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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.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Round up for September


I thought I'd start including monthly round-ups here, as I've found them helpful on others' blogs. I'll do them on the last Sunday of the month from now on.

September Reviews

The Odds by Adam Perrott
Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
The Obsidian Mirror by Catherine Fisher
Horrid Henry's A-Z of Everything Horrid
The Masque of the Red Death by Bethany Griffin

2 YA (both fantasy, broadly), 2 kids' (1 fiction, 1 non-fiction) and 1 women's fiction

Other posts for September

Changes around the Hearthfire explaining my new posting schedule
Recommended Writers' Resources 2 - a helpful blogpost and a handy book
Interview with James Dawson, Author of Hollow Pike - James talks about the book, the Queen of Teen award and his writing habits
Doing More Things: A Happiness Project of Sorts - a personal post
GCSEs - the English grade boundaries issue and the current position on the EBC, the replacement for GCSEs

Material on my website this month:

My website is focused on the teaching of English A Levels, especially Language, and is built around a collection of revision notes for students. I recently began a big revamp project, including new material which is updated weekly - a series of features for students, along with tips/activities/ideas/resources for teachers. The notes are fairly extensive at this point; this round-up will focus on the regularly updated content.

For teachers: a record of the students' features (with occasional linked resources) and teaching tips:

  • using starters to create groups
  • differentiating analysis tasks
  • focused research tasks
  • activities building and testing linguistic frameworks knowledge.

On the students' pages:

  • Features on: the Olympics and 'new' verbs; a child language semantic error example; language and sexuality and the implications of the Andrew Mitchell 'f*ing plebs' incident.
  • Vocabulary pieces on: synonyms for 'emphasises'; ambiguity; imperious; affect/effect.
  • Books for wider reading: Angela Carter's The Magic Toyshop and Alexander Masters' Stuart: A Life Backwards.
  • Reads to relax with: Keris Stainton's Della Says OMG!, Jessie Hearts NY and Emma Hearts LA; Alan Gibbons' An Act of Love; Victoria Lamb's Witchstruck and Keren David's When I Was Joe.

(For the website, the links will take you to this week's page. Older material is available in the 'archive' section.)

Friday, 28 September 2012

Review: The Masque of the Red Death by Bethany Griffin

Atmospheric and lyrical dystopian steampunk YA

This is a book to savour, if you can bear to hold yourself back enough. Bethany Griffin's writing is tight and often beautiful; rich and evocative without self-indulgence. Araby's plague-infested world is easy to picture and enter into, despite its otherworldliness.

This plague-infested world, in which the rich are free to move around thanks to anonymising porcelain masks, was inspired by Edgar Allen Poe's short story of the same name. In Poe's tale, short enough to be effectively just a couple of scenes, the Prince has locked himself and all the nobles away to dance and indulge themselves while the plague ravages those outside the palace walls. This image of decadence amongst the chaos is central to this new tale, which develops the core idea into a complex plot asking questions about morality, identity, progress and risk.

Araby's place in this world is as one of the privileged - in the first chapter we see her attending the Debauchery Club with her friend April - and yet, as she is aware, she has not always been wealthy and has far more comprehension of the big picture than those she parties with. Araby's consciousness is as easy to enter as her world, thanks to the first-person-present-tense narration, which lends immediacy to the story. We get a clear view of Araby as somewhat detached from the world around her, at least at the novel's opening, which makes her a great observer. Her past is also intriguing, drip-fed through the book at just the right pace to keep us guessing and reward reading.

The plot is twisty and involved, and sets us up well for the next book. Generally, I prefer series books which have a clear plot arc (which is resolved) in each volume, so each is like a complete episode of the story, with a kind of over-arching story to continue through the series, but the writing here was so gorgeous that I forgave it pretty quickly. I will certainly be looking out for book two, and I would definitely recommend this gorgeous, involving read to YA readers, particularly those who enjoy steampunk, dystopian, historical and/or romance novels!

From the back cover:

Everything is in ruins.

A devastating plague has decimated the population. And those who are left live in fear of catching it as the city crumbles to pieces around them.

So what does Araby Worth have to live for?

Nights in the Debauchery Club, beautiful dresses, glittery make-up . . . and tantalizing ways to forget it all.

But in the depths of the club—in the depths of her own despair—Araby will find more than oblivion. She will find Will, the terribly handsome proprietor of the club. And Elliott, the wickedly smart aristocrat. Neither boy is what he seems. Both have secrets. Everyone does.

