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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, 26 June 2012

Tuesday Tidings: Amazing Harry Potter Anniversary Competition

Are you Harry Potter's biggest fan?

If you are, you could win an amazing Potter-themed family trip and a gorgeous, leather-bound anniversary edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, exclusively available to the winner and fourteen runners-up in this competition.

Celebrating 15 years of Harry Potter magic
The search for UK and Ireland’s biggest HARRY POTTER fan

From an idea born on a train journey, to its creation in a small cafe in Edinburgh Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is the book that started a global phenomenon.  Rejected by many publishers and with an initial hardback print run of 500 copies, it has now sold over 90 million copies worldwide. It is the book that put Harry’s destiny in motion and created a whole new generation of readers. It is hard to think now that before 1997 none of us knew about Hogwarts, Quidditch or Voldemort (who was voted as the favourite literary villain in a recent Bloomsbury poll).

To celebrate the 15th anniversary of the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone Bloomsbury is launching a nationwide competition to find the UK’s biggest HARRY POTTER fan.

Bloomsbury is inviting fans to write a letter of no more than 50 words explaining why they love HARRY POTTER. We are looking for the most creative, clever and entertaining reasons and, while the word limit is set to a strict 50 words, entrants are encouraged to draw, doodle and make their letters as elaborate as possible.

HARRY POTTER fans can only enter by visiting a local bookshop or library and posting their letter in the specially designed postboxes. Over 1800 bookshops and libraries have already signed up to take part. The competition will run from Tuesday 26th June to Tuesday 31st July 2012 after which we will name the UK and Ireland’s biggest HARRY POTTER fan. The winner and runners up will be announced on Saturday 1st September.*

The competition is an ideal opportunity for fans to show how much they love HARRY POTTER as well as supporting their local bookshop or library. Details of how to enter and a list of participating bookshops and libraries can be found on the website: www.bloomsbury.com/harrypottercompetition

*The winner will receive a family holiday to experience the magic and excitement of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter™ only at Universal Orlando® Resort and a leather-bound, signed, dedicated and numbered 15th Anniversary Edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The limited number 15th Anniversary Editions are exclusive to the competition and cannot be purchased elsewhere. Fourteen runners-up will also each receive a leather-bound, signed, dedicated and numbered 15th Anniversary Edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Magical Monday: In Defence of Fantasy Novels

It was suggested to me recently that, as a teacher, I shouldn't be reviewing (or presumably by extension reading) fantasy novels, since kids have 'real problems' to contend with and should read books that help them to face these problems. By this logic, only so-called gritty realism is appropriate for teachers to recommend. There are two things (for now) that I would like to point out in response to this view.

1: Reading does not have to have any purpose beyond entertainment. 

As it happens, I believe that reading for pleasure often tends to have additional 'improving' benefits, but there is no reason why anyone can't pick a book up simply for fun.

2: Fantasy is just as able to address 'real problems' as realism. 

Epic fantasy often deals with big themes like truth, honour, good and evil; how can that not be beneficial for teens (or anyone else) to be exposed to? And it has to be said that lessons are often learnt most effectively at a metaphorical distance.

This is also the same kind of snobbery that considers literary fiction better than genre, often unreasonably. I'm not going to go on at length here, because I'm in danger of getting very grumpy.

Am I right in assuming that you'd agree with me?

Friday, 22 June 2012

Family Friday Review: Helen Moss's Adventure Island Series

Child investigators, a loyal doggy companion and a variety of intriguing mysteries: the Adventure Island series is great for kids of around 8 and up (and adults nostalgic for the Famous Five...).

The series is written by Helen Moss and published by Orion Children's. There are currently ten books in the series, but in a recent blog post, Helen Moss said that at least another four are planned.

The series is set on the invented Castle Key Island, which lies off the Cornish coast. This great map is typical of the lovely line illustrations by Leo Hartas which accompany the stories. As this is a nice safe island (despite the relatively high crime rate!), where everyone knows everyone else, the children can be free to roam around and investigate. 

The characters are a key strength of the series. My daughter and I are particular fans of Emily Wild, who lives on Castle Key with her parents and her lovely dog, Drift. The other investigators are Scott and Jack Carter, who spend school holidays on Castle Key with their Aunt Kate, a romantic novelist. Emily is really the leader of the group, making plans and gathering clues in her notebook. One of the great things about reading a really good series is the familiarity you get with the characters, and I saw that this week in reading book 10, The Invisible Spy, with my daughter, when Emily underlined the case's title in her notebook (twice, I believe). We both smiled, because that sense of organising ideas and being neat is absolutely typical of Emily.

Drift is great too, and I particularly like that occasionally the narration will shift to his point of view. 
"Drift shot out from the sofa. Distraction was his all-time favourite command. He just had to find something really naughty and do it! And this time he knew exactly what his Naughty Thing was going to be!" 
The point of view shifts occasionally between the characters, which helps strengthen the characterisation and is always clearly signalled like the example above.

The plots are involving and intriguing. The mysteries are real and effectively planned, with red herrings and twists to keep you guessing, while not being confusing for the child audience. In the last few stories there have been smugglers, scientists and secret agents, not to mention dinosaurs, rock concerts and wreck diving. I strongly recommend these for 8+ - and that absolutely includes adults. I love these books!

There's still a chance to win a set of the books, as well as being a character in a future story with the Operation Diamond competition, open until 23rd July. I've written about it here, and this is the offical page to get started.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Tuesday Tidings: Letterbox Love 3

This British-themed meme came out of a Twitter conversation, is hosted by Lynsey at Narratively Speaking and allows us to discuss books arriving through our letterboxes (or Kindle whispernet of course ...) every week or so. All links will take you to Goodreads or the publisher's info page.

It's been a little while since I've done one of these, so there are a few books to tell you about (and sorry it's not on a Sunday, as everybody else seems to manage:)). Here's what I've received recently:

Review copies

From Bloomsbury

Throne of Glass by Sarah Maas
Velvet by Mary Hooper
A daredevil assassin in an epic fantasy and a Victorian laundress who takes a new job assisting a spirit medium. Two quite different heroines, two YA August releases that I'm keen to read.

From Indigo

Soul Fire by Kate Harrison
Masque of the Red Death by Bethany Griffin
Part two of the trilogy that started with Soul Beach where the young and recently dead hang out on a virtual beach, and the first in a new series that sounds amazing: gothic and suspenseful, riffing off the Edgar Allan Poe story. How cool do these sound?

From Strange Chemistry

Blackwood by Gwenda Bond
Poltergeeks by Sean Cummings
Contemporary fantasy constructed around the very real mystery of Roanoke Island's Lost Colony, Blackwood was amazing. I had a sneak peek and ended up reading the whole thing... I'll post a proper review nearer to the release in September.  And Poltergeeks, out in October, promises so much: poltergeists, witchcraft and mystery.

A Witch in Winter by Ruth Warburton
More witchcraft! Again, it's a contemporary setting with witches. I'm a bit of a sucker for witches and could ignore all the great reviews I've been seeing for this no longer. The second in the series (I think it's going to be a trilogy) is out soon too, so I just might catch up in time to jump in - although sometimes I think it's better to wait until a whole series is out to start reading it. Resisting bookish temptation was never really my strength, though...


Teeth: Vampire Tales edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
Moondance at Stonewylde by Kit Berry
The vampire tales are so enticing, offering a variety of approaches to the mythology: Neil Gaiman, Melissa Marr and Holly Black are among the contributors, and I was thrilled to get the second Stonewylde book. I read the first three of this excellent series several years ago when they were self-published, and I'm going to treat myself to a read of the newly edited Gollancz versions all together sometime soon. Thanks go to my lovely sister for these (and don't they look cool together!)


Horribly Famous: Mary, Queen of Scots
I won this in a game of Book Battleships on Twitter. If you don't follow ScholasticUK on Twitter, this is a game they regularly play, with words for the x and y axes of a small battleships grid. I won on this occasion with 'unnecessary comma', which I chose because I see them so often in students' writing and they bug me. It's nice to get something positive from one :)

Friday, 15 June 2012

Guest Post: How I (Don't) Write for Children by Caroline Lawrence

Today at the Hearthfire, we've got a visit from Caroline Lawrence, author of The Roman Mysteries, The Roman Mystery Scrolls and The P. K. Pinkerton Mysteries. Her latest western mystery starring P. K. Pinkerton is fabulous. Anyway, without further ado, here's what Caroline has to say:

I was at the Edinburgh Literature Festival last summer and met an old Arvon pupil for tea. She had been working on several projects over the past five years, but had been finding it a struggle. ‘How do you write for children?’ she said at one point.

I stared, uncomprehending for a few moments, the realised what she meant.

She meant how do you get into a kid’s mentality and consciously make your story suitable for them.

My answer was: ‘I don’t write for children; I write for myself!’

I think each of us has an inner child.

The Age of Wonder

For some of us our inner child is a toddler. We are still amazed by the world and especially animals. We also love poo, fart jokes, pirates and fairies.

The Age of Adventure

For some of us, our inner child is aged 8 to 11 or 12. We feel grown up and ready for anything but aren’t yet obsessed with the opposite sex. We love adventures, puzzles, working out how the world works.

The Age of Awakening

Some of us have an inner adolescent or teen. The YA category from 13 – 18, is when mortality, sex, and relationships become of paramount importance. We are happy to explore these concepts via the metaphor of vampires and werewolves.

My inner child is an 11-year-old.

I love adventures and truth-seeking quests and mysteries. I prefer a ‘concrete’ story full of objects, tastes, smells and sounds to an ‘abstract’ book full of ideas. I also write to teach myself. That’s probably why there are so many facts peppering my books. I’m slightly geeky, so relationships and all that mushy stuff do not figure as highly with me as facts and finding the truth. (It turns out my books are popular among boys on the Asperger’s spectrum. I’m guessing I’m somewhere on the spectrum myself; or at least my inner 11 year old is.) Being a bit of a geek, I write about what fascinates me, whether it’s trendy or not.

When I was agonizing about a plot complication last week one of my friends said, ‘Don’t sweat it. After all, it’s only a kids’ book.’ ONLY A KIDS’ BOOK? I put as much time, care and research into my kids’ books as if they were for adults.

Of course, once you’ve written the thing, you have to make sure it is kid-friendly:
  1. Suitable content
  2. Vocabulary appropriate
  3. Clear, fast-moving plot

And that is often where the real challenge lies.

I used to teach 8 - 12 year olds – the age group I enjoy most – and I would often read a chapter or two of my Work in Progress. After a while just getting up in front of them immediately made me see what would work and what wouldn’t. Find a willing class of kids in your target age group and read to them. Even if your idea sprang from telling stories out loud, don’t use your own children, grandchildren or friends’ children. They will either be too nice or too ruthless.

By reading to an impartial target audience, you’ll know when they get bored or confused. What is suitable and what’s not.

You’ll also benefit from showing it to librarians, teachers and editors at some point. But that can be further down the line.

Here are my five easy steps for determining what age group you are best suited to write for:
  1. Write (or map out) a story that interests you.
  2. Use your instinct to guess which age group would like it best.
  3. Does that age group match the protagonist you had in mind?
  4. Read or show it to an impartial target audience, getting feedback.
  5. Modify as necessary.

Now if you will excuse me, I must go find an impartial audience of 8 – 12 year-olds and put my own advice into practice!

Caroline Lawrence’s latest book, The Case of the Good-looking Corpse, is set in the Wild West in 1862, when a 12-year-old misfit detective called P.K. Pinkerton must solve the mystery of who killed a ‘hurdy girl’ in the lively mining town of Virginia City.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Thrilling Thursday Review: The Case of the Good-Looking Corpse by Caroline Lawrence

This Western Mystery featuring a 12 yr old oddball detective was great fun!

Author: Caroline Lawrence
Title: The Case of the Good-Looking Corpse
Series: The P. K. Pinkerton Mysteries (book 2)
Genre: Mystery, Western (kids)
Publisher: Orion Children's
Published: June 7 2012

Source: kindly sent for review by the publisher

Find it at Amazon UK or Goodreads

The blurb says:
P.K. Pinkerton is back in the second book of this whip-crackingly brilliant series set in America's Wild West.

The death of sadistic desperado Whittlin Walt has created an opening for 'Chief of the Comstock Desperados'. Several young gunfighters are battling it out in the saloons and streets of Virginia City, and against this backdrop of gunmen, gamblers and cowboys, P.K. Pinkerton, Private Eye, is having trouble drumming up business. Nobody seems to take a 12-year-old detective seriously!

Then a servant girl named Martha begs P.K. for help. She witnessed the murder of her mistress - a hurdy girl - and the killer knows it. Now he is after her. Martha gives P.K. a description of the killer and a cryptic clue, but then she disappears. Can P.K. solve the case and find Martha before the killer does?

My verdict: Great story, told in an amazing voice. Strongly recommended for 10+
This book does a fabulous job of bringing the Wild West to modern kids without shying away from unpleasant details, at the same time not overloading them. Having P. K. narrate means that we get a child's eye view which is at once naive and realistic. There are shootings, men of extremely dubious morals and prostitutes in this story, set against a background of Civil War, slavery and crime. And yet, this is a children's book which I would happily read to/with my 8 yr old in a year or so. There is nothing grisly or gratuitious, P. K.'s matter-of-fact narration avoids any glorification or romanticisation of the less savoury aspects, and it's all done subtly enough for the younger readers to remain blissfully unaware of some of the detail.

P.K.'s voice is so compelling. I really haven't read another book like it. It's been compared to Mark Haddon's "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" because both narrators seem to be on the autism spectrum (P.K. refers to having a "thorn" which makes interpreting non-verbal cues difficult, and also means being touched is unwelcome), but there are key differences. I would say that Haddon's book is more 'about' Christopher being autistic, whereas here it is just one aspect of P. K.'s character. Caroline Lawrence also uses P. K.'s naivety as a narrator to more humorous effect - this naivety coming as much from age as it does from the 'thorn'.

The plot works well as a mystery, with a satisfying conclusion which is set up effectively through the story. As with all good mysteries, there are subplots and side tracks to confound the reader as well as the detective. Historical accuracy is important to the author (she also wrote the Roman Mysteries, for which the Classical Association have honoured her with a prize), so you can be sure that kids will learn something of the US from the nineteenth century simply by immersing themselves in P.K.'s world for a while. I particularly enjoyed the insertion of Sam Clemens at the earliest stage of his journalistic career (later to write as Mark Twain).

Overall, there is much to commend in this book that makes it worthwhile for child readers. But they will want to read it - and should read it - because it truly is a cracking read that they can happily get lost in.

Tomorrow, Caroline Lawrence is guesting here at the Hearthfire to share something about her approach to writing, so be sure to come back and visit!

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Words on Wednesday: Keris Stainton and her "Female Fiction Fiddling" List

I am very excited to be hosting this guest post as part of Keris's blogtour.  Her new novel, Emma Hearts LA is just out and I strongly recommend it.  Without further ado, here's what Keris has to say:

A few years ago, I read a book called Everything I Needed to Know About Being a Girl I Learned From Judy Blume, which features an essay by Lara M Zeises called The M Word. The essay begins with Zeises, age 7, discovering that touching herself feels good, "sometimes good enough to help me fall asleep", and how she didn't know what she was doing until she read a Judy Blume novel, Deenie

Zeises went on to say that "relatively precious few novels even allude to girls getting their groove on by themselves" adding that one notable exception is Meg Cabot's All-American Girl: Ready or Not

Deenie was published in 1973. Ready or Not was published in 2006. I was astonished that female masturbation was still considered such a taboo subject, more than 30 years later. And so I decided I had to mention it in my first novel, Della Says: OMG! 

It did actually fit the plot: Della's diary is stolen and someone starts circulating the most embarrassing bits and, as a teenager, I couldn't have imagined anything more embarrassing than people knowing I masturbated. Which is precisely why it needs to be addressed in more YA fiction. (A friend told me about a recent YA novel in which the main character complains that her aunt comes into her bedroom without knocking and says, "What if she caught me smoking? Or undressing? Or, like, masturbating or something? Not that I really do that, ever - but it's the principle of the thing." Fine, that particular character may not masturbate - though I'd be very surprised - but if I'd read that as a teen, I would have been mortified.)

And so I am collecting a "female fiction fiddling" list. If you know of any other books that should be on here, I'd be delighted to hear about them. 

NB: May contain spoilers, so proceed with caution!  

Deenie by Judy Blume (pub. 1973)

Deenie touches her "special place" when she has trouble falling asleep and asks a teacher, in an anonymous note, "Do normal people touch their bodies before they go to sleep and is it all right to do that?" The teacher explains that, yes, masturbation is "normal and harmless".

All-American Girl: Ready or Not by Meg Cabot (pub. 2006) 

Sam's sister tells her she practices making love by herself. In the bath. 

"Look, it's easy. Get in the bathtub. Turn the water on. Scoot down to the end of the tub, until your you-know-what is under the running water. Then pretend the water is the guy, and let it--" 

This leads to an extended discussion of why girls should do it ("Come on, Sam. You can't expect a guy to know what to do to make you have an orgasm. You have to do it yourself. At least until you can teach him how.") which is both feminist and very funny. 

Pop! by Aury Wallington (pub. 2006)

I think I must have loaned my copy of Pop! to someone, but I'm pretty sure that, like Sam above, Marit treats herself to a romantic moment with her bath tap. (Is it just me or does that sound incredibly uncomfortable?) 

Leader of the Pack by Kate Cann (pub. 2008)

Leader of the Pack is a perfect example of how we're much more open about/comfortable with/used to the idea of male masturbation (it's never even usually referred to as "male masturbation", is it? There's "masturbation" and "female masturbation"). Gem is alone in bed...

"She started moving her hands on her thighs, rocking herself. She thought… If you feel this turned on right now at the start, how's it gonna be when… Her hands moved higher. She was thinking of the amazing kiss they'd had…" 

The next paragraph begins "Over in his bedroom, Jack had been masturbating too, highly pleasurably." If it hadn't been for that, I might have actually missed that that's what Gem was doing. 

Della Says: OMG! by Keris Stainton (i.e. me) (pub. 2010) 

A page of Della's diary is scanned in and sent to her on Facebook. It reads: "But since he's not interested in me and nothing's ever going to happen between us, I'll have to make do with the next best thing: touching myself and pretending it's him." 

Della's embarrassed, but her more experienced friend Maddy tells her she needn't be, that it's perfectly natural and everyone does it. 

Forget You by Jennifer Echols (pub. 2010) 

Zoey is in the bath, trying to work out whether or not she had sex the previous night. 'Testing for tenderness gave way to making myself feel better. It helped with my headache.' This is another one where I could quite easily have missed what she was doing. 

Adorkable by Sarra Manning (pub. 2012) 

After Jeane and Michael have had sex for the first time, Jeane tells him not to worry about the fact that she didn't orgasm. 

'"I was close and then I wasn't. It happens. It's not, like, an exact science. Like, sometimes when I'm doing it to myself, my timing goes all wrong."

"It does?" I managed to spit out, because my mind had just gone into a tailspin at Jeane's casual reference to the fact that she masturbated. I mean, I know that some girls do, but generally they don't talk about it.'

Thank you so much Keris. It's amazing to think that there are so few references that it's even possible to compile a list. Any more recommendations, anyone?

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Thrilling Thursday Review: Emma Hearts LA by Keris Stainton

Glitz and glamour abound in this fabulous book with so much to offer.

Author: Keris Stainton
Title: Emma Hearts LA
Genre: Contemporary romance (YA)
Publisher: Orchard
Published: June 7 2012 (today!!)

Source: kindly sent for review by the publisher

Find it at Amazon UK or Goodreads

The blurb says:
Emma's just arrived in Los Angeles, a million miles away from all her friends, and any chance of a boyfriend. Unless you count geeky Oscar - which she doesn't. Not at first, anyway. Teen heartthrob Alex might have potential too. If she can get him away from the prying eyes of the paparazzi, that is.

Two boys, unlimited sunshine, and a new life amongst the stars. Maybe LA's not that bad, after all.

My verdict: a lovely light read full of hope and enthusiasm. Highly recommended for 12+
There are so many great things about this book, I'm not sure I can capture them all in one review. Most importantly, it's a hugely enjoyable read, as evidenced by it being the first book my jaded 13 yr old has finished in weeks.

Emma's witty narration is a joy, making it so easy to engage with and root for her. Other characters are also brilliantly realised. I especially like the astrophysicist Mum, loving but also deeply caught up in her work, and even the acting sister Bex has depth as a person (it would be so easy - but ultimately unsatisfying - to slip into stereotypes of scattiness for such a character). Oscar, her old and geeky friend from home is a gem with his tomato-red hair and general nerdiness.

The romance plot is ultimately important, but it is not 'all there is' to this book by a long stretch. Emma struggles with her parents' divorce, with the move to another country, and with some identity issues, all while noticing boys around her and figuring out what she wants. Her responses to all these things are believable and genuine, and tackled with a gentle humour.

What I really appreciate is that this book is a fun and light read without being 'lightweight' in the negative sense at all. It offers glamorous romantic escapism for teen girls whilst avoiding the reinforcement of rather dubious behaviour that you sometimes see offered to this age group (romanticised controlling boys and passive girls for example). I hope that doesn't make it sound dull and 'worthy' - it's anything but, and my point is that Keris proves that you don't have to promote unhealthy relationships to produce a book that feels light and enjoyable.

I'd strongly recommend this to fans of contemporary YA. Keris is touring blogs at the moment (see the banner to the right) and will be here at the Hearthfire next Wednesday, so be sure to pop back then!

Monday, 4 June 2012

Magical Monday Review: Sword of Light by Katherine Roberts

Fabulous Arthurian-themed fantasy introducing a new character to the legends.

Author: Katherine Roberts
Title: Sword of Light
Series: Pendragon Legacy 1
Genre: Fantasy (Kids)
Publisher: Templar
Published: Feb 2012 (hardback; paperback due out Oct 2012)

Source: won from Feeling Fictional

Find it at Amazon UK or Goodreads

The blurb says:
It is the darkest hour of the darkest Age. King Arthur is dead, killed by his wicked nephew, Mordred. Saxon invaders rampage across the land and forces of evil are gathering. The path to the throne lies open to Arthur's only remaining flesh and blood - Mordred. But there is one with a better claim than Mordred - Arthur's secret child. Brought by Merlin to enchanted Avalon as a baby and raised there for protection, the king's heir must take up a vital quest: to search for the four magical Lights with the power to restore Arthur's soul to his body. Introducing Rhianna Pendragon: unlikely princess and Camelot's last hope.

My verdict: A great read! Exciting adventure, magic and mystery for the 9-12 crowd
I really enjoyed this one. Katherine Roberts has created a world that it's a great pleasure to get lost in. Familiar elements of the Arthur stories are woven seamlessly with the new inventions and children will delight in Rhianna's adventures. It's a treat to see a female protagonist in this kind of novel and, as you can see from the cover, this is not a 'girly' book. I would happily give it to a boy or girl to enjoy.

Rhianna is a fabulous character. At the opening of the book, she doesn't know who she is - she's simply the only human in Avalon, allowing for some 'odd one out' feelings to be explored. As a girl, she faces difficulties in persuading others that she can play an active role in protecting her heritage. She's feisty and determined, in keeping with her unruly red hair, and this can lead her into rashness but she also - sometimes - shows signs of wisdom and cunning in dealing with her enemies.

Her best friend, Prince Elphin of Avalon, accompanies her on her journey into the mortal realm. He is calm and gentle and, as a fairy prince, has magical abilities. He makes a good contrast to Rhianna and allows her a young friend and ally in the uncertain world of mortals, in which she mostly has to deal with adults who (of course) assume they know best.

No review of this book is complete without a mention of the fairy horses ridden by Elphin and Rhianna. These are a brilliant addition, increasing the magic and enchantment in the story, as well as providing the Avalonian pair with more allies. Child readers will love them and dream of their own magical friends, I'm sure.

Overall, this is a tightly-written, classic quest tale with engaging characters and a well thought out premise.  There are going to be four in this series, and I will definitely be looking out for the others as they are released.
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