a spell to facilitate meeting the right person, rather than a spell that asks for a particular individual's love

I think the existence of love spells reveals a desire to make love certain and predictable. But perhaps that's the point? Perhaps what makes us value 'true love' (or genuine commitment) is precisely the difficulty in finding it? Finding true love requires a leap of faith in making oneself vulnerable and even this cannot guarantee that love will be reciprocated. How much safer it would be if we could control the process and not have to risk so much! But then, would we put so much value on love?

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

It's Safer Internet Day today!

Today is Safer Internet Day, with a focus this year on learning to be safe online together, intergenerationally. I think this is a great focus as I think often some of the 'be safe online' advice that we are encouraged to give to the young is too broad and basic, and starts from too scared a position. It's like the standard 'stranger danger' advice given to primary age children that makes me more than a little nervous. Kids are, statistically, more at risk from people known to them than strangers, and many younger kids are led to believe that greeting neighbours (whom you see often but don't 'know' in any real sense) is dangerous or somehow bad.

So let me tell you about the positive things I've gained from online networking:

  • reassurance when having my children, from others expecting in the same month
  • friendship and stretching discussions from special interest groups in a range of areas: crafts, tarot, books
  • thought-provoking debate from other women on postgrad courses with a women's studies element 
  • conversation and resources from others teaching the same subject and age group as me 

All of the above come from specific communities that I have opted into (and often opted out of again as circumstances change and interests and time availability shifts), and all have, above all, offered me the support that can only come from shared experience. This is the big thing that the internet allows which we can't replicate elsewhere: we can find people who are doing/experiencing/feeling the same as us. The scale of the internet makes this easier than it would be to do physically, as well as the fact that it is easy to browse in quite a utilitarian way online. It's less easy (and less socially acceptable) to wander around locally looking for people with similar interests, whereas online groups are clearly and explicitly set up to enable this kind of niche networking.

These are the things that I would want to celebrate about online networking. Of course, kids need help and advice to help protect them from predators, and to help them realise the effects of cyberbullying, but not to the extent that they are discouraged from finding online friends. I wouldn't want to deny my daughters the sort of invaluable support and friendship that I have found online.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Family Friday: Review of Someone Else's Life by Katie Dale

Families, secrets and heartbreak for Family Friday. This emotional read piles on the pressure with one unexpected twist after another.

Author: Katie Dale
Title: Someone Else's Life
Genre: Contemporary realism (YA)
Series: no
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Published: Feb 2 2012
Source: Kindly provided for review by the author

Find it at Amazon UK or Goodreads 

The blurb says:
When seventeen-year-old Rosie’s mother, Trudie, dies from Huntington’s Disease, her pain is intensified by the knowledge that she has a fifty-per-cent chance of inheriting the crippling disease herself. Only when she tells her mum’s best friend, ‘Aunt Sarah’ that she is going to test for the disease does Sarah, a midwife, reveal that Trudie was not her biological mother after all... 

Devastated, Rosie decides to trace her real mother, hitching along on her ex-boyfriend’s GAP year to follow her to Los Angeles. But all does not go to plan, and as Rosie discovers yet more of her family's deeply-buried secrets and lies, she is left with an agonising decision of her own - one which will be the most heart-breaking and far-reaching of all...

My verdict: a real rollercoaster ride. Recommended for fans of emotional realism.
This novel could well make you cry - and not just once. I found myself so involved with Rosie's world and her incredible journey that I was, at times, wiping away tears to continue reading. You should know that this is really not typical for me. I tend not to choose 'weepies' and both resent and don't respond to emotional manipulation (this was one of my big problems with The Kite Runner). In this novel, however, emotions are effectively handled. Even though the problems piling up on Rosie sometimes had me gasping in amazement, I felt that Dale never went far enough to break the spell of suspended disbelief.

The narration in this novel is first-person, switching between Rosie and another voice (it isn't confirmed who this is initially and I'm not doing spoilers!) It is easy to engage with Rosie's voice and to sympathise with her, although she is a sufficiently realistic teen under pressure that at times I was exasperated with her behaviour, particularly in the way she treats Andy, her ex-boyfriend. Given the complex and intense situations that Rosie is in, however, it's also easy to forgive her and give her a chance to redeem herself.

The novel deals well with Huntington's, which I didn't really know much about before. I'm sure it will be an effective way of raising awareness (as well as funds - a portion of the proceeds are being donated). It will achieve this because it is an entertaining story in its own right, and not just a vehicle for teaching about Huntington's.

Overall, I found this a highly enjoyable read. It's an impressive debut - Katie Dale is definitely one to watch. Celebrating the release of Someone Else's Life, she's on a blog tour at the moment (see the banner to the right) and will be visiting the Hearthfire on Feb 15th with a 'Words on Wednesday' post for us.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Thrilling Thursday: Review of Hollow Pike by James Dawson

This creepy read is excellent. It's far more subtle than I expected, and extremely satisfying.

Author: James Dawson
Title: Hollow Pike
Genre: Chiller (YA)
Series: no
Publisher: Indigo (Orion)
Published: Feb 2 2012
Source: Kindly sent for review by the publisher

Find it at Amazon UK or Goodreads

The blurb says:
Something wicked this way comes...

She thought she'd be safe in the country, but you can't escape your own nightmares, and Lis London dreams repeatedly 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...

Hollow Pike - where witchcraft never sleeps.

My verdict: A fabulous debut that had me looking over my shoulder while reading. Strongly recommended.
I was really excited about this one, having first seen the cover in the summer - and what a cover! Witchiness, forest, birds - it's all there and all are important in the story. As I stated above, this was an excellent read which was more subtle in its witchiness than I expected, and all to the good. Sometimes the books you're most excited for can disappoint, but not so here. This debut demonstrates skill and control, above all: control of plot, character, setting and tension.

This is, primarily, a chiller which had me doing that horror film thing where you wait for the jump moment. James Dawson, you owe me for a shoulder massage to get rid of the tension you put there!

Lis is an engaging character who gains our sympathy immediately, as we meet her in the throes of one of her nightmares. The sense that she knows what's coming, the dread she feels and yet her complete inability to prevent it are palpable and guarantee you'll want to read on.

We soon also learn that she is moving to the country to get away from bullies. As the new girl, there are also attempts to bully her in her new setting. The teen relationships are a real strength of this book, portrayed realistically, as is their speech. It's clear that Dawson is familiar with kids this age (as a former teacher). I loved the 'weird kids', Kitty and Jack, and their attitude towards the 'in crowd'. The contemporary setting and believable characters intensify the tension in this perfectly-paced tale filled with misdirection.

As well as contemporary teen culture, Dawson also knows his folklore. The witchy elements to the story are well-researched and avoid any overblown or romanticised ideas, making certain that the novel retains the maximum creep factor. This is not a paranormal romance, even though it features both the paranormal and some romance - it's darker than that and the romance is not the main plotline.

Overall, I'd readily recommend this to lovers of chillers and witchy tales.
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