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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.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Round-up for November

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. I'm shifting to doing these on the last day of the month, whenever it falls (I was doing them on the last Sunday of the month). This change means that two of the posts listed in this round-up were actually from October after the round-up.

November Reviews

Other November Bookishness

Other posts for November

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 fortnightly - 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:
  • Marking reduction ideas 
  • A new online resource about grammar teaching
  • Ways of checking set reading

On the students' page:
  • Features on: whether anyone really speaks 'properly'; quotatives and age; 
  • Vocabulary pieces on: discreet and discrete; imply and infer
  • Books for wider reading: The Color Purple; So Long a Letter
  • Reads to relax with: Leigh Bardugo's The Gathering Dark; Cath Crowley's Graffiti Moon

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Top Five Reasons I'm a Tweeter, not a Facebooker

I really don't know why I still have a Facebook account; I barely look at it. Possibly keeping tabs on my teen online... Anyway, here's why I prefer Twitter.

I can read what interesting people have to say without having to 'friend' them

The one-sidedness of Twitter - 'following' someone rather than 'friending' them - makes it okay to listen in and gain the benefit of others' wisdom without them having to have any reciprocal interest in you.

I can discover additional interesting people via RTs, MTs and mentions

Every so often, something interesting will get RTd (or MTd) into my timeline that will lead to me discovering another person to follow. That kind of interconnectedness just isn't there on Facebook, as far as I can see.

I can get involved in conversations with people I don't even follow (yet) via hashtags

Again, sometimes this leads to a new connection, but it might also be that I have a single exchange with someone via a mutual interest in a particular topic. And again, this is about the web-like connectedness of Twitter (to my mind), whereas Facebook is much more linear in my experience.

No silly games!

I hate Farmville, Mafia Wars and all that stuff. I'm not a gamer, and I don't want to collect 'hugs' or 'hearts' or 'teddies'. Just ugh.

I have made genuine friendships via Twitter and truly feel part of a community.

This is not my Facebook experience, where you have to know someone already to then find them online.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Review: Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

Child's-eye view of London life after Ghana

This is a wonderful read, offering Harri's 11-year-old perspective on the world he's moved into. The strongest feature here is the voice: Harri's version of Multi-Ethnic Youth Dialect combined with his natural innocence provides us with an endearing, optimistic take on what is often grim reality. There are many features of Harri's narrative which flavour the story. My favourites include 'hutious', 'asweh' and 'advise yourself', alongside more familiar features of kids' language like the prolific use of 'even'.

But I'm pretty sure that this is a great read even if you don't happen to teach English Language :).

Harri is sweet and charming. He knows that the gang on the estate could be a force for good, if someone just explained to them about how to help others. And some of the uglier facts in his life are clear to us, but seemingly less so to him. Stephen Kelman's use of the naive child narrator is executed with precision and charm, providing an upbeat, often funny, and enjoyable read even as deeply unsavoury truths about life in the UK are explored. Harri's guardian pigeon is also a nice touch, showing Harri's natural sympathy for other creatures, and providing an occasional broader view of events (although this was a bit strange a first, the brief pigeon's-eye sections are illuminating in their own way).

The plot revolves around 'the dead boy', whose identity we never fully know. He was stabbed ('chooked') shortly before the novel opens, and the football boots on the cover are part of the community's display of grief for him. Harri and a friend decide to turn detective and investigate the murder. After all, Harri's friend watches all the CSI programmes, so they're clearly experts. Their enthusiasm for this task is another sweet touch, as well as an effective mechanism to have the boys run around the neighbourhood, blissfully unaware of the chaos in their wake.

As well as Harri, the book is peopled with fabulous supporting characters: Harri's sister Lydia, other kids - both bad and good, but all seen as potentially good by Harri, and various adults just trying to survive.

Overall, I can see why this was nominated for the Booker, and why it's now being promoted to a YA audience. I'd love to see lots of teens reading it, as it raises so many questions. I'll certainly be recommending it to many of my students.

From the Back Cover:

Newly arrived from Ghana with his mother and older sister, Harrison Opoku lives on the ninth floor of a block of flats on a London housing estate. The (second) best runner in the whole of Year 7, Harri races through his new life in his personalised trainers - the Adidas stripes drawn on in marker pen - unaware of the danger growing around him.

