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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.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Happy Halloween: marking the festival creatively

Are you trick or treating with the kids? Waiting in, prepared for the trick-or-treaters? Looking for something to do to tap into the spirit of Halloween but not sure what? Here are a few suggestions.

Decorate your windows

with simple paper cut outs for silhouettes and tissue paper to get a nice glow. Simple, strong outlines work best: orange tissue for a no-mess pumpkin face (use black paper or black marker to make the features so the orange face glows) or a circle of white tissue with a black wolf or bat silhouette against it also looks good, as do spider and bat silhouettes in black paper straight on the window.

Remember the dead

This time of year has always been about honouring those who have gone before. A simple and unobtrusive altar or shrine can easily be created using photographs, momentos or items which symbolise loved ones, perhaps together with a candle for focus.

Write something seasonal

Here's a couple of fun exercises I've used with a keen student creative writing group around Halloween:
  • Practice 'show, don't tell' by writing a paragraph in which a character is scared. You must demonstrate their fear as many ways as possible and avoid the word 'scared' and its synonyms.
  • Write a poem, a brief monologue or a flash fiction piece inspired by an unusual phobia. A handy list of phobias is available online at the phobia list.

Practise divination

Again, this is traditional at this point in the year, when the veil is said to be thinnest. If you've got divination tools such as tarot or oracle cards tucked away somewhere, now is a good time to pull them out and give them a go. If you've never really got to grips with them, try shuffling and concentrating on being open to whatever you most need to know right now. Draw a single card and see what it says to you. Don't reach straight for the book or leaflet - what does the image mean to you? Do take notice of ideas that appear in your mind; a lot of good information is too easily dismissed.

For the more practised, here's a great Halloween spread, working on the principle of Samhain as a beginning and an ending and seeking guidance for the coming year. Simply draw three cards: what to cast off, what to hang onto, what to bring in. This can be done as a simple three card spread, or made more complicated by applying these three ideas to different areas that you want to focus on such as love, career, family etc.

What do you do at this time of year?

Monday, 29 October 2012

Review: How to Make a Heron Happy by Lari Don, illustrated by Nicola O' Byrne

Charming wildlife-focused picture book with plenty to say about empathy and the environment

This lovely little book centres on Hamish, a boy who notices that the heron at his local park looks rather grumpy. He tries lots of things to cheer it up before realising that maybe it's hard to smile with a beak, and that the heron could always fly away somewhere else if it was truly unhappy.

I'd recommend this as a shared read - or perhaps for new readers (an often overlooked picture book audience, I think). The text and illustrations focus rather nicely on things to do in a park and how to improve your local area, and are brilliant as a focus for discussion. I could imagine reading it to a primary class and asking for their ideas on how to cheer the heron up, or leading into discussions about local wildlife. It could also be used as a stimulus for a primary lesson on body language and facial expression cues and how these help us to understand what others are feeling (and how this can sometimes be misinterpreted!).

The pictures and text are attractively arranged. Several of the spreads feature what is, essentially, the same scene of the heron in a pond, with its surroundings gradually improving (including the weather!). Other spreads have more text and smaller drawings, showing different people planting flowers for example, or the heron doing different things. This breaks it up and would help maintain a small child's attention as a bedtime read.

Overall, I'd definitely recommend this, whether as a family read or for a primary classroom.

From the Back Cover:

The heron in the local park always looks sad and grumpy, so Hamish decides to cheer it up. He brings food, tidies the heron's dirty pond, plants flowers, and has a party.

But the heron still looks grumpy.

Maybe it isn't unhappy after all?

A charming story from Edinburgh-based writer and storyteller, Lori Don.


Published 2011 by Floris Books, and 2012 as a Picture Kelpie
Received with gratitude from the publisher in a Twitter giveaway
Check it out at Amazon UK

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Round up for October

It's that time again already! Here's a round-up of what's been going on over the last month, both here and at my website.