And Araby may find something not just to live for, but to fight for—no matter what it costs her.

**************************
Published August 2012 by Indigo
My grateful thanks go to the publisher for sending a review copy
Check out Masque of the Red Death at Amazon UK

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

GCSEs

I'm not going to post at length here (it could get horrifically ranty), but here's where we are:

GCSE English fiasco


  • Kids in Wales who sat WJEC English Language GCSE have had their results changed as a result of the grade boundaries being moved
  • Kids in England who sat WJEC English Language GCSE have not
  • Kids in Wales who sat other boards' English Language GCSE have not

EBC Qualifications

Kids who are currently in yr 7 will sit the new EBC qualifications in English, Maths and Science when they complete yr 11. They will have to sit a 3-hr exam for each subject and no coursework will be included. Resits will not be possible. The remaining EBacc subjects (Languages and Humantities) will be sat from the following year, with non-core subjects following later. The exam boards are preparing their bids to compete for the right to offer each subject; schools/colleges/pupils will not have a choice - there will be one specification for each subject. These papers will not be tiered; all pupils will face the same questions/tasks.

Because of the preparation time needed to create exams, it will not be possible to reverse these decisions, no matter what the outcome of the next election. Yes, that's right. Obviously, there is some kind of consultation period, but it's hard to imagine this not going ahead at this point.

It is possible for Lib Dem to claim that we/they have 'won' in that there will not be a return to an O Level/CSE style division, but in reality all that has happened is that only the O Level equivalent will be available. There will be more failures, and this is to be seen as a sign that the new exams are more robust. Those who are not entered for the EBC (or the EBacc - it's not entirely clear) will be issued with a statement of achievement, which sounds rather like a school report or reference outlining their abilities.

Need I repeat that Gove must go?

Monday, 24 September 2012

Review: Horrid Henry's A-Z of Everything Horrid

Essential reading for Horrid Henry fans

This is an essential item for any Horrid Henry fan. Entries include people, places and things in Henry's world, all explained and rigorously cross-referenced. The layout is perfect for this age group: lots of white space, the familiar Tony Ross illustrations and relatively simple text.

I apologise for the teacher perspective (I can't help it, sorry), but aside from the fun value - and there is plenty of that - this volume would serve to introduce children to the idea of encyclopedias and similar reference books. It is well indexed, with the page numbers of entries in bold and other mentions in normal type, and the cross references are thorough and frequent. I can also see this being the first Horrid Henry book some young readers can access for themselves (perhaps if they're familiar with Henry from TV or being read to). It would definitely make a superbly rewarding book for such a reader, with most entries being only one to three sentences.

A great book to dip into, this would be a fab gift for Horrid Henry fans. It certainly delighted my youngest, who spent ages flicking through and reading random entries, as well as following some of the cross references. I'm sure it's a volume that will stand a lot of revisiting, making it good value (especially in this paperback edition).

From the back cover:

The ESSENTIAL guide to everything in Horrid Henry's utterly wicked world.

A is for April Fool's Day, Horrid Henry's favourite day of the year (except his birthday, of course.)
B is for Bogey Babysitter, Rabid Rebecca, the toughest teen in town.
C is for Comfy Black Chair, the best place to watch TV.

From the Purple Hand to pink frilly knickers; supersoakers to Sour Susan; football fiends to fizzywizz drinks - this book has it all and more. An encyclopedia of absolutely EVERYTHING you ever wanted to know about Horrid Henry.

************************
Published 13 Sept by Orion Children's
My grateful thanks to the publishers for sending us a review copy
Check it out: Amazon UK

Friday, 21 September 2012

Review: The Obsidian Mirror by Catherine Fisher

Complex and satisfying blend of fantastic elements and genres - fab speculative read for teens plus


This novel, the first in a series focused on the Chronoptika device built around a magical obsidian mirror, features an amazing array of elements. There is magic: in the mirror, in the glamorous and dangerous Shee who live in the grounds of the Abbey; there are also sci-fi elements in the time travel and the hints of a disaster-stricken future. Finally, there is mystery and adventure in spades. As a fan of folklore, speculative fiction and magic realism, I was sure this was a book I'd enjoy and I was delighted to be proven right.

