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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.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Thrilling Thursday Review: The Hunting Ground by Cliff McNish

This creepy read was just the thing for broad daylight ...

Author: Cliff McNish
Title: The Hunting Ground
Genre: Thriller/ Ghost (YA)
Series: none
Publisher: Indigo
Published: Feb 2012
Source: kindly sent for review by the publisher

Find it at Goodreads or Amazon UK

The blurb says:
When Elliott and his brother 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. An old woman talks to ghosts - but is she in fact being controlled by them? And what of the sinister East Wing - a hideous labyrinth devised by a truly twisted mind? Can Elliott and his family escape the clutches of Glebe House? Or will they end up trapped in the endless maze of corridors, forever hunted by the dead?

My verdict: creepy, chilling – a classic ghost thriller.
I read this in a day, because I started it on the way to work, continued on the way home and snuck away to finish it before dinner so that I would be able to comfortably go to bed. This is not a book for the very young (and I wouldn’t recommend it at bedtime, either!). It’s no gory horror, but it is excruciatingly tense. Cliff McNish is a skilful craftsman who knows how to manipulate the tension level and keep you guessing – there is a mystery element to this novel as well.

As the blurb shows, the novel focuses on the two boys whose father has been engaged to develop the house. Things happen that they can’t (or won’t) explain, and then they find pages of an old diary which make them curious about the house’s history even while they’re starting to actually fear there may be real ghosts. The family is characterised skilfully, and it is easy to root for them, although at the beginning you may find yourself willing them to leave the house before things get worse. But of course, they don’t know they’re in a ghost story so don’t believe they’re in real danger initially!

As with all good gothic and ghost stories, the setting really is a character in this novel. Twisting corridors, forbidden areas, creepy paintings (way beyond ‘normal’ creepy paintings, by the way) all contribute to the rising fear. There is a real sense of restriction, of being trapped and controlled by the house, which contrasts strongly with the paintings on the walls, showing outdoor scenes of hunting, and with the expansive grounds.

In all, this is a strong ghostly thriller that will definitely have you over-analysing every little sound in the dark.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Tuesday Tidings: New Dog Joy

Actually, he's called Hunter :)

We think he's rather lovely. He's a young lurcher, aged around a year, (we assume a whippet lurcher since he's quite petite) and we got him from the Dogs Trust in Kenilworth on Sunday. They acquired him with five siblings as strays from Ireland. We saw two of the others being picked up at the same time as we were collecting Hunter, so good news there.

The pictures belie his true energy levels. I didn't want to post pictures of a crazy blur with amazing speed despite poor limb control, so I caught him in his quiet moments. As you can see, he's taken to his mat and soft bed quite well. :)

Although he may not have lived in a home before, he's been quite good so far. At the time of writing (Monday night), we've only had one puddle in the house and he was much more hopeful of being able to get our dinner off us than our existing dog who's lived with us for just over eighteen months on Sunday, but was less optimistic today. We also had a howl-free night (hurrah!). So he's doing really well for a new dog and he's been lovely with the girls and our existing dog. We can't wait until he comes to his name well enough to be able to run free in the parks and the woods with Jessie the terrier!

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Words on Wednesday Review: The Storyteller by Antonia Michaelis

Beautifully written, shockingly bleak - an amazing YA read.

Author: Antonia Michaelis
Title: The Storyteller
Genre: Thriller (YA)
Series: no
Publisher: Amulet 
Published: Jan 2012 (English translation)
Source: won in a Facebook giveaway from the publisher

Find it at Goodreads or Amazon UK

Goodreads summary:
Anna and Abel couldn’t be more different. They are both seventeen and in their last year of school, but while Anna lives in a nice old town house and comes from a well-to-do family, Abel, the school drug dealer, lives in a big, prisonlike tower block at the edge of town. Anna is afraid of him until she realizes that he is caring for his six-year-old sister on his own. Fascinated, Anna follows the two and listens as Abel tells little Micha the story of a tiny queen assailed by dark forces. It’s a beautiful fairy tale that Anna comes to see has a basis in reality. Abel is in real danger of losing Micha to their abusive father and to his own inability to make ends meet. Anna gradually falls in love with Abel, but when his “enemies” begin to turn up dead, she fears she has fallen for a murderer. Has she?

Award-winning author Antonia Michaelis moves in a bold new direction with her latest novel: a dark, haunting, contemporary story that is part mystery, part romance, and part melodrama.

My verdict: Lyrical and yet devastating. Highly recommended for older teens and adults.
I loved this book. The writing is just gorgeous and the fairy tale sections really enable her to showcase this aspect of her work. Yet at the same time, the contemporary realism is unflinching and utterly unromanticised.