October Reviews

4 YA (2 fantasy, 2 realism), 2 kids' (1 fantasy fiction, 1 non-fiction) and 2 adults' (1 lit fid, 1 crime fic).

Other posts for October

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:
  • a no-prep end-of-topic starter activity
  • a tip about getting Language students writing about meaning as well as showing off their new-found terminology
  • a discussion of How Much Grammar students need for Language A Level
  • a tip on using exemplar essays

On the students' page:
  • Features on: child phonology; NaNoWriMo; semantic weakening (is it really 'epic'?); new words as a sign of the times.
  • Vocabulary pieces on: guiding the reader; being tentative about meaning; avoiding the vague adjectives 'positive' and 'negative'; using connectives logically.
  • Books for wider reading: Dante's Inferno; Jenefer Shute's Life-Size.
  • Reads to relax with: The Hunting Ground by Cliff McNish; Dark Parties by Sara Grant; The Storyteller by Antonia Michaelis; Poltergeeks by Sean Cummings.
My other big website announcement of the month is that I have collated all my 'Frameworks' notes (the key terms for English Language or English Language and Literature A Level) into an ebook and self-published it in Kindle format. Should you know anyone this would be helpful for, please do send them to my Frameworks pages for more info. The notes will continue to be freely available online, but the ebook version may be more convenient on the go.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Review: Knock Down (Street Duty Case One) by Chris Ould

Brilliant start to a new police procedural series for the YA market

As a lover of crime fiction, and an enthusiastic YA reader, I was really pleased to hear about this exciting new series. Reading it made me even happier, as it was everything I would have wished for in such a combination.

Chris Ould has written for The Bill amongst other things, and the knowledge he gained from this - of how the police operate and of what makes a successful crime narrative - is put to great use in this brilliant read. For this YA series, he has invented the rank of Trainee Police Officer (TPO) to allow the creation of 16 to 18 year old characters who can investigate crime. Although they are trainees and therefore often supervised, Holly Blades in this novel shows enough promise that the training officers allow her some slack and she is able to take something of a leading role, particularly in the crimes which focus on teens. I know that some reviewers are commenting on the realism of this, but I fail to see how it's any less realistic than the classic 'child sleuth' trope or the 'meddling little old lady who solves crimes on a regular basis' for that matter!

Holly Blades and Sam Marsden are the TPOs, although Holly has more of the lead in this instalment. Both show potential as police officers, and both are 'up against it' to some extent as the public and other officers don't always take them seriously. This is a classic trope in crime fiction (often it's the woman detective struggling to be accepted, or the older detective whose methods are viewed as outdated), allowing the characters to show their human sides and making it easier to sympathise with them. It certainly works in Street Duty as we easily root for Holly and Sam and admire their resourcefulness.

The focus is very much on the crimes and the plot centres on a few different criminal acts, some of which turn out to be connected. It feels (to me, with no such experience!) like a realistic representation of a short period in policing, with different events being reported in and the officers' attention being pulled in different directions. The narrative is in the third person and past tense, with the focus shifting around different settings and different characters and different fonts used to differentiate the police-focused sections (all headed with location date and time in a very precise way) from the sections concentrating on criminals, victims and suspects. Overall it feels quite visual, as though we are cutting from scene to scene in a TV drama or film. It's clear that as well as the TPOs and other police officers, some other characters and settings are going to be revisited in future cases, and I am looking forward to getting to know the area better.

Given the popularity of crime drama and fiction, this is bound to be a highly successful series, and (speaking as a teacher) I also appreciate its positive presentation of (some) teens in relation to crime. Many teens are responsible, resourceful and reliable individuals, and it is a shame that their presentation as such is relatively unusual. I would strongly recommend this series to readers of around 15 and up (it carries warnings about explicit content and strong language).

From the Back Cover:

Victim: Teenage female, 14 years old. Unconcious. Head Injury. Laceration to arm. Struck by lorry.

Why was Ashleigh Jarvis running so fast that she didn't see the lorry? Why was she so scared? And why was she barefoot on a cold winter's evening? It's Holly Blade's first case and she wants to know the truth. But how much is she willing to risk?

First in an arresting new series from BAFTA award-winning writer, Chris Ould.

Warning: contains explicit language and content. Recommended for readers aged 15+.

Published October 1st by Usborne
Review copy gratefully received in exchange for my honest opinion
Check out more information (and the first chapter) at the Usborne Street Duty page

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

The Problem with NaNoWriMo ...

... is that it leads to some crazy coverage in the press and social media. Yes, of course, writing a novel in a month sounds absurd, but the spirit of nano isn't to produce the finished product in a month. It's all about getting the words out (well, 50,000 words anyway) and for many people it's extremely helpful to concentrate on word count and to give yourself permission to press on regardless. Anything can be fixed later - and perhaps there's the key. I suspect that most nano naysayers don't see this month of manic writing as the start of a long process, but rather as the whole process. Or perhaps more importantly, that's what they imagine the NaNoWriMo writers (or wrimos) themselves see it as. Or maybe less charitably, they simply don't want others messing around in their pool.

The Guardian's 'how to write a novel in 30 days' piece has hardly helped this year, encouraging many novelists on Twitter to snipe about what they presumably see as the misrepresentation of their craft. But if you actually read the Guardian piece, it's about producing a detailed outline in 30 days and not at all about a finished product ready to go to press.

If you want to know more about NaNoWriMo, your first stop should be the official website. I particularly like the list of published NaNo novels. If that's not evidence that NaNoWriMo can be a way to write a 'real' novel, I don't know what is. And OK, there will be many times more unpublished NaNo novels, but I would be surprised if the published/unpublished ratios weren't similar for NaNo novels and those produced under different circumstances. People write novels that don't get published, you know - and often they've still benefitted from the process.

I've seen two particularly good blogs about this NaNo snobbery over the last couple of days. Check out Catherine Ryan Howard's great piece about what NaNo is good for, and Keris Stainton's excellent stand against the 'that's not how you do it' brigade.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Review: Breathe by Sarah Crossan

Engaging and exciting dystopian YA set in an oxygen-deprived world

I was excited to read this, despite there being so many dystopias around now, and I wasn't disappointed. Controlling oxygen seems such an absolute way to keep control of the people and, as with all good dystopias, there is a clear hierarchy and social control through people knowing their place and being unable to break out of it. There is also clear danger at all times, ensuring that we are gripped and committed to finding out where it will all end.

The novel is told through three different and converging perspectives: Alina, a rebel, who opens the novel with "Breathing is a right, not a privilege, so I'm stealing it back". Her voice is lively and strong from the outset, as she prepares to take action. Bea comes next, an Auxiliary (i.e. second-class citizen) who is bold and clever. The final voice we follow is Quinn's - a Premium who has a lot of privilege in the novel's world and isn't always aware of this. The narration is all first person present tense, which works well for this kind of novel, creating uncertainty and tension and removing the possibility of hindsight. We are pulled along with the characters on their adventure and it's never quite certain who will survive or succeed.

Having two female and one male protagonists is effective in offering different perspectives and likely to widen the novel's appeal. There is a degree of romance but never as more than a sub-plot - survival and rebellion are far more important ideas here, which feels realistic despite the novel's extreme scenario. Sarah Crossan writes with an emotional and psychological realism which makes the story compelling, and allowing the novel to effectively combine being an entertaining read and raising questions about commitment, bravery and privilege.

The pace of the novel is a key strength. Although Sarah Crossan has created a world that is in many ways entirely unfamiliar, she succeeds in conveying the oddities of this world without heavy exposition or backstory. In some cases, we find out the society's history along with the characters, but always in a way that works with the plot and feels natural. This is book one in a trilogy, and I will definitely be taking the first opportunity to read the next book, as the ending of this one raises the stakes even higher and leaves you wondering what on earth can happen next (yet without leaving you unsatisfied and feeling cheated, as series books can sometimes).

Overall, I would absolutely recommend this to YA readers (who don't have to actually be young adults, of course) who enjoy dystopian novels and/or thrillers. I think those who aren't necessarily keen dystopian fans will enjoy this too, as it is such a good example of the genre.

From the Back Cover:

Years after the Switch, life inside the Pod has moved on. A poor Auxiliary class cannot afford the oxygen tax which supplies extra air for running, dancing and sports. The rich Premiums, by contrast, are healthy and strong. Anyone who opposes the regime is labelled a terrorist and ejected from the Pod to die.

Sixteen-year-old Alina is part of the secret resistance, but when a mission goes wrong she is forced to escape from the Pod. With only two days of oxygen in her tank, she too faces the terrifying prospect of death by suffocation. Her only hope is to find the mythical Grove, a small enclave of trees protected by a hardcore band of rebels. Does it even exist, and if so, what or who are they protecting the trees from?

A dystopian thriller about courage and freedom, with a love story at its heart.


Published in October by Bloomsbury
My grateful thanks to the publishers for providing a review copy
Check out the Breathe page at Bloomsbury for more information or go to Amazon UK

Friday, 19 October 2012

Breathe by Sarah Crossan - the Trailer

Breathe is a dystopian YA novel (published this month) set in a treeless world where oxygen has become a commodity and a form of control. I'll be reviewing this one properly next week, but suffice to say for now that I definitely recommend it. If the trailer has whetted your appetite, you may want to check out some of Sarah Crossan's blogtour posts for more info. 

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Recommended Writers' Resources 3: The DIY Special

I've been considering packaging the revision notes on my website into ebook form so students could download them onto their phones, so I've been investigating self e-publishing lately. Here are the most useful resources I've found:

The Writer's Guide to E-Publishing

is a website with an array of resources and been-there-done-that advice. In a blog-style format, with contributions from lots of different writers (including the marvellous Talli Roland), it's easy to lose a lot of time browsing here :)

Self-Printed: the Sane Person's Guide to Self-Publishing (2nd edition)

is a fabulous, entertaining read which outlines clearly and specifically exactly what Catherine Ryan Howard did (and does) when self-publishing her writing. Her advice is thorough and comprehensive, if a little bossy at times (but hey, it's her book, so why shouldn't she get bossy?). Publishing to Kindle and Smashwords are explained step-by-step, as is using Createspace to produce a paperback. She also covers how to sell and promote (in a non-annoying way...) using only free online tools such as an effective blog and social media presence. I found the answers to lots of nitty-gritty questions here, and would strongly recommend it to anyone thinking about self-publishing.

I particularly enjoyed her frank discussion about the quality of much self-published writing and her attempt to distance herself from the more rabid self-publishing rhetoric (usually focused on 'gatekeepers' and the many perceived failures of traditional publishing). I read in it the kindle version, but it is also available as a print on demand paperback.

It's also well worth checking out Catherine's site for more advice and opinions about successful self-publishing.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Review: Lance of Truth by Katherine Roberts

Second instalment in the fabulous Pendragon Legacy quartet of Arthurian adventures for a new generation

Warning: this review could include spoilers for Sword of Light, book 1 in the series. If you haven't yet read Sword of Light, my review of it can be found here.

This adventure is every bit as fast-paced and gripping as the first, with Rhianna and friends seeking out the second of the lights. They'll need all four to revive Arthur and restore Britain.

The quest is again central to the narrative and, although the story is clearly original (with the new invention of Rhianna in particular), there is plenty here that is familiar from Arthurian legend and the courtly tradition. I particularly enjoyed the verses at the start of each chapter, which form a ballad that gives an overview of the story when put together (yes, I did read them as such once I'd finished the novel!). The map and decorated headings also add to the feel of an older book, strengthening the presentation to make this a lovely package. These little hardbacks would make lovely gifts because they feel special and exciting as objects, thanks to these well-considered touches.

I love Rhianna as a character particularly and she is what makes this series special, amongst quests and fantasy adventures for the 9-12 age group. Her absolute refusal to comply with what a lady of Camelot 'ought' to be continues to delight and inspire, and the introduction of new characters enables Katherine Roberts to revisit and underline this point, just as some of the knights from book one are starting to see what Rhianna has to offer and treating her less as 'just' a damsel.

These are many-faceted books with a broad appeal, containing magic, mystery, adventure, danger, friendship, family and a richly-imagined medieval setting. I would definitely recommend the series to both boys and girls of 9+.

From the back cover:

The quest for Camelot's survival continues - King Arthur's secret daughter, Rhianna Pendragon, has faced mortal danger, ice-breathing dragons and dark magic to win Excalibur, the Sword of Light. But the sword is just one of four magical Lights that she must find to restore Arthur's soul to his body and bring him back to life.

Now Rhianna must head into the wilds of the North, to find the second Light, the Lance of Truth, before her evil cousin Mordred claims it. But Mordred is holding her mother Guinevere captive - can Rhianna stay true to her quest for the Lights and save the mother she's never known, before Mordred wreaks his terrible revenge?

Published October by Templar Books
My grateful thanks go to the publishers for sending a review copy
Check out Lance of Truth at Amazon UK

Friday, 12 October 2012

Review: The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers

Emotionally intense dystopian focused on fertility and childbirth

Comparisons are being made to The Handmaid's Tale (which I love) and Children of Men (which I haven't read), largely because this is a near-future dystopia in which fertility and childbearing is the focus (as well as it winning the Arthur C Clarke, which Handmaid's Tale also did). The difference here is in the voice, as Jessie Lamb is a 16 yr old girl sharing her story with us in the hope of being understood. She writes in an audience-conscious way (as can be inferred from the title) and her thoughts and feelings are utterly convincing as those of a 16 yr old girl under considerable pressure.

In Jessie's world, women die if they conceive. Everyone carries the illness MDS (maternal death syndrome), which activates in pregnancy, creating a form of CJD (or mad cow disease) and ultimately killing both mother and child. Society is trying desperately to find a way to prevent humanity dying out, allowing the author to raise questions about scientific research, genetic modification, the treatment of women and how teens become involved in politics. For me, a large part of Jane Roger's theme is about the involvement of young people in politics and how relatively easy it is for people to manipulate a cause, although I know from the Amazon reviews that some feel her portrayal of the various political camps in the novel is too one-dimensional. I would argue that this is necessary, as she features several different causes in the novel, all of whom want to make use of Jessie in some way (and would you really want that much of the novel taken up by rounding out the secondary cast?), and also that there is accuracy in this representation, as those who are fanatical make themselves one-dimensional. There is also, I feel, something of the allegory to this novel, and simplified characters are part of this tradition.

I greatly enjoyed this novel and found myself gripped to see how Jessie's tale would end. Again, I would take issue with those who claim the novel is predictable and would suggest that it has an inevitability to it, in the same way that classical tragedy does, but this isn't really the same thing. Any other ending wouldn't be as satisfying, but that for me says that a different ending would be a failure. The various obstacles that Jessie faces, together with the many opportunities for her to take a different course, are what make up the plot.

Overall, I would recommend this novel, although I find categorising it very difficult (it seems to be marketed as literary fiction). Again, a debate exists about whether it is YA or not (although some irritating reviewers on Amazon are using this as a criticism of the book - it's YA because it lacks depth/weight, they feel). For me, I would recommend it to a YA audience: the narrator is 16 and is facing issues centred on what she believes and who she is. I would also recommend it to adults (although that's often true of the sold-as-YA novels I review...) and feel that it offers plenty to think about in an accessible package.

[deleted rant here on how wrong it is that inaccessible 'should' = literary.... :) ]

From the back cover:

Winner of the Arthur C Clarke Award 2012
Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2011

Women are dying in their millions. Some blame scientists, some see the hand of God. As she watches her world collapsing, Jessie Lamb decides she wants to make her life count. Would you let your daughter die if it would save the human race?

The Testament of Jessie Lamb is the story of one daughter's heroism and one father's love.

Published July 2012 by Canongate books
My grateful thanks for the review copy via Netgalley
Check out The Testament of Jessie Lamb at Amazon UK

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

A Sad Time for Feminism

I was going to open this post by commenting that it's been a sad week for feminism. I started compiling a list of recent events to refer to and quickly realised that it's pretty much impossible to slap a nice neat timeframe on all the stuff that makes me want to shout/cry/stab someone. So I'll just sum up a few choice recent moments: the whys and wherefores of 'legitimate' versus 'illegitimate' rape; a culture of sleaze at the BBC (no wait, everywhere in the 70s and 80s); freshers' week as instruction in knowing one's place and, perhaps arguably less seriously, the final nail in the coffin of 'YA lit is written for girls by girls'.

This last question is the one I'm going to focus on for now, as I have some chance of at least appearing relatively calm and rational in my arguments (and gods forbid I should seem irrational and emotional). The idea that there are fewer books 'for' boys than girls is often floated, along with the related ideas that boys 'won't' read a female protagonist and that 'boys' books may be harder to publish (as the market slice is smaller). The fabulous lady business site conducted some research into female dominance in YA, but, being unable to explore the entire market, focused on awardwinners since 2012, as these are particularly visible books which have also been recognised as high quality in some way. Their overall conclusion was that 49% of these awardwinning books had a male protagonist, and 42% were written by male authors.

It is possible (and acknowledged by the fabulous lady business team) that male-focused books (those with a male protagonist) may be more likely to be selected for awards as they are perceived as being less common. This is, of course, not the same thing as being actually less common, which is a very difficult thing to prove with the number of books that we would be talking about here. It also reminds me of teaching gender differences in language usage with sixth formers. Students are very willing to accept rather outdated stereotypes about gendered speech unquestioningly. I'm talking about ideas such as 'women share feelings while men share facts' and 'women discuss problems simply to compare experience, while men assume they're looking for solutions'. These ideas feel right to many people before looking at the evidence, perhaps in the same way that gender-based beliefs about reading and publishing appeal (boys don't read girly genres/topics; boys need a male lead character; most kids & YA fiction is written by women). But of course, we also perpetuate these beliefs by accepting them as inherently right, and that's pretty much the problem with most of these gender issues. The way people treat one another, the choices we make, all stem from our basic beliefs, which include beliefs about gender.

I sometimes feel that it was easier to be a young feminist in the late 80s and early 90s than it is for girls now. We seem no longer to have a culture in which the likes of the Savile case can easily exist, yet it is harder to argue for women's rights now, and I'm sure it's harder for girls to consider themselves feminist. They can recognise past injustices, but rarely realise for themselves how imbalanced our society and culture still is. I don't know how many times I've presented evidence to classes relating to the representation of women in the media, or cultural norms and expectations revealing themselves through texts, only to be greeted with "well, yeah, but no-one means it like that, do they?" or "okay, but I don't really read into things that much". It's particularly heartbreaking coming from bright young women. A great antidote to this is the everyday sexism project, which publishes women's experiences with misogyny and gender-based abuse and harrassment. It seems we're back in the early days of feminism's second wave, with good old-fashioned consciousness-raising. *sigh*

Monday, 8 October 2012

Two Great - and Very Different - #UKYA Series

Whether you're a fantasy fan or a lover of gritty contemporary, I have just what you need today. I also have a bit of a confession: Blogger ate today's post, so I am taking the opportunity to repost a couple of reviews from a while ago to spread the love for some lovely UKYA. Both these books are fabulous examples, and both are the first in a series.

First up, we have the wonderful Firebrand by the amazing Gillian Philip. Two further titles in this series, Bloodstone and Wolfsbane, are now available, and there will also be a fourth. There is a lot of love in the blogosphere for Firebrand's antihero protagonist, Seth MacGregor (who also flirts a lot on Twitter).

Here's what I wrote back in January of 2011:
This story is narrated by Seth, who is one of the most engaging characters I've ever come across (and as a lifelong avid reader and an English teacher, I have read a fair few books!). His voice is pitch-perfect, revealing his flaws as well as his strengths, and endearing him to us as we follow his journey from the Sidhe world into the Otherworld (our version of the world).

Seth's background is difficult at best - unwanted by his mother and unacknowledged by his father, he is nevertheless capable of love and loyalty, almost despite himself. This love is largely directed to his half-brother Conal, whom we see him preparing to shoot at the book's opening, to save him from being burnt as a witch. Following this exciting episode, we are taken back to the long chain of events that leads to this point, to arrive there again about halfway through the narrative. The brothers' relationship is realistic and touching in its depiction of male affection, including the trading of insults and jibes.

This is a gripping adventure story in a fantasy setting with its fair share of twists and turns, but it is the characters that steal the show. I'd strongly recommend this to readers of 12 plus - and will certainly be lending it to my 12 year old. There are references to sex, but they are subtle enough for younger readers to miss, while the novel's grand sweep and the masterful characterisation is more than sufficient to engage adult readers.

From an entirely different angle, we also have the taut thriller When I Was Joe from the marvellous Keren David. The trilogy which begins with this novel is now out in its entirety, so you don't even have to wait to see how it all ends! 

Here are my thoughts from May 2011:
The central voice of Ty is definitely a key strength of this book. He narrates the story, gradually sharing more of what happened 'that day', and regularly revealing his feelings (albeit not always deliberately). He is a sympathetic character and you are desperate for things to go well for him, but at the same time he is a realistically drawn teenager. This means his choices aren't always the best ones, and there are some wonderful moments where he clearly doesn't grasp the subtleties of what is going on around him. A sentence that sums up the delightful 'teenageness' of him for me is:
'Yeah,' I say and she says, 'You know, Ty, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger,' which is pretty amazing because I would have thought that Maureen'd be way too old to have even heard of Kanye West.
The story is pacey; helped by starting after the incident that ruptures Ty's world, which means the truth of what he saw is delivered in a tantalising trickle throughout the novel. And there are fantastic twists. At one point, I did such a sharp intake of breath that the woman next to me on the train was laughing at me!

At the same time as dealing with this big central incident that drives the story, the bulk of the novel is ultimately about fitting in and being accepted. Ty's life is complicated by having to move to a new area and live as someone else. This gives the author lots of scope to explore 'normal' teen stuff like negotiating friendships and romantic/sexual feelings, together with all that angst about who or what is 'cool'.

The novel deals with the important issue of knife crime (as well as at least touching on other issues affecting teens, such as bullying, identity, relationships, self harm, attitudes to different kinds of families), but it isn't an 'issues' novel, it's an engaging story which happens to highlight some issues. This is the perfect way to address issues for this audience: teens (no scratch that, people) run a mile from preachy books. This novel will get them thinking because it will have first engaged them with Ty and his specific and personal situation and concerns.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Review: The Girl on the Stairs by Louise Welsh

Intelligent and absorbing thriller for fans of literary crime with a psychological focus

This thriller ratchets up the tension in a relatively quiet and subtle way. There are no gunshots, no trail of dead bodies and no race-against-the-clock chases. This novel thrives on the almost-said, the hinted-at and the careful creation of atmosphere, making it easy to get lost in the world that Louise Welsh has created and to wonder what is really going on.

This is a classic psychological thriller with Jane, our focus character, isolated physically, culturally and socially. For British Jane, living in Berlin with her partner Petra is isolating as her German isn't strong and her late stage pregnancy limits her physically. Alone during the day and alone with her wakefulness at night, she sees and hears things that no-one else does. The book's big question is whether Jane has woven a fantasy around her neighbours, or whether she is in fact the only one to realise the violence going on next door.

Using third person narrative, we see Jane's experience close-up but are also uncertain of exactly what is happening and I'm sure many readers would, like me, vacillate between thinking Jane was losing it slightly, and wondering why no-one believed her. To my mind at least, there is no point as you go through the story at which it is definitively clear what the author wants you to believe. Clearly, Louise Welsh has effectively set up and welcomed us into a shadowy, threatening version of Berlin.

I was pleased to see a lesbian main character, but perhaps a little disappointed to see them inhabiting fairly traditional roles with Jane destined to be a housewife and full time mother and Petra away on business and sometimes taking Jane for granted. But then, our access is heavily filtered through Jane's experience and, although not a first-person narrator, she is still a potentially unreliable one.

All in all, I enjoyed this as a complex and often gripping thriller. This isn't one for those who like their crime/thriller novels neatly tied with a bow - there is no 'gathered in the drawing room' exposition at the end. I'd say it's more literary than blockbuster - gently tense yet still gripping.

From Amazon:

Jane Logan is a stranger to Berlin and she finds the city alive and echoing with the ghosts of its turbulent past. At six months pregnant, she's instructed by her partner Petra to rest and enjoy her new life in Germany. But while Petra is out at work, Jane begins to feel uneasy in their chic apartment. Screams reverberate through the walls, lights flicker in the derelict building that looms over the yard, a shadow passes on the stairs...

Jane meets a neighbour's daughter, a girl whose life she tries to mend, but her involvement only further isolates her. Alone and haunted, Jane fears the worst... but the worst is yet to come.


Published August 2012 by John Murray
My grateful thanks for this review copy
Check out The Girl on the Stairs at Amazon UK

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

The Magic of Autumn

Autumn is my favourite season. I've only recently become concretely aware of this (duh!), having had a vague memory of writing about Autumn last year. I double checked to find I haven't blogged about other seasons. Clear favouritism!

More honest than Summer (which promises much and rarely delivers), Autumn has its own particular beauty. I also value and welcome its inwardness, as we hunker down for the darker evenings and refocus. I always feel my creativity pick up after the summer - although I'm also always full of good intentions for the summer holidays... But we'll ignore that :)

I wonder how much of this is linked to the academic year, which has been a factor in so much of my life. Or maybe it's just that the academic year, based as it is on the agricultural year and its nature-dependency, works with natural rhythms that would exist anyway.

What do you think? Those of you whose working life doesn't revolve around the school year, do you feel this sense of renewal in the autumn?

Monday, 1 October 2012

Review of The Story of the Olympics by Richard Brassey

Colourful, fun account of the Games through history

Published a year ago, this is the ideal choice for youngsters who developed an interest in the Games this summer.

The book comes in a 32-page picture book format, and you could imagine that a Story of the Olympics could be quite dense, trying to pack centuries of history into 13 spreads. You'd be quite wrong, however, and the book's strength lies in its selective approach, offering details while accepting that it doesn't need to cover everything that could possibly be known about the Olympics. Typically for Richard Brassey, there is a surprising amount of information on offer here using the minimum amount of text possible, together with quirky illustrations. Brassey has a real talent for selecting the facts most likely to appeal to his child readers, and illustrating them with delightfully realistic comic strip images.

There are spreads on particular aspects of the Olympics - Ancient Games, the marathon, women, politics - and snippets about each of the Modern Games, often homing in on particular athletes. The book closes with information about the London Games and 2016's Games in Rio de Janeiro.

I would recommend this for quite a wide age range. The material is intrinsically interesting (and very well-selected), and presented in a way that would not patronise or exclude older readers. I can see beginner readers enjoying this with an adult and children into secondary school still enjoying it.

From the back cover:

For a thousand years Olympic competitors didn't wear any clothes ...

In 1912 a marathon runner fell asleep by the roadside. He finished the course in 1966...

For nearly a century, women weren't allowed to run the marathon - in case they exhausted themselves!

The extraordinary story of the Olympic Games, from their beginnings in Ancient Greece right up to the London Olympics of 2012, and the funny, surprising, heroic exploits of winners and losers from all over the world.


Published September 2011 by Orion Children's
My grateful thanks to the publisher for sending a review copy
Check out The Story of the Olympics at Amazon UK
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