Reading this book is like working through an intricate puzzle, trying out all the pieces to see where they fit. The narrative with its cinematic feel is a key component in this, as the novel is very carefully constructed through relatively short scenes or sequences which focus on the different characters in turn. This choppy narration is skilfully done and has several effects. It makes the reading experience feel like a film experience, as though the camera shifts to follow different characters, cutting from scene to scene. It controls the tension levels perfectly, leading you to a peak before cutting to something of a much lower intensity, then building up again. And perhaps most importantly, it enables Catherine Fisher to people her novel with relatively unsympathetic characters without losing our interest. Oddly, although it's not easy (at least at first) to claim any great love for any of the main characters, it's very easy to care what happens to them.

As well as playing with generic elements and conventions, this book is quirky in terms of age range conventions. Undoubtedly too complex for younger readers, it still has something of the tone of a classic 9-12 fantasy together with more adult involvement than is typical of a teen adventure. These aspects, for me, give the novel overall a nostalgic quality, as though Catherine Fisher had combined the 'comfy blanket' elements of a much-loved children's tale with enough intrigue and mystery to satisfy an older reader. Interestingly, I wasn't aware of this explicitly when reading; it's something I only realised when planning this review.

This is the first in a series and there are still plenty of loose ends to tie up (and probably get more tangled first). I will definitely be looking out for the next instalment(s) in the adventure, and would absolutely recommend The Obsidian Mirror.

From the author's website:

When Jake Wilde comes to Wintercombe Abbey seeking revenge he finds a snow-bound house of secrets. His godfather, the obsessive, haunted Oberon Venn, is convinced that the Obsidian Mirror can change time and that with it he can reverse the great tragedy of his wife's death.

But all around the Abbey live the Shee and their beautiful, deadly queen, Summer. And she has other plans for Venn....

A girl who can become invisible,a wolf of ice, a future where the world is ending, a past of Victorian slums and secrets, all exist in the reflections of the mirror. But who can control it? Who can enter it?

And can it be destroyed before it destroys the world?

**********************

Publishing 4 Oct by Hodder Children's
My grateful thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy
Check it out at Amazon UK

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Doing More Things: a happiness project of sorts

Lately, I've been trying to be more present, do more family things, that kind of stuff. It's definitely working. I'm seeing the benefits in my own health (especially in terms of stress-related issues) as well as in that of the family. Here are some recent highlights:

Saturday mornings at the zoo

We joined Twycross Zoo's 'Friends' programme last summer and are now into our second year of membership. This month, they started a Junior Friends scheme where the kids spend two hours on activities with Education Officers, while we wander round the zoo for a bit (and sample the fabulous cooked breakfasts...). I think the kids' highlight so far has been making papier mache pinatas to stuff with lemur treats. I've been really impressed with the activities and it's a great start to the weekend.

Prioritising walks

With two lively dogs (a terrier and a lurcher), a day without walking is never possible, but I have in the past been guilty of letting dear hubby take them on his own so I could get some work done. I always knew, of course, that a good walk is a brilliant way of taking a break as it can recharge and refresh, but when you're struggling to get everything done it can be hard. No more, though - me and my health first, then work. (And of course, work often improves too when you actually take care of yourself...)

A positive to-do list

This is an idea I got from the blogosphere somewhere (I'm really sorry I don't recall where exactly), but it worked really well for us this summer. At the start of the summer holidays, we each made a list of things we wanted to do during the break. We pinned it up on the calendar board and used it for inspiration to avoid frittering away the summer. Not that we had no down time, or ran ourselves ragged! It's all too easy to get to the end of the summer holidays and realise that you haven't done anything special - this list helped us escape that feeling. Isn't it ridiculous that we need reminding that we want to do fun things? But still, having recognised that, we were able to act on it. It's definitely an approach I'd use again.


Monday, 17 September 2012

Review: Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

Emotional and engaging - an indulgent read to get lost in


The definition of quality me time, Me Before You sucked me in and had me rooting for the characters from practically the first page. I hadn't read a Jojo Moyes before, and I will certainly be looking for more. The plot surprised and delighted me, although I struggled to read the last few chapters through the tears. I didn't expect to be so wrung out by the novel, but at the same time it was cathartic and I am in awe of the skill with which it was written - genuinely moving, never mawkish and I never felt emotionally manipulated (which I have found a real turn-off with some 'weepies' in the past).

The story revolves around Lou, a young and unambitious woman who loses her tea shop job and takes up a new position as carer to Will, a young man who lost everything in a single moment. Will's family are wealthy, while Lou's are struggling, and the plot is centred on the impact that Will and Lou have on one another's lives as her chatter chips away at his shell of misery.

The theme of being a different person because of someone else's influence reverberates through the novel, and is at the core of what you are left with after reading. The novel deals with some heavy ideas, yet somehow manages this with a light touch that nonetheless slices to the very heart and depth of the issues.

The novel is mostly told in Lou's lively voice, except for a third person prologue and a chapter here and there in someone else's voice (clearly marked and always a valuable different perspective). Lou is charming in her own slightly blunt way and it's easy to feel for her family as they struggle financially whilst trying to pretend all
is well.

Overall, for an unashamedly emotional read, this book is a must.

Back cover blurb:

Lou Clark knows lots of things. She knows how many footsteps there are between the bus stop and home. She knows she likes working in The Buttered Bun tea shop and she knows she might not love her boyfriend Patrick.

What Lou doesn't know is she's about to lose her job or that knowing what's coming is what keeps her sane.

Will Traynor knows his motorcycle accident took away his desire to live. He knows everything feels very small and rather joyless now and he knows exactly how he's going to put a stop to that.

What Will doesn't know is that Lou is about to burst into his world in a riot of colour. And neither of them knows they're going to change the other for all time.

**********

Published Jan 2012 by Penguin
Thank you to Lovereading for the review copy
Check it out at Amazon UK

Friday, 14 September 2012

Interview with James Dawson, Author of Hollow Pike

The fabulous Hollow Pike (my review here) has a new and gorgeous paperback edition out last week - with PURPLE-EDGED PAGES! - so James has been touring the web in celebration. His blog tour, Hollow Pike Uncut, featured 'deleted scenes' from the novel and I would strongly recommend checking it out. Details here, on his website.


Before concluding his travels, James is here today at the Hearthfire to answer some questions about his work:

You were a teacher before becoming a full-time writer, which is not that unusual a past career for an author (and not specifically for children's authors). Why do you think that is? For you, how does writing YA compare to teaching? 
I suppose the answer is twofold. On one hand, they’re both incredibly creative professions (or they CAN be if you’re teaching well). The best part of being a teacher for me was coming up with madcap ideas for what we were going to teach and how – it’s a shame that the current government wants to squeeze the fun out of teaching and learning.

Secondly, teachers are surrounded by children’s literature and you can’t help but be inspired by that. I suppose if you’re in a position of being an authority on how to write, it figures that you’d imagine you’re quite good at it (like a writing megalomaniac!)

Hollow Pike is shot through with the idea of witches and there's clearly an interesting history there. What kind of research did you do into witchcraft to write Hollow Pike? Are there any cool facts you picked up that didn't make it into the book?

An earlier version of Hollow Pike would have centred around Ley Lines rather than witchcraft. Ley Lines are supposed channels of energy that flow under the earth. Areas with a high abundance of Ley Lines are said to be hotbeds of mystical energy and that is how the kids of Hollow Pike would have developed their abilities. In the end though, witches are just more fun and the Pendle case proved irresistible.

Earlier this year, you were the first man to be nominated Queen of Teen, which brought some interesting press coverage. What were the highlights of that experience for you? Are there any 'lowlights'?

The Queen of Teen was such a great experience – man do they know how to throw a party! I was proud to be nominated because the Queen of Teen organisers were keen to show it wasn’t a ‘girls only’ affair and that pink is for everyone. There was some fuss when the nominations were announced but, if I’m honest, I thought it was pretty hilarious. Some critics didn’t like that a bloke was stealing attention from female authors, but these were the same critics who hated it being a ‘girly’ award. The poor organisers couldn’t win whatever they did.

With the Queen of Teen, you just have to enter into the spirit of it. Male or female, the day IS pink and light-hearted and stereotypical, even if that’s not altogether PC. It was designed as a remedy to stuffy awards ceremonies and there’s something quite punk about the whole day. It’s two fingers up to the establishment. More importantly, it gives readers a chance to vote for THEIR favourite books – not the books critics tell them they should like. On a final note, the winning author, Maureen Johnson, is a million miles away from being pink and fluffy, so that speaks for itself really!

I've seen several interviews already asking about your writing practice, now that you're a full-time writer. I note that you are very professional and organised about the whole thing (no lying-in until noon, for example). So, there really aren't any strange writing habits you could share with us? No rituals or routines to help you get down to writing?

This is such a boring answer, but no! I wake up, eat breakfast, shower and write. Actually I do eat constantly on the orders of my personal trainer. Actually, that’s still quite boring isn’t it? Writing is my job. I keep office hours. I’m sorry I’m not more flouncy and artistic!

Well, I suppose we can forgive you :) Thank you so much for answering my questions - and for producing such a fabulous read!

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Recommended Writers' Resources 2

This is the second in my occasional series highlighting resources that I think others might also find helpful. The first such post is here, if you missed it.

Emma Darwin Dissecting a Paragraph

This Itch of Writing, Emma Darwin's blog, is another treasure trove of writing advice and discussion about craft. This particular post focuses on an exquisite paragraph from Elizabeth Bowen's The Heat of the Day, which Emma analyses closely to show how it works to evoke action effectively. As with other blogs recommended here, this is well worth exploring and following.

Linda Lewis on Finding and Using Ideas

The Writer's Treasury of Ideas, out now from womag writer and writing tutor Linda Lewis, has loads of accessible advice on making use of all aspects of life in your writing. It's a great book for dipping into, with themed sections exploring lots of different areas. There are writing exercises and Linda has even generously shared some of her stories as examples.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Review: The Odds by Adam Perrott

Great fun for confident readers (or as a read-aloud)

I'm sure kids in the target 8-10 audience will find much to enjoy here - and any parents reading this aloud at bedtime will also be charmed, no doubt. The Odds are a family of Meddlers - creatures whose business it is to meddle and mess things up. In this story, once we have been introduced to this idea, the plot revolves around the Odds' increasingly desperate attempts to prank a couple who are new to their village.

The plot is, of course, silly and that is a large part of its appeal. It's pretty well-thought-through silliness, however, with plenty of quirky details that hit just the right note for this age group (without being over-the-top absurd). I enjoyed the extracts from The Meddlers' Mischief Manual (and the layout and typography in presenting these is also effective, making it clear that this is separate from the main text to not confuse new readers). I also particularly appreciated the "What Are The Odds" introduction that precedes Chapter One. Some children get frustrated before they feel fully grounded into a story and this introductory section is perfect for orienting them.

The Odds themselves are strange, quirky creatures who inhabit a culture that counters our own, celebrating mess and reversals. This will clearly appeal to many children's sense of humour, and they will readily accept and sympathise with the Odds' values and personalities. They will also enjoy the test at the end which decides whether they are fit to pass the Professional Prankster Exam. This test refers to several details mentioned in the book, so those who have paid attention will be pleased to show their knowledge of Meddling.

Overall, I'd recommend this for boys and girls who enjoy funny, quirky stories. It's not quite as silly as, say Phillip Ardagh or Andy Stanton which, from my perspective, gives it a broader appeal and makes it more suitable as a shared read.

Back cover blurb:

Have you ever fallen flat on your face when you're carrying an ice cream? Or put down a drink, gone back to get it and it's nowhere to be seen?

That's the Odds at work! A family of Professional Pranksters who delight in playing the most rib-tickling tricks on the townspeople of Trott. But when the fiendish Mr and Mrs Plopwell move in nearby, the Odds meet their match. This calls for some serious mischief-making...


Published August 2012
Thank you to Stripes Publishing for the review copy
Check it out at Amazon UK

As well as getting all organised about what I'm doing and when, I'm also trying a different review layout. What do you think?

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Tuesday Tidings: Changes Around the Hearthfire

It's time for some changes around here. I'm going to be a bit more organised about my posts, and I'm going to be integrating with my website a bit more. Here's what I'm going to be doing:
  • Booky posts on Mondays and Fridays - largely reviews
  • Other posts on Wednesdays - personal posts, opinions, topics related to language and writing
This will kick off next Monday with a review. Today's will be the only post this week, while I catch my breath and do some more planning. You should see my lists of possible topics (and website features)!

Some of you may also be familiar with my original online home, my website - mostly comprised of teaching notes for A Level English. I'm also going to be introducing regularly updated content over there, and the website is expanding to represent my writing as well as my teaching. I'll be featuring the following:

On the 'help for students' page
  • A 'read of the week' in the reading for pleasure corner. Most of these will be YA tips, with occasional adult reads (not in that sense), and perhaps the odd round-up (e.g. great witchy reads)
  • A 'wider reading' suggestion, to be updated fortnightly
  • A 'diversify your vocab' box with a different word or group of words each week
On the 'help for teachers' page
  • A weekly teaching activity or tip
  • A weekly round-up of the student features, including occasional related resources or teaching tips
Sometimes I'll link between the two. I'm thinking of doing a monthly summary here of the various bits and bobs on my website (I'll be storing the regular features on monthly archive pages once they've been replaced on the main pages).
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