About Me

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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.

Monday, 31 December 2012

An Early New Year's Resolution

I came over here today to do my December monthly round up, but I've decided not to do them any more. They're time-consuming and don't really add anything. So I'll just stick to the three times a week routine here, and updating my teacherly website regularly too. I've set up a Facebook page this month that I'm using to feed English- and Language- related stories and to show when I've updated the website (along with occasional blog links too), so if you were reading the website update stuff, just click on the Facebook feed link on the right and 'like' the page to get the updates in your timeline.

Thank you for reading and Happy New Year!
Here's to a fab 2013.

Friday, 28 December 2012

UK YA Book Bloggers Secret Santa: Thank You!

This year, I signed up to take part in the first UKYA-specific book blogger secret santa and it was so much fun!

The lovely Lynsey at Narratively Speaking organised the whole affair. We were all asked some questions by email to indicate our tastes and current bookish desires, and then each of us was allocated someone to purchase our gifts for. I had a lot of fun choosing mine: stalking the blogger's goodreads lists to make sure I didn't choose anything they already had etc. I received my beautifully wrapped gifts in the post in plenty of time for Christmas - in fact, they were the first under my tree!

Like a good girl (yes, certain other bloggers, I am looking at you!) I waited until Christmas Day to open my lovely gifts and the anticipation did not lead to disappointment, I can tell you! My lovely Secret Santa sent me two books I'd specifically wished for, plus three others to discover, AND some lovely cookie candy canes.

  • Entangled by Cat Clarke (I've wanted to read her for ages; I'm looking forward to a tautly-written UKYA thriller)
  • The Apothecary's Daughter by Charlotte Betts (this caught my attention on a blog sometime last year; it seems like the kind of historical I enjoy)
  • Defiance by C J Redwine (this sounds like a YA fantasy with feminist overtones, so I'm pleased this was selected for me)
  • My Life Next Door by Huntley Fitzpatrick (I'd never heard of this, so am curious to read this contemporary family/romance story which several of my Goodreads friends rate)
  • Shooting Stars by Allison Rushby (this sounds like an interesting contemporary with comments to make about fame and celebrity)

I'm taking this opportunity to publicly thank my lovely Secret Santa, and the lovely Lynsey for organising it all. I hope everyone who took part had as much fun as I did, and I look forward to enjoying my books over the next few months.

Friday, 21 December 2012

2012 Round-Up and Review (Part Two): The Books

Instead of doing a Top Ten, I've decided to organise my Books of the Year by category (which also allowed me to cover more books *cackle* - this has ended up as a Top Twenty). All links will take you to my original reviews.

Best YA Romance: Emma Hearts LA by Keris Stainton
YA Romance Honourable Mention: Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley

Best YA Dystopia: Breathe by Sarah Crossan

Best YA High Fantasy: Throne of Glass by Sarah J Maas
YA High Fantasy Honourable Mention: The Gathering Dark by Leigh Bardugo

Best YA Urban Fantasy: Poltergeeks by Sean Cummings

Best YA Crime: Street Duty by Chris Ould
YA Crime Honourable Mention: Envy by Gregg Olsen

Best YA Thriller: Heart-Shaped Bruise by Tanya Byrne
YA Thriller Honourable Mentions: The Storyteller by Antonia Michaelis and Mortal Chaos by Matt Dickinson

Best YA Chiller: Hollow Pike by James Dawson
YA Chiller Honourable Mention: Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake

Best YA Historical: VIII by H M Castor

Best YA Contemporary: Fifteen Days Without a Head by Dave Cousins

Best Children's Fantasy: The Sleeping Army by Francesca Simon
Children's Fantasy Honourable Mention: Lance of Truth by Katherine Roberts

Best Children's Historical: Road to London by Barbara Mitchelhill

Best Children's Adventure/Mystery: The Case of the Good-Looking Corpse by Caroline Lawrence

Best Adult Read: Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

Clearly, I'm loathe to choose between all the fabulous books I've read in the past year! I've also selected my UKYA top five over at the UKYA blog.

I'll be posting less often over the holiday period. My next post will be on Friday 28th, then I'll post a December round-up on the 31st, another post on Friday 4th Jan and will then return to normal from Monday 7th Jan. Have a lovely Christmas and thank you for supporting my little blog x

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

2012 Round-Up and Review (Part One)

This has been quite a year. I'm going to offer some of my highs and lows for the year in two posts. This is the non-bookish post - come back on Friday for my Books of the Year.