I have seen reviews criticising this book on moral grounds (as effectively a bad role model) as Anna and Abel's relationship is, in various ways, unhealthy. I can't get into details here without giving spoilers, but I would argue that the book's presentation of these aspects is not glorifying of them. It is also worth noting that stories need conflict, problems and struggles. A straightforward happy life does not make for a good read! I would not recommend this book for under-16s due to some of the 'grittier' content.

Anna's fascination with Abel and Micha, and the way his story weaves a spell that draws her in, is completely convincing, as the same story absolutely captivated me. It also forms a lovely counterpoint to the starkness of Abel's situation, and extends and sustains the tension in the mystery aspect of the novel. Anna's naivety as a comfortable middle-class kid is alternately endearing and frustrating as you can see what she can't and are rooting for her. In some respects, reading this book is like watching a beautifully choreographed car crash in slow motion. I don't think I've ever been so unable to see a way for a book to end happily and simultaneously so unwilling to turn away.

Overall, this is one of the best books I've read this year and I would strongly recommend it for fans of fairy tale themes, contemporary realism and thrillers in the older YA or adult age bracket.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Magical Monday: Spring Equinox

This week sees the Spring equinox in the Northern Hemisphere, and the signs are definitely out and about. We've been seeing snowdrops, daffodils and the odd crocus around, and on our walk at the lovely Watermead Country Park this weekend saw plenty of green shoots on the willows. It was noticeably greener than last weekend around the lakes. We're also seeing an increase in activity in the birds in the garden and have been puzzled by the odd behaviour of long-tailed tits who've been pecking at the kitchen window and the glass in the back door. It seems (having prowled around the birdie forums) that they're warning off their own reflections who appear to them as challengers for their territory. Perhaps we'll get nesting long-tails this year!

This equinox, which falls on March 20th this year, represents the time when the light begins to overtake the dark as we move from the shortest day in the depth of winter towards the longest day at the height of June. This is the midpoint of the Oak King's reign in the symbolic annual struggle between the Oak and Holly Kings, representing the waxing and waning energies in the year.

Old names for this point, celebrated as a Pagan festival, include Ostara and Eostre - both associated with goddesses of fertility and growth (and with etymological echoes of Easter). This sense of everything developing and growing and preparing to bloom is easy to pick up, and the idea that this energy could be harnessed and translated into human lives via sympathetic magic isn't difficult to imagine.

We no longer routinely spring-clean to sweep away the winter darkness, but the sense of renewal is still infectious. I've noticed that although I tend to make new year plans (let's not call them resolutions, okay?), it's at this time of year that I tend to start really putting things into practice.

What about you? Do you find yourself buzzing with Spring energy?

Friday, 16 March 2012

Family Friday: Re-Issue of Michael Morpurgo's Kaspar

Michael Morpurgo's brilliant story featuring Kaspar the cat who sails on the Titanic has been re-released this month under a new title and with a smart new cover, for the hundredth anniversary of the Titanic this year.

Originally titled Kaspar, Prince of Cats, this classic kids' adventure story with rich historical detail is quite special to me. It was the first book I reviewed on this blog, having enjoyed the story with my youngest as bedtime reading.

The Titanic voyage is just one exciting part of this story, in which Kaspar befriends Johnny Trott the bellboy when a Russian Countess brings him to the Savoy where Johnny works.

Would you like to read my original review?

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Thrilling Thursday: Review of Hope Road by John Barlow

An interesting new angle on the crime thriller, focusing on the heir of a criminal family.

Author: John Barlow
Title: Hope Road
Genre: Crime Thriller
Series: LS9 crime mysteries - this is book 1
Publisher: Storm Books (e-book only)
Published: December 2011
Source: kindly sent by the author for review

Find it at Goodreads or Amazon UK 

The blurb says:
HOPE ROAD: a psychological mystery
                    You can't change your past. But what about your future? -
John Ray, son of crime boss Antonio 'Tony' Ray, is the straight one of the family. With a successful business and a lifestyle to match, he wants nothing to do with his father's criminal world. But what does that world want with him?

A young prostitute is found dead in John's car, and Freddy Metcalfe, his best friend and employee, is framed for her death. Freddy denies everything but it's an open and shut case: he's going down for murder. John sets out to find the real killer.

But things get complicated. A stash of counterfeit money was also found in John's car, and the police seem more interested in that than in the dead girl. Then Lanny Bride turns up; one of the north's most ruthless criminals (and an old friend of the Ray family), Lanny is desperate to know who killed the girl. But why? Meanwhile, Freddy is too scared to talk to anyone, even his lawyer.

John's police detective girlfriend, Denise Danson, has been warned off the case by her boss. But she doesn't believe Freddy is guilty, and secretly helps John look for the murderer. The problem, though, is that uncovering the shocking truth about the girl's death will force John to confront his own criminal past and risk destroying his future, as well as losing the only woman he's ever loved.

A novel set in Leeds, this is the first crime-mystery in the LS9 series. 

My verdict: pacy, involving and different. Recommended for crime fiction fans.
A lot of the energy of this novel comes from its present tense narrative, which works well at bringing immediacy to the story. It's told in the third person, largely from John's viewpoint. John is a great character: tough and streetwise because of his criminal heritage, but trying desperately to be a good guy and run a legitimate business. It's not hard to sympathise with him as he runs around trying to find out what really happened and to clear Freddy.

Denise and John's relationship adds a further complication to the story and greater interest. Denise's loyalties are torn, as she naturally wants to help John but can't risk getting caught up in anything less than legal. The backstory to their relationship is drip-fed beautifully, satisfying our curiosity without clogging up the action. It's clear that Barlow is a skilled writer (and no surprise that before self-publishing this novel, he has had others commercially published - the quality of this is comparable to traditionally published ebooks).

This is the beginning of a series set in Leeds. It's hard to see where it will go next, but I'm certain it will be worth reading. Overall, I really enjoyed it and found it a relatively fast read, as I was keen to pick it back up and see what was coming next. There were a few twists and several plot developments that I didn't expect, which is always satisfying. A good read will always surprise you, and Hope Road certainly does that.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

In My Mailbox 11

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 books for review from the lovely ladies at Orion:

My Own Special Way by Mithaa alKhayyat (retold by Vivian French), a sweet little tale, which my 8 yr old enjoyed and I'll be reviewing soon. The Hunting Ground by Cliff McNish, which promises tons of creepiness and Crossing Over by Anna Kendall - the first in a paranormal series about a boy who can visit the realm of the dead.

I've won:

The Storyteller by Antonia Michaelis (signed!) from the lovely Abrams & Chronicle. I started this on the train yesterday and it's beautiful and enthralling so far - a lovely mix of realism and fairy tale.

Undiscovered Voices 2012 through the fabulous Tall Tales and Short Stories blog - a showcase of as-yet-unpublished British talent in children's books.

Loose Connections by Rosemary Hayes, A Waste of Good Paper by Sean Hayes and The Comic Cafe by Roger Stevens.  These 3 proofs came via a Twitter competition from Frances Lincoln. Loose Connections comes out in June and seems to be a realistic family story for older kids with a ghostly twist, while A Waste of Good Paper is a piece of teen realism which comes out in May. The Comic Cafe is a kids' novel out in May from comic poet Roger Stevens.

Drive By by Jim Carrington, kindly provided by Bloomsbury as an early bird prize on the British Books Challenge. I was really pleased to see this as a prize, as I'd just heard about the book and popped it on my wishlist. It's a realist YA novel exploring the idea of consequences and responsibility.

So, which lovely books have come your way recently?

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Off visiting

Today I'm guesting over at the lovely Fluttering Butterflies blog, run by the equally lovely Clover. She runs a regular feature over there called 'Awesome Women' and my post is on Angela Carter, the writer who made a feminist out of teenage me all those years ago. Pop over and take a look, and see Clover's other inspiring Awesome Women posts.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Time for a little break

There won't be any blog posts this week, while I give myself a bit of space. I've lost a few days to a monster migraine and just need to allow myself a little break while I catch up with things.

I'll be back next week.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Review: How Beautiful the Ordinary

This collection of YA LGBT short stories made a great read for Portrait of a Woman's LGBT YA week. Do go over and take a look. There are several reviews on her blog, or linked from it, and also a great post on queer characters in YA by the fabulous author of Hollow Pike, James Dawson.

Editor: Michael Cart
Title: How Beautiful the Ordinary: Twelve Stories of Identity
Genre: varied
Series: no
Publisher: HarperTeen
Published: 2009
Source: purchased on my kindle

Find it at Goodreads or Amazon UK

Goodreads description:
A girl thought to be a boy steals her sister's skirt, while a boy thought to be a girl refuses to wear a cornflower blue dress. One boy's love of a soldier leads to the death of a stranger. The present takes a bittersweet journey into the past when a man revisits the summer school where he had "an accidental romance." And a forgotten mother writes a poignant letter to the teenage daughter she hasn't seen for fourteen years.

Poised between the past and the future are the stories of now. In nontraditional narratives, short stories, and brief graphics, tales of anticipation and regret, eagerness and confusion present distinctively modern views of love, sexuality, and gender identification. Together, they reflect the vibrant possibilities available for young people learning to love others—and themselves—in today's multifaceted and quickly changing world

My verdict: Highly varied in theme, form and content. All worth a read.
I enjoyed the variety within this collection, unified nonetheless by the theme of gendered and sexual identity. The anthology includes stories of love, loss and betrayal, as well as specifically LGBT experience. Few are traditional short stories; there are two comic book stories, one novella and several use unusual voice or experiment with narration in some way. The stories are a mixture of realism and fantasy, and cover different time periods as well as a wide range of LGBT experience: male/male and female/female love and desire and the less often represented trans experience - both female-to-male and male-to-female.

I particularly enjoyed Francesca Lia Block's "My Virtual World". An updated epistolary story, this is mostly told in the form of emails and presents a blossoming friendship between two emotionally raw teens. Another favourite for me was Margo Lanagan's retelling of The Highwayman, "A Dark Red Love Knot", with its themes of jealousy and betrayal. I hadn't read any Lanagan before, but I have now moved her up my wishlist :). I also enjoyed the gentle narration and effective metaphor of Jennifer Finney Boylan's "The Missing Person". My final top choice is Julie Ann Peters' "First Time", which is a touching tale of a lesbian couple's first sexual encounter. This story rendered slightly incorrectly on the kindle (I think) as I didn't realise how it worked to start with and had to go back and read over once I'd sussed out that there were two narrators telling the same story from their independent perspectives. The paragraphs alternated on screen, but there was no visual indication to cue the change. Possibly the print version uses a different font or some other indication? Anyway, I realised pretty quickly and was then able to enjoy the tenderness of the tale.

There were no stories I actively disliked (fairly unusually for a mixed anthology like this), and the variety of material is a strong point in favour of this collection. If there is something you don't like, you can guarantee there'll be something else that you will. Most are pretty short, with the exception of Gregory Maguire's "The Silk Road Runs Through Tupperneck, N.H." which takes up about a third of the entire book and is therefore quite a different reading experience, having more room to develop characters and take its time. Both this story (the last in the collection) and the first - David Levithan's "A Word From the Nearly Distant Past" - feature narrative voices who are considerably older than the teen target audience and speak from a more experienced and informed perspective. Both still focus on teen experience, however, keeping the overall YA appeal. Any teen, LGBTQ or not, will find something that feels familiar here, in terms of the uneasy course of young love or the uncertain nature of adolescent identity.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Thrilling Thursday Review: The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths

Great start to a crime series featuring an archaeology lecturer for this week's Thrilling Thursday.

Author: Elly Griffiths
Title: The Crossing Places
Genre: Crime (adult)
Series: Ruth Galloway - this is the first
Publisher: Quercus
Published: Oct 2010
Source: purchased on my kindle

Find it at Goodreads or Amazon UK  

Product description from Amazon:
When she's not digging up bones or other ancient objects, Ruth Galloway lectures at the University of North Norfolk. She lives happily alone in a remote, wild place called Saltmarsh overlooking the North Sea under Norfolk's vast skies. For company she has her cats Flint and Sparky, and Radio 4. When a child's bones are found in the marshes near an ancient site that Ruth worked on ten years earlier, Ruth is asked to date them. The bones turn out to be two thousand years old, and DCI Harry Nelson, who called on Ruth for help, is disappointed. He'd hoped they would be the bones of a child called Lucy who's been missing for ten years. He's been getting letters about her ever since - bizarre notes with references to ritual and sacrifice and quoting the Bible and Shakespeare.Then a second girl goes missing and Nelson receives another letter similar to the ones about Lucy. Soon it becomes clear that Ruth is in grave danger from a killer who knows that her expert knowledge is being used to help the police with their enquiries.

My verdict: Engaging crime read blending archaeology and policework, set on the desolate Norfolk coast.
The setting was the pull for this one for me; I grew up in East Anglia and have surprised myself lately by finding that I still have a soft spot for the area. The Saltmarsh featured in the novel is invented (as Griffiths clearly indicates in the Author's Note), but it's entirely plausible as a Norfolk place. It is clear that Griffiths knows the Norfolk coast well and she writes of it with affection, but without romanticising and minimising its bleakness.

If the setting was the initial attraction, Ruth Galloway's character was what kept me in it for the long haul. Unusual and rather awkward, she's a great creation. Her academic life and motivation ring true and her interaction with Harry Nelson, who doesn't really know what to make of her, is a great touch. Most of the novel is told from her point of view, although not in the first person, which means we can also sometimes get a glimpse of something that Ruth isn't privy to.

The plot is involving and well-constructed, with plenty of possible culprits and red herrings. The tension is ramped up when it becomes clear that Ruth herself is in danger, and the wildness of the setting really comes into its own at this point, adding further complications.

Overall, this was a most enjoyable read and I will definitely be reading the rest of the series. Using Ruth's archaeological expertise gives it a different angle from other crime series, and the bleak rural setting provides an additional edge. Harry Nelson is a complex character too, and I'm sure there's still a lot of character (and plot) development to come in further books, as we end with a cliffhanger in terms of Ruth's personal life. I'm glad to say that it seems this won't be one of those series where the key characters are 'back in their places' at the start of each book, and nothing really moves on. 
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