But when a boy is knifed to death on the high street and a police appeal for witnesses draws only silence, Harri decides to start a murder investigation of his own. In doing so, he unwittingly breaks the fragile web his mother has spun around her family to keep them safe.

Harri will come face to face with the very real dangers surrounding him. A powerful, unforgettable tale, importantly relevant for young adult readers of today.

Includes a Q&A with the author, Stephen Kelman, and a piece about what inspired him to write Pigeon English.

This edition published in Oct 2012 by Bloomsbury Childrens
My grateful thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy
For more information (including an extract to sample), visit the Bloomsbury website

Friday, 23 November 2012

Top Five Things I Get From a Good Read

These are my personal defining characteristics of a good read. You'll see that all them can be met in many different ways (which might explain my fairly broad reading tastes - from adult crime thrillers to children's books!).

Vicarious Experience

A good read will let me 'see' or 'feel' what it's like to do things I can never do, go to places I never can visit and - most importantly - live through things that I never can, possibly because they're unreal, in the past or otherwise just not available to me, or simply things that I would never do/see/experience in reality. This, for me, is a key reason everyone should read - to get out of our own experience and to safely taste other possibilities. It's also a key reason that teens (for example) should be allowed their 'edgy' reads - to explore and think about possibilities that actually, in real life, they should avoid.

Emotional and Psychological Realism

For me, a book fails if it doesn't 'ring true' emotionally and psychologically. To sympathise with a character (or to feel ambivalent about those love-to-hate-them characters), they have to have psychological truth. Equally, a situation can be outright ludicrous, but if the characters react to it in a way that feels real, an author can get away with anything.

The Thrill of the Well-Chosen Word

Yeah, that's right - here's the English teacher bit. You may be assuming that these are the complex and delicious words, the ones we rarely hear, but that's not necessarily the case. In my current read, Pigeon English, that well-chosen word that makes me smile might just as well be a non-standard word like 'hutious' or, quite often, a well-placed 'even' like "It's even too easy." :)

Escape from Mundane Reality

Who doesn't read for escapism? Really? To get lost and be somewhere else, in some other world or other time? And yet, at the same time, we learn more about ourselves doing it. Amazing.

The Joy of New Knowledge

As a kid, I learned so much about the countryside from books like Enid Blyton's, about the world and its animals from Willard Price, and I still love to pick up the odd nugget from books. I tend to get this particularly from historical reads at the moment, and I always have to look up the period when I finish a historical to see where the edges are.

So, those are my top - but of course, not my only - reasons for reading fiction, or things that make a good book good. Would yours be different?

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Are you ready for the season?

I'm reposting this (with just a few small changes) from last November, as it's that time again...

I really enjoy the lead up to Christmas. We've evolved a great family tradition that really helps to get everyone geared up for the season, using a refillable advent calendar. Ours is a pretty little series of hessian stockings with numbers printed on them, but we first did this using a stack of matchboxes which I'd covered in wrapping paper, assembled in a vaguely attractive pile, and painted numbers onto.

I have a lot of fun planning the filling of the stockings, and it's a great way of building up excitement. Some days I'll put chocolate or sweets in, some days it's vouchers and others little toys or (now they're older) little girly stuff like nail stickers, lip balms or charm beads. If something doesn't fit, I hide it somewhere and put a clue to what it is and its location into the stocking.

The vouchers are everyone's favourite though, and I print these myself. Mostly, these are family things and mark some kind of focused time that we don't always remember to build into our busy lives. Some of the things I included on vouchers last year include:
  • trip into town on the bus to see the Christmas lights (and get a hot chocolate in a nice coffee place)
  • baking session(s)
  • crafts - making decorations or gift boxes to share the baking around
  • family movie night (sometimes this is cinema vouchers, sometimes a new DVD)
  • family games night (again, this might be accompanied by a new board game, or Wii game, or a set of pen and paper game ideas)
  • trip to the zoo (when they were younger, we took them to the local city farm to see the 'reingoats'!)
As you can see, many of these are quite old fashioned and somewhat simple ideas, but they always go down really well. I think the girls like the mixture of family stuff, weird little toys (Hawkins and Yellow Moon are brilliant for these - the latter also for great crafty stuff), cutesy girly gifts and sweet stuff. It's definitely a tradition I'm glad we started and we all get a lot out of it.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Review: VIII by H. M. Castor

Fascinating, engaging and fresh presentation of a well-known figure

In many ways, reading a fictionalisation of the life of Henry VIII was always going to be like watching a car crash in slow motion. We know (at least broadly) where it is all going, where he'll end up, and I'm confident that most of us would go into the novel with little expectation of being sympathetic to Henry (or Hal, as he is known in the book).