Communal highs and lows

These are some of the shared experiences that have shaped the year for me:
The London Olympics - who could forget the amazing spectacle laid before us this summer?
(and did you see Carol Ann Duffy's marvellous Olympics poem?)
The GCSE fiasco - the moment that crystallised just how far Gove's department is willing to go in 'proving' the need for systemic change in our curriculum and exams.

My personal year

This, as I said above, has been quite a year. My work pattern has changed considerably in the last twelve months, and I am no longer on the path I was following this time last year.

I started the year as a Faculty Leader in a Sixth Form College, managing a large curriculum area (English, MFL and Law) and struggling to fit writing in around the ever-extending days. I'm finishing the year working on a more flexible basis, combining supply teaching with writing much more successfully. On the one hand, it can be scary to not have a guaranteed (as far as such things ever are) income, but on the other hand, I'm greatly enjoying the opportunities I'm getting in supply to work with different age groups and the choice to work part time or to take a break between teaching placements to focus on writing for a bit. I've been able to take on more writing work than I could previously, to overhaul my website and to set up a facebook feed which points to changes on my site and collects other interesting stuff for English students (and their teachers).

What would your highs and lows of 2012 be? And don't forget to come back on Friday for the Hearthfire 2012 Book Awards!

Monday, 17 December 2012

Review: Heart-Shaped Bruise by Tanya Byrne

Powerful and lyrical writing questioning crime, mental illness, revenge and identity

It's taken me a while to get around to reading this book: more fool me.

Heart-Shaped Bruise purports to be the contents of a notebook found in an abandoned mental institution for young women. It's lyrical and grittily engaging, dramatic and thrilling without a shred of indulgent self pity. If you're interested in psychological thrillers or crime novels, I'd strongly recommend you grab a copy of this.

Written in the first person, with awareness of an imaginary audience (a future inmate, who would therefore understand), the novel confides, explores and discusses what has happened, how the narrator came to be where she is, without revealing her actual crime immediately. Since the crime made the headlines, Emily assumes that we, the audience, already have assumptions about her. This conceit works brilliantly as a mechanism for withholding information and creating suspense without it seeming artificial. I love that she tells us at the start that we can be like a stranger on the bus - that unknown person you tell all your secrets to, while hiding them from people who actually care.

As a recollection narrative, the plot jumps between the 'now' of Emily's incarceration and her therapy, and the past of events leading up to her crime. Everything about this novel ensures that you are gripped, desperate to know exactly what Emily did and how it all fits together.

The novel is complex and elegant, exploring themes of mental illness, the nature of notoriety and crime, identity and guilt. I'm recommending it for teens of 14+, and for adults. Definitely one to watch!

From the Book Description:

A compelling, brutal and heart-breaking story about identity, infamy and revenge, from debut author Tanya Byrne. Shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger 2012

They say I'm evil.
The police. The newspapers. The girls from school who sigh on the six o'clock news and say they always knew there was something not quite right about me.
And everyone believes it. Including you.
But you don't know. You don't know who I used to be. Who I could have been.
Sometimes I wonder if I'll ever shake off my mistakes or if I'll just carry them around with me forever like a bunch of red balloons

Awaiting trial at Archway Young Offenders Institution, Emily Koll is going to tell her side of the story for the first time.

Heart-Shaped Bruise is a compulsive and moving novel about infamy, identity and how far a person might go to seek revenge.

Published September 2012 by Headline
For more info, visit the publisher's site
My grateful thanks to the publisher for this review copy

Friday, 14 December 2012

Review: Envy by Gregg Olsen

Brilliant YA crime thriller with supernatural overtones

The first book in the promising Empty Coffin series, this introduces the Ryan twins. Teen daughters of a true crime writer, with an intriguing backstory and psychic abilities that they guard as a precious secret, Hayley and Taylor are driven to investigate when a neighbour girl is found dead in her bathtub.

I hadn't read any of Gregg Olsen's writing before (this is his first YA novel, but his background is crime fiction and true crime for adults), but I really enjoyed his style and am keen to keep reading this series and to investigate his adult fare. The book has a cinematic feel to it, with scene changes feeling very much like camera cuts. The novel is related in the third person and in the past tense, allowing Gregg Olsen to shift perspectives with ease and to show us what different characters are feeling, as well as offering some of the town's backstory.

