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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, 30 August 2012

Thrilling Thursday Review: Blackwood by Gwenda Bond

Mysterious and tense mix of history and fantasy.

Author: Gwenda Bond
Title: Blackwood
Genre: Fantasy (YA)
Publisher: Strange Chemistry
Published: 6 September 2012

Source: review copy kindly sent from the publisher

Find it at Goodreads or Amazon UK

The blurb says:
On Roanoke Island, the legend of the 114 people who mysteriously vanished from the Lost Colony hundreds of years ago is just an outdoor drama for the tourists, a story people tell. But when the island faces the sudden disappearance of 114 people now, an unlikely pair of 17-year-olds may be the only hope of bringing them back.

Miranda, a misfit girl from the island's most infamous family, and Phillips, an exiled teen criminal who hears the voices of the dead, must dodge everyone from federal agents to long-dead alchemists as they work to uncover the secrets of the new Lost Colony. The one thing they can't dodge is each other.

Blackwood is a dark, witty coming of age story that combines America's oldest mystery with a thoroughly contemporary romance.

My verdict: brilliant combination of historical mystery and fantasy. Highly recommended.
I was initially attracted to this title by the element of mystery surrounding the real-life unexplained disappearance of the Roanoke settlers. The blurb also promises a hint of magic and the supernatural with a reference to 'long-dead alchemists' and Phillips' ability to hear the voices of the dead. All of that added up to a big draw for me. I was not disappointed. I picked the book up to have a quick flick through the beginning and rapidly found myself deep enough in to need to finish it (ahead of other review books that had arrived sooner - argh!). Thank goodness books don't feel jealousy!

This is an assured debut. I've seen some Goodreads reviews criticising its execution, but I genuinely don't see what they do. I would also say that if you worry about how likely and realistic events in your reading matter are, you might want to consider a different genre than fantasy...

It's narrated in the third person, allowing the author to present the action from both protagonists' perspective at different times. I appreciated the insight into both Miranda and Phillips that this gave us, and also enjoyed seeing them through each other's eyes. Both are great characters, damaged and rebellious in their own ways. Miranda is no simpering heroine provoked into action - she's already developed personal strength and mechanisms for coping with her less-than-perfect life before the plot's major events contrive to challenge her further. And Phillips is no simple swoon-worthy boy. Yes, he's got a history as a bad boy and is clearly 'troubled', but not in a straightforward bully-boy way. Nor does he fit the annoyingly common stereotype of the nasty-yet-intriguing-boy-who-can-be-saved-by-love. Hurrah! I also found their developing relationship convincing, in its intensity while they're really in the thick of things contrasting their more usual awkwardness with one another. That aspect has an emotional truth to it, I feel.

The plot is fab, blending elements of magic and mystery with solid historical research. I don't know much about Roanoke, but the history of magic is something I've been interested in for a while, and I was thrilled to find a familiar name appear in the story. I like how Gwenda Bond has painted a picture of Roanoke as a place invested with its mysterious history, through the play that Miranda is involved in. In her version of the place, it is impossible to escape the past. The setting has a definite 'small town' feel, with everyone knowing everyone else's business; the kind of place where what your Great-Grandfather did affects how people treat you.

Overall, I really enjoyed this. It isn't quite like anything else I've read, combining history, magic and mystery but in a contemporary setting.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Magical Monday Review: Poltergeeks by Sean Cummings

Sharp and sassy with plenty of witchy action.

Author: Sean Cummings
Title: Poltergeeks
Series: Sean Cummings' blog mentions a sequel - yay!
Genre: Urban Fantasy (YA)
Publisher: Strange Chemistry
Published: 4 October 2012

Source: review copy received via Netgalley

Find it at Goodreads or Amazon UK

The blurb says...
15-year-old Julie Richardson is about to learn that being the daughter of a witch isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. When she and her best friend, Marcus, witness an elderly lady jettisoned out the front door of her home, it’s pretty obvious to Julie there’s a supernatural connection.

In fact, there’s a whisper of menace behind increasing levels of poltergeist activity all over town. After a large-scale paranormal assault on Julie’s high school, her mother falls victim to the spell Endless Night. Now it’s a race against time to find out who is responsible or Julie won’t just lose her mother’s soul, she’ll lose her mother’s life.

My verdict: fab teen urban fantasy. Highly recommended.
I loved this book. Julie's narrative is so beautifully 'sarcastic teen', you can hear her eyes roll. She's smart and powerful and has a geeky male best friend with no supernatural powers - marvellous! There is other teen stuff going on - school, relationships, romance - but the supernatural quest and associated battles are the main point of the story. It's also cool to see the main character's family relationships be important to the plot, as the main quest is to save her mother, with whom she has a complicated - and therefore realistic - relationship.

Julie and Marcus are brilliant characters, very easy to get behind and cheer for, and that is a key strength of this book. Sean Cummings has created a convincing set of characters who operate in a way that has emotional realism, helping us to suspend disbelief for the fantasy plot they're embroiled in to work. The humour is another important factor in this book's success, coming both from implausible and humorous scenarios (hello, cat ejected via chimney in the first scene) and from Julie's snarky commentary on events.

The plot is tightly-constructed, making it complex and satisfying and yet easy to follow. There is clearly more to know about the world of witchcraft that Julie inhabits, but we are drip-fed enough info to make sense of this particular adventure and to wonder where the next instalment will take us.

Overall, I'd definitely recommend this to YA fantasy and urban fantasy fans, particularly those who appreciate sarcastic heroines and geeky boy sidekicks.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Family Friday: Sixteen Years Ago Today...

This is what I was doing:
Thankfully, the picture quality is not a reflection of the quality of our marriage :)

The day itself was a real sunshine-and-showers British summer day. A highlight of the day was when there was a clap of thunder and all the lights in the Salvation Army hall went out. This moment happened just as the Major had asked if anyone had any reason we shouldn't be married. We were right to ignore the seemingly celestial intervention, it was clearly just a test.

I could never have predicted then what our lives would be like now. We had plenty of plans, but have changed almost all of them since!

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Thrilling Thursday Review: Righteous Exposure by A K James

Strongly individual thriller with a powerful theme of justice and morality.

Title: Righteous Exposure
Author: A K James
Genre: Thriller
Publisher: Crooked Cat
Published: 14 Feb 2012

Source: purchased on my Kindle

Find it at Amazon UK or Goodreads

The blurb says:
Revenge, retribution and redemption.

Doctor Alita Ramirez has achieved hard won goals, despite her humble beginnings from a poor Hispanic neighborhood in San Antonio, Texas. When she by chance discovers the truth about her past, she is driven to take drastic action. Alita is prepared to jeopardize everything, even her life, to expose the hypocrisy and cruelty of one man – Robson Cutter.

One of the richest men in San Antonio, Cutter is a pillar of his community. Alita’s quest is to reduce this pillar to dust. She knows a dark secret about Cutter that will bring him to his knees, but exposing the past of such a powerful man requires extreme measures. Will Alita have the strength and determination to succeed?

My verdict: a twisty thriller with an unusual quest
This debut novel packs a serious punch. With well-drawn characters and a plot that really ramps up the pressure, I was highly reluctant to put it down. My kids always know I'm reading a good one if I'm unwilling to put it down to stir and poke at dinner, and this was definitely the case here. Alita's central plan requires some suspension of disbelief, but it isn't too hard to believe a woman under the pressures she faces could come up with such a crazy idea. And then, as one thing after another threatens to undermine that not-so-brilliantly-constructed plan, you can't help but root for Alita.

At the same time, and cued by the title, the reader is invited to consider how 'righteous' Alita's actions are. Cutter lives a dreadful life, but does that mean Alita's actions are justified? It's always a good sign when a book leads you to think more broadly, to consider its morals and messages, and this novel certainly ticks that box.

I enjoyed the writing style, particularly the initial knitting of past and present to help us understand Alita's background and her current circumstances. There are plenty of well-placed hints that help to raise the tension level, as we can see people closing in on Alita, but there are also sufficient red herrings and dead ends that the eventual conclusion of the plot did not disappoint.

Overall, I'd recommend this as an engaging and unusual thriller.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Magical Monday Review: Magic and Mayhem by Marcus Sedgwick

Hugely funny and highly inventive fun for 7+

Author: Marcus Sedgwick
Title: Magic and Mayhem
Series The Raven Mysteries 5
Genre: Gothic Humour (childrens)
Publisher: Orion Children's
Published: Apr 2012

Source: review copy kindly sent by the publisher

Find it at Goodreads or Amazon UK

The blurb says...
Join the wonderfully weird Otherhand family and their faithful guardian, Edgar the raven, and discover the dark secrets of Castle Otherhand. 

A trip to the circus has far-reaching consequences for the Otherhands when Fellah goes missing. Before long the Castle is plagued by a duck, a suspect fortune teller, and several cartloads of lethal cabbages. The family is preoccupied: Valevine is busy inventing a cabbage-counting machine; Minty is waiting to hear the secrets of the universe; and Solstice has discovered that Cudweed is concealing three hundred and forty-two rabbits in his bedroom. When chaos strikes and thieves infiltrate the Castle, it falls to Edgar to extract his family from a very fluffy predicament.

My verdict: hilarious fun. Highly recommended series for 7+.
I love this series! Narrated by the family raven, Edgar, we see the Otherhands in all their crazy glory through his dry and witty voice. There is enough madcap action in these books to entertain 7 yr olds, while Edgar's voice carries enough subtlety and sarcasm to amuse teens and adults too.

As well as Edgar's fabulous narration, the story is chock-full of madcap characters, from head of the family Valevine with his incredible new invention to count cabbages, to the youngest, Cudweed, with his new-found friends Mucky Duck and  Mr Whiskers the hamster in a top hat and dinner jacket. The only sane and sensible character is the lovely Solstice, who keeps Edgar in check and solves the mysteries.

The plot in this case is sufficiently complex to surprise, yet made clear enough for the youngest Otherhand fans to follow. Combining disparate elements gives the overall story a farcical element that is sure to have kids giggling, particularly delivered in Edgar's disapproving tones.

The quirky line illustrations support the text perfectly, complementing the story and adding to the overall goth atmosphere.

All in all, this in a fantastic package for young readers, which I greatly recommend. A confident reading level is needed to appreciate these stories, but the books can also readily be enjoyed as a shared read.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Thrilling Thursday Review: Velvet by Mary Hooper

Fascinating peek into the world of Victorian mediums through a gripping story.

Author: Mary Hooper
Title: Velvet
Genre: Historical (YA)
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Published: 5 July 2012

Source: review copy kindly sent by the publisher

Find it at Goodreads or Amazon UK

The blurb says...
Velvet is a laundress in a Victorian steam laundry. With both her mother and father dead, she is an orphan and has to rely upon her own wits to make a living. The laundry's work is back-breaking and Velvet is desperate to create a better life for herself. Then Velvet is noticed by Madame Savoya, a famed medium, who asks Velvet to come to work for her. Velvet is dazzled at first by the young yet beautifully dressed and bejewelled Madame. But soon Velvet realises that Madame Savoya is not all that she says she is, and Velvet's very life is in danger.

My verdict: a twisty, pacy historical with a fabulous heroine
I really enjoyed this! I love intrigue and mystery and this tale has it all, wrapped up beautifully in a rich Victorian setting. I haven't read any of Mary Hooper's before, but I will be looking out for them now.

Velvet is a wonderful character - brave and bold for a young woman of the time and yet so naive. I spent half the book wanting to say 'no, Velvet, don't believe/do that!', because I knew what was going on under Velvet's nose and where the story was going. Or at least I thought I did - Mary Hooper is a clever and sneaky writer because there were several unexpected twists and turns to this story, which delighted me.

The historical detail in the novel was brilliant too. I've always loved being able to come away from a good story with a bonus bit of learning, and this novel gave me that. I knew very little about the world of Victorian mediums and absolutely nothing about some of the other practices featured in the book. It's all skilfully done as incidental through the engaging plot and characters, without a whiff of dry exposition or lecture-style explanation.

Overall, I would absolutely recommend this as a cracking read which offers a really immersive experience, giving plenty of information about the period.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Words on Wednesday: Recommended Writer's Resources

Welcome to the first in a new occasional series, where I'll round up a few handy resources for writers that I've seen recently or use regularly. It will be a mixture of blog posts, websites, books, events, organisations and anything else that crops up. I decided to make it a semi-regular features as I've already got quite a list. So here are the first crop of resources for you, in no particular order:

Abi Burlingham on Picture Books

The latest blog post (10th August), from PB (and MG) author Abi Burlingham is full of useful advice. And if that's not enough, she's offering to email you a more detailed handout on getting started in Picture Book writing! You might also want to stay and browse awhile here, as there are more great posts about writing.

Nicola Morgan on Preparing Submissions

The ever-helpful Nicola Morgan has a new ebook out, Dear Agent - Write the Letter That Sells Your Book,  which is full of clear, no-nonsense advice on writing to agents and publishers. If you don't already have it, her Write a Great Synopsis - An Expert Guide is another essential read if you're getting ready to submit. They're practical little books, each priced at under £3.

Zoe Marriott on Writing YA

This blog post, Ultimate Form and Why it Doesn't Work is fantastically helpful if you're struggling to follow all 'the rules' in your writing for the YA market. Again, this is a blog that's well worth digging into, as Zoe is fantastically generous with her advice (not to mention brilliantly feminist and incisive in her opinions) despite being busy as a successful and well-loved fantasy writer.

Happy writing!

Monday, 13 August 2012

Magical Monday Review: A Witch in Love

Fabulous blend of witchcraft, romance and intrigue.

Author: Ruth Warburton 
Title: A Witch in Love
Series: This is book 2 (review of book 1, A Witch in Winter)
Genre: Romance/Supernatural (YA)
Publisher: Hodder Children's
Published: 5 July 2012

Source: review copy kindly sent by the publisher

Find it at Goodreads or Amazon UK

The blurb says...
Anna still finds it hard to believe that Seth loves her and has vowed to suppress her powers, no matter what. But magic - like love - is uncontrollable and soon, Anna is being hunted. Abe wants Anna to embrace her power, while Seth is pushing Anna to accept that his feelings are real. She finally does ... a moment too late. Suddenly, it's like the Salem witch trials all over again: burnings, torture and faceless judgements. In the face of the ultimate betrayal, who will save her?

The second novel in the Winter trilogy, this follows the critically acclaimed debut A WITCH IN WINTER.

My verdict: Fabulous development from the wonderful A Witch in Winter
This is a short review as I don't want to discuss the plot in anything other than the broadest terms to avoid spoilers. Quite simply - this is an excellent series with epic battles, romance and witchcraft in a contemporary UK setting, and if any of that appeals: read it!

I really enjoyed the first novel in this series for its voice, its realistic setting and the intrigue created by the way magic was overlaid onto our world. This second instalment doesn't disappoint, and ups the ante considerably. The plot is tight and twisty and moves quickly, putting the well-drawn characters into increasingly difficult situations.

This novel expands out in many ways from the first, opening out the action as Anna's world also expands. I hoped to learn more about the magical world that Ruth Warburton has created and I certainly got my wish, although not in the ways I expected. There are revelations in this book that I didn't see coming at all, and which move the plot forward by adding new conflicts and tension for Anna to deal with, while also not forgetting those set up in the first novel.

I enjoyed seeing Anna's development as a character, and the progression in her relationships with Seth and with witchcraft. These developments feel realistic and plausible to me as a reader, so the novel has the emotional realism which is vital to keep fantasy grounded enough to get lost in. Again, the narration in Anna's voice helps us to appreciate her point of view and to see her thought processes.

Overall, I strongly recommend this series as a strong urban fantasy for teens and up.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Tuesday Tidings: Fab Competition from Elen Caldecott

Have you got bored 7+ children this summer? The author Elen Caldecott and her publisher, Bloomsbury, are running this brilliant competition to win a full signed set of her books, £100 of Top Shop vouchers and an iPod touch. All they need to do is produce a collage which shows an 'awesome adventure' and send it in before 31st October. For full details, the image above will take you to the site.

Here's Elen herself with a bit more info:

To find out more about Elen and her wonderful books, visit:
Twitter: @ElenCaldecott

Friday, 3 August 2012

Family Friday Review: Leopard Adventure by Anthony McGowan

Wonderful adventure story - a fitting tribute to the original Willard Price books

Author: Anthony McGowan
Title: Leopard Adventure
Series: This is book 1 of the new Willard Price-inspired adventures
Genre: Adventure (kids)
Publisher: Puffin
Published: 5 July 2012

Source: copy won in a Twitter competition from the publisher

Find it at Amazon UK

The blurb says...
Deep in the remote forests of Siberia, a mother Amur leopard, one of the rarest big cats in the world, senses danger. Something faster than any human and deadlier than any tiger.

Meanwhile Amazon Hunt, aged twelve, is recruited from England by Tracks in America, ready to take off at a moment's notice to rescue wild animals under threat - no matter how great the danger.

Now Amazon and her thirteen-year-old cousin Frazer must brave the Russian wilderness to save the Amur leopard, before a blazing forest fire wipes out the race - for good . . .

My verdict: Classic kid-friendly action adventure with plenty of facts about animals and the environment along the way. Highly recommended for boys and girls of around 9 and up.
As a child, I loved Willard Price's Adventure series, in which brother Hal and Roger Hunt would travel the world collecting animals with their father for his zoo, seeing off poachers and other nefarious souls along the way. I learned no end from those books about animals, about the world and about survival. I was so pleased when I heard that a new series had been commissioned with the approval of Price's estate, as the books are not so readily seen these days and some of their attitudes do feel a little dated now. I'm so glad to be able to share these with my kids.

This excellent start to the series shows that Anthony McGowan has does a fabulous job of preserving all the best things about the books whilst bringing them bang up to date. The adventures now have a more directly environmentalist agenda (they always were relatively green, but in a 1950s/60s context), and make good use of modern technology. It's also good to see female characters getting in on the action.

What surprised and delighted me, though, was that the series is a continuation of Hal and Roger Hunt's work. Amazon, the main character, is Roger Hunt's daughter and her cousin Frazer is Hal's son. There are definitely touches in there that will please fans of the original series (like the kids sharing some of their parents' traits), without at all making it difficult to start here with no knowledge of the older series. But don't worry - this adventure definitely belongs to the kids, and the parents are clearly going to feature in an ongoing subplot. I can't wait to find out more about Hal and Roger as adults, and to see Amazon and Frazer develop as a wildlife-saving team.

As an adventure story, there are some moments of peril and there is certainly plenty of action and movement in the plot. It is perfect for 9 yr olds and up, having a meaty plot and just enough danger to thrill without being too scary. Kids will learn a lot about Amur Leopards (the Fact File at the back is a nice addition, summing up some of the information scattered through the story), and probably also some geography, as I always did from the earlier novels. I would absolutely recommend this and hope that these are a big success, so that there can be many more of them.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Words on Wednesday: Writing Amongst Distractions

Having a busy family with a husband, two daughters and various pets including two dogs, getting down to work at home isn't easy. I won't claim to have cracked it, by any stretch, but when I remember to use the following, it helps:

  1. A sign on the door, reminding would-be interrupters that 'Mummy is working'. I know this seems draconian, but it is a good solution to the problem of not having a dedicated workspace. Since my desk is in my bedroom, I could be doing something entirely interruptable, so the sign makes it clear for everyone. With younger kids, getting them to help make a sign could be effective.
  2. Instrumental music on the laptop while writing (and also while planning and editing, which I must always do with a pencil and paper). I favour chilled-out new age stuff whilst working, and have found that having set 'working music' helps to cue my muddled brain into working mode.
  3. Clear and definite non-working time. It's all too easy to allow procrastination to fill a large swathe of the day, but if you've agreed particular breaks with yourself (and perhaps with the family), you make more productive use of both working and non-working time.
  4. On the subject of time, it helps to know your own rhythms, and to work with them. I always used to work best in the evening, but since getting used to an early morning commuting start, I now do better first thing. If I get up early and work til 10, then walk the dogs with the family and return to work after lunch, I manage best.
Having now effectively finished my full time teaching job, I'm trying to figure out what my days will look like come September. It's bound to evolve from this summer holiday pattern, but I think these routines and practices will help me get there.
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