And yet, H. M. Castor makes us root for Hal, longing for him to make good choices, to not head off down the destructive path that we know he's destined for. By starting in a dramatic moment in his childhood, she contextualises his beliefs and later actions, giving him purpose and reason for decisions which otherwise are incredibly hard to explain and rationalise.

The narrative is presented in the first person and the present tense, and it is masterfully done. I don't always like this PoV, but it works perfectly here to severely limit the novel's perspective and to locate us firmly in Hal's mind. The little touches, where you recognise names or events and realise what's coming next (speaking as someone with little formal History study), are very pleasing, and yet much of the novel's content and focus was new and fresh. This may be because of my ignorance of the specifics of Henry's life, but I feel that it's more to do with the narrowness of the perspective which fixes us firmly into Hal's experiences and his own interpretation of events.

Overall, I would strongly recommend this as an enjoyable read, and will definitely be mentioning it to the sixth formers I know who are taking History. I've had this hanging around on my Kindle for a while (shameful, I know, but my review pile is growing and I sometimes feel guilty reading books that I've bought when there are review books waiting and... but you don't need my blogger angst :)), and I was prompted to read it now by its position in the Carnegie longlist, which I can clearly see is well-deserved. I would not like to be a Carnegie judge - everything I've read off that list I've loved!

From the Product Description:

Destined for greatness - tormented by demons. VIII (Eight) is the untold story of Henry VIII, a gripping examination of why he turned from a charismatic teenager to the cruel tyrant he became in later life. Hal is a young, handsome and gifted warrior, who believes he has been divinely chosen to lead his people. But throughout his life, he is haunted by a ghostly apparition, and, once he rises to power, he turns to murder and rapacious cruelty.

Published in April 2012 by Templar
For more info, visit the author's website

Friday, 16 November 2012

Review: Operation Bunny by Sally Gardner

Magic, mysteries and a resilient heroine - fab start to a new series for 7+

Sally Gardner is so great! I've never been disappointed with one of her books, and this quirky magical tale is no different. With shades of Roald Dahl and Eva Ibbotson, this is classic young fiction at its best.

As the first book in a new series, it lays the groundwork for the future, showing how the wonderful cat Fidget and little Emily Vole on the book cover come to be working together at a Fairy Detective Agency. The gorgeous illustrations are perfect, starting with the cover style that shows us this is no 'pink and sparkly' fairy book.

Emily's life has fairytale elements: she's an orphan, found in a hatbox at Stansted Airport and quickly adopted by the incredibly wealthy Dashwoods, who soon grow frustrated by Emily's inability to perfectly complement their otherwise perfectly coordinated life and treat her shockingly. It's through Emily's adoptive parents that comparisons to Dahl are most valid, with their caricature-like superficiality and materialism. Once the magical elements start featuring, things look up for Emily and the adventure truly begins.

Children of around 7 and up will lap this up, revelling as they do in deliciously bad parent-figures and tough and resourceful child protagonists, not to mention magical talking animals. I know I would have loved this as a child (umm, actually I loved it now :) ) and my 9yr old will too.

Overall, this is definitely a fun read for newly confident readers (shortish chapters and lovely b/w illustrations throughout), or would work well as a shared bedtime read.

From the Back Cover:

When Emily Vole inherits an abandoned shop, she discovers a magical world she never knew existed. But a fairy-hating witch, a mischievous set of golden keys, and a train full of brightly coloured bunnies are just a few of the surprises that come with it.

With the help of a talking cat called Fidget and a grumpy fairy detective called Buster, it's up to Emily to get to the bottom of Operation Bunny.


Published in October 2012 by Orion Children's
My grateful thanks to the publisher for sending a review copy
For more info: publisher's website

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Stress and Aromatherapy

Who doesn't suffer from the effects of stress these days? Personally, I've had issues dealing with stress and anxiety since I was a student. Back at uni, I discovered that essential oils were one of the best ways to treat myself and try to bring back some balance, and they're still something I reach for regularly to deal with lots of small day-to-day things too.

Personally, I tend to use the stimulant-type citrusy oils quite a lot, like Bergamot and Grapefruit. Both of these can be used with depression and anxiety, and I find the citrus scents uplifting. They're great combined with a woody or resin base note like Frankincense (brilliant for stress, as it encourages you to regulate your breathing) or Sandalwood, or with a spice such as Ginger. This kind of blend works particularly well (for me) when I'm stressed/anxious but need to focus to get things done. I use these in traditional oil burners, evaporating off water with a tealight below (I have burners all over the house!), and also usually have a nice citrusy blends in a roll-on to apply to pulse points when I'm out and about.

When I need help winding down, or sleeping, Clary Sage or Marjoram are the ones I reach for, often combined with Vanilla for its warm and comforting smell. Again, this can be in a burner, but I'm just as likely to pop a few drops onto a tissue and slip it in my pillowcase.

If you're interested in finding out more about aromatherapy, I've been using Valerie Ann Worwood's books for years, and would highly recommend them. The Fragrant Pharmacy is where I started - that gives a great overview of essential oils for medicinal purposes. There is also The Fragrant Mind, which (unsurprisingly) focuses on "Aromatherapy for Personality, Mind, Mood and Emotion" and The Fragrant Heavens, about oils for spirituality.

Monday, 12 November 2012

The CILIP Carnegie Longlist

The longlist for this year's Carnegie (and Kate Greenaway) medals was announced this week. I was excited to find that I have read several of the nominated titles for the Carnegie, and have several others lying around waiting for me (poor neglected books!). The ones I have read made me glad I don't have to choose, as all were great.

So, here are the ones I have read:
15 Days Without a Head by Dave Cousins (my review)
The Double Shadow by Sally Gardner (my review)
This Is Not Forgiveness by Celia Rees (my review)
Pendragon Legacy: Sword of Light by Katherine Roberts (my review)
Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick (my review)
The Sleeping Army by Francesca Simon (my review)
A Waste of Good Paper by Sean Taylor (my review)

And here are the soon-to-be-read ones:
VIII by H M Castor
Mortal Chaos by Matt Dickinson
Unrest by Michelle Harrison
The Girl in the Mask by Marie-Louise Jenson
The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Guess which six books have just jumped a few places in the TBR pile? :)

Friday, 9 November 2012

Review: A Dog Called Homeless by Sarah Lean

Heartwarming tale of friendship and hope after loss for the 9-12 crowd (and teens, and adults...)

How much do I love this book? It's a delicious piece of writing, warm and emotional without being schmaltzy or manipulative. I'm pretty confident that it's the only book that both my daughters (aged 9 and 14) and I have all read within a short space of time and all loved. I think it was on the teen shelves in Waterstones, and it was the 14 yr old who asked for it and devoured it very quickly, telling me that I should read it. Then when I did, I realised that it was labelled as 9+ (thankfully the teen hadn't noticed that...) and the younger one had it off me quick as a flash. I think a single book appealing to both my girls at the same time is pretty unusual and goes to show how fab this book is: gentle enough for a 9 yr old, yet also enough to sustain a teen's interest. Pretty damn impressive, I would say!

The novel is narrated by Cally, who tells us in a statement preceding the first chapter that she hasn't spoken for 31 days. Her narration is pitch-perfect and gives us privileged access to all her thoughts and feelings, even as she's stopped sharing them with anyone else in her life. Poor Cally is mourning the loss of her mother a year ago, and struggling particularly with her father's awkward adult response of never talking about her. She sees a vision of her mother, but no-one believes her, and then the wonderful dog (a silver wolfhound, no less) enters her life. This dog, being huge, is not always welcomed by everyone else, and her teachers and her father particularly don't want it hanging around.

The plot moves along effectively, with all aspects of Cally's life - home, school, family, friends - explored and changed in the course of the novel. I think Sarah Lean captured Cally's grief and its effects on her beautifully, allowing us to share Cally's feelings without being overwhelmed by them. The grief is there, but this is no wallowy book. Instead, it's an optimistic read which offers up hope in the form of friendship, as well as the comforting subtext that adults aren't always automatically right.

Overall, I cannot recommend this highly enough. Just read it, ok? :)

From the Book's Website:

My name is Cally Louise Fisher and I haven't spoken for thirty-one days. Talking doesn’t always make things happen, however much you want them to.

Cally Fisher saw her mum bright and real and alive. But no one believes her, so Cally’s stopped talking.

A mysterious wolfhound always seems to be there when her mum appears and now he’s started following her everywhere. But how can Cally convince anyone that Mum is still with them, or persuade Dad that the huge silver-grey dog is their last link with her?

published in April 2012 by HarperCollins Children's
For more info and an extract see the book's website

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Hurrah for Creativity!

This is a Proud Mummy post, for which I make only the slightest apology (sorry!). My youngest adores the magazine Animals and You, which shamelessly targets little girls' love of all things fluffy and furry (and a bit of pink and sparkly). Recently they ran a competition to invent a new character for their 'Poppy's World' comic strip and (I expect you've figured this out), my youngest was the fortunate winner, seeing her creation realised and introduced to all the regulars. We didn't get advance notice - she just found her character in this month's issue when it arrived. Imagine the excitement I came home to!

Here's the strip featuring the new character:

And here's a cute little shout-out to Snowball from the facing page:

I'm really proud of her because it really was all her own idea, and they used her description and phrases exactly. At the moment, she wants to be a writer when she grows up, and is always scribbling, which is great to see. It may seem corny, but I'm also a bit proud of myself here for having encouraged her to be creative, to take pleasure in it and to have confidence in her own creations. Funny how it's easier to allow/encourage/nurture in others, isn't it? :)

Monday, 5 November 2012

Review: Katya's World by Jonathan L Howard

Great sci-fi YA set on a colony world without land

This novel is far more 'hard' sci-fi than I normally read, but I greatly enjoyed it and it made me wonder whether there might be other sci-fi I'd enjoy. That has to be a compliment (and suggestions in the comments are welcome...).

Katya takes centre stage in this, the first of the Russalka Chronicles. A talented and intelligent young navigator, she makes a resourceful protagonist who is easy to like and root for. The narrative is in the third person, past tense, and the presence of a narrator is felt in a prologue which contextualises the story by providing a potted history of Russalka. I wasn't sure about the book at this point, as it was somewhat dry reading and a bit of an infodump, but it was definitely worth continuing.

Russalka itself is a fascinating setting and I liked how the environment is credited with creating the Russalkans' character. It made sense to me that a lot of the mythology and naming etc was broadly Russian-based, as the people's pragmatism and pride in their heritage had quite a Russian feel and tone. The story takes place a long time after Earth's colonisation and subsequent war with the colonists, and Katya and some of the other Russalkans express strongly negative attitudes to the Terrans (those from Earth), as they are known in the book.

The plot begins with Katya's first voyage as a qualified navigator, and rapidly things start to go wrong. The bulk of the novel has a real quest feel, although it doesn't have one obvious quest from start to finish, more problem after problem to deal with. Jonathan L Howard certainly doesn't shy away from testing his characters! Katya's resourcefulness and integrity are well and truly put to the test and she emerges stronger and more impressive time and time again.

Overall, I would definitely recommend this. I wouldn't be surprised if it serves to get more girls reading sci-fi, with such a great female protagonist (although a few more secondary female characters wouldn't have gone amiss...).

From the Back Cover:

The distant and unloved colony world of Russalka has no land, only the raging sea. No clear skies, only the endless storm clouds. Beneath the waves, the people live in pressurised environments and take what they need from the boundless ocean. It is a hard life, but it is theirs and they fought a war against Earth to protect it. But wars leave wounds that never quite heal, and secrets that never quite lie silent.

Katya Kuriakova doesn’t care much about ancient history like that, though. She is making her first submarine voyage as crew; the first nice, simple journey of what she expects to be a nice, simple career.

There is nothing nice and simple about the deep black waters of Russalka, however; soon she will encounter pirates and war criminals, see death and tragedy at first hand, and realise that her world’s future lies on the narrowest of knife edges. For in the crushing depths lies a sleeping monster, an abomination of unknown origin, and when it wakes, it will seek out and kill every single person on the planet.


to be published November 8 2012 by Strange Chemistry
Review copy gratefully received from the publisher
For more info and an extract see the publisher's website

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