The twins as central characters are engaging and sympathetic. As the novel progresses, we learn more of their fascinating history (with, I'm sure, plenty left to come in future instalments) and their abilities. They don't seem to describe themselves as 'psychic' as such, and their gifts are revealed to us gradually, becoming more important as the plot develops.

Plot-wise, there is much here for fans of crime mysteries and thrillers. The novel is tightly-plotted and offers plenty of twists and red herrings. The murder-or-suicide death at the centre is suitably tragic and will give teen readers plenty to think about. Themes of bullying, popularity and the natural life cycle of children's and teens' friendships are at the core of the book, ensuring emotional recognition for all readers.

Overall, I'm absolutely recommending this for lovers of crime fiction, especially if you also enjoy a hint of the supernatural.

From the Back Cover:

Evil comes in all sorts of flavours. Some bitter. Some deceptively sweet. That's what Katelyn discovers on the day she dies. Was it suicide? Murder? Who's to blame?

Twins Hayley and Taylor Ryan stumble upon the disturbing truth, which sheds light on another secret, a hidden past even they didn't know about.

Inspired by a ripped-from-the-headlines true crime, Envy is the gritty first volume in a new bone-chilling series that takes you to the edge - and pushes you right over.

Published September 2012 by Splinter
For more info, visit the series website
My grateful thanks go to the publishers for providing a review copy

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Miss, Why Can't We Study Happy Books?

This is something I've been asked many times, by different groups of students. It's true that we rarely do study books which are entirely happy (or sometimes, happy at all). Here's a representative list of some texts I've taught over the last few years, most for A Level, some for GCSE:

  • Alexander Masters: Stuart, A Life Backwards (features homelessness, addiction, crime)
  • Shakespeare: Othello, King Lear (great tragedy)
  • Arthur Miller: Death of a Salesman, A View From the Bridge (modern tragedy)
  • John Steinbeck: Of Mice and Men (isolation, dashed plans, inevitable death)
  • Sylvia Plath: Ariel (mental illness, marital breakdown, suicide)
  • Khaled Hosseini: The Kite Runner (rape, cowardice, betrayal)

See? But then, when did you ever see a 'happy' text on a reading list? Here are some of the things that usually feature in my answer:
  • Conflict IS story. There's simply no narrative in 'everyone has what they want/need; everything's fine'. (The common answer to this is: But what about a happy ending? Couldn't we at least have that?)
  • 'Serious' literature, which provokes thought, is often heavier in tone than more 'popular' literature. I can't explain why in any kind of satisfactory manner (which might tell you something about my views on the canon...), but happier writing is often taken less seriously.
  • Have you ever tried writing a happy story, or poem, or song: it's hard! Or at least, hard to do without producing something cheesy, and cheese is not usually welcome on GCSE/A Level/uni reading lists.
Do you have any suggestions for other answers I could give? What would you say?

Monday, 10 December 2012

Review: Emily Windsnap and the Land of the Midnight Sun by Liz Kessler

Adventure, friendship and romance for the 9-12s

Emily Windsnap is a half-mermaid, so she appears human on land and her tail appears in water. This is her fifth adventure (although the first I've read), so you may find spoilers in this review for earlier titles.

One of the best things about this book is Emily's character. In so many ways, she's like a typical tween/early teen, so she's very easy to relate to and I'm sure there are hoards of readers who will love these books. At the same time, the mermaid angle, which in this book leads her on a top-secret mission for King Neptune himself, adds all sort of excitement. Emily narrates her own story, so her feelings are easily accessible and we have no difficulties sympathising with her point of view.

The plot is twisty enough to keep us turning the pages without being over-complicated, and the cast of secondary characters offers such gems as the grumpy Neptune. Relationships are very important in this book (as they are for tween-into-teen readers) with tensions between a budding romance and a bff, as well as eternal issues like mother-daughter relationships.

All in all, this is a delightful read which offers gentle reassurance on various perennial concerns for the middle grade readership, packaged into an exciting quest narrative.

From the Back Cover

Have you ever had nightmares? King Neptune has, and that's why he sent me on a top secret mission.

When I discovered a kingdom with everyone turned to ice, I knew why the nightmares had terrified him. What I didn't know was how to complete my mission. I needed help, but my best friend, Shona, was miles away and my boyfriend, Aaron, had just told me a secret that left us barely speaking. The question was, could we work together to save our world - and our relationship?

Swishy wishes,
Emily Windsnap

Published September 2012 by Orion Children's Books
Find it at Goodreads

Friday, 7 December 2012

'Tis the Season to be ... Creepy

·         Are you the kind of person who takes delight when people slip on ice?

·         Do you often wonder what dark plans that angel must be forging while stuck at the top of the tree?

·         Have you ever noticed that your snowman is in a slightly different position from before?

If you have, then you sound like someone who enjoys a bit of a scare at Christmas time and will surely love the brand new ebook from Chris Priestley – Christmas Tales of Terror.

In this specially written ebook you will find malevolent snowmen, carol-loving corpses and a toy with an evil mind of its own.  Chris Priestley is on top form in these atmospheric, clever and thoroughly chilling stories. Add a new kind of chill to the fluffiest of seasons with seven brilliantly conceived examples of why you'd better be good at Christmas time.

The book can be bought on Amazon for the very festive price of £2.48

To celebrate publication of this new collection, Chris Priestley has written a very special 247tale on the subject of A Creepy Christmas for Bloomsbury’s short story writing competition. The competition is then open to budding writers aged between 10 and 16 to create their own frighteningly festive story. For full details go to www.247tales.com, but you should know that the closing date is next week, so get scribbling quickly (or get your classes scribbling, as the case may well be - thank you, Bloomsbury, for giving me such great lesson material!)

And here is that story, for those of you brave enough to read on:

A Creepy Christmas

That end of the park was empty and Lilian’s footsteps were the only ones to trouble the pristine blanket of pure white snow. It was so beautiful, so magical. She was breathless with excitement and, looking back only once at her now distant friends, walked on.

Lillian’s neat and charmless park was utterly transformed. The grim old archway that stood as a lone reminder of the workhouse that had once stood here was smothered in snow and feathery snowflakes fell and tickled her face. Lilian stepped through the arch as though stepping into another world.

The park was unrecognisable here. Lilian felt she was walking through a deserted wood as she reached an area thick with trees where the snow was especially deep and her whispered footfalls were the only sound. She had never thought of the children who lived and died in the workhouse but now they came unbidden into her thoughts. She even thought she could hear them whispering.

Then looking up she saw children sitting in the branches above her head. They looked like roosting owls. They were ragged children, poorly dressed and pale, eerily lit from below by bright snow. Their thin, wan faces looked down at her with large eyes twinkling in the snow light. They bore an expression she thought at first was one of tragic longing, but which she realised too late was in reality some kind of terrible and cruel hunger.

And, before she could even scream, they jumped.

Chris Priestley (247 words)

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Why There Are No Negative Reviews Here at the Hearthfire

Firstly, it's not because I'm super-nice. Although, of course, I am quite nice :)

My reasoning is simply that:

  • life's too short to continue reading a book I'm not enjoying 


  • there are already so many good books that I can't read them all and people still keep writing them ;) 


  • if I haven't read the whole of a book, I don't feel I should review it

I know not everyone feels this way, and I do see the whole professionalism argument, but at the same time, I'm not a reviewer or book blogger by profession.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Review: Mortal Chaos by Matt Dickinson

An exhilarating and ambitious read for the YA market

This book is amazing! It's really 'high concept' (chaos theory in novel form) and yet nobody could accuse it of being too 'commercial' (you know, that way people say it to mean poor quality or 'dumbed down').

The novel starts with a butterfly hatching, which startles a race horse in its training. This means that our focus shifts from the butterfly to the trainers working with the race horses. The whole novel is told in really short sections (most were just over a page on my Kindle), shifting focus from person to person using tiny links between them. One of the pleasures of this book is figuring out how different characters and stories may be linked, as it isn't always immediately apparent. As per the title, many of these plot threads are high octane and concerned with life and death scenarios: a climber on Mount Everest, a man setting off to bomb his ex-wife, boys in the woods with Daddy's shotgun.

The novel's pace is another strong point of interest. Who would have thought that a novel including a dozen or so different plot strands, with only tiny links between them, could be pacy? And yet it is. The snapshot chapters/sections help with this of course, as we effectively only see a single scene from each interlinked story before shifting focus again. This also helps to ensure (I think) that we don't get so bogged down in one angle that we forget the others. Again, I might have expected to find it challenging to keep up with so many different characters/plot threads, but it really isn't.

Just in case you're not sure, I'm strongly recommending this one. It does things that should make it difficult, and yet the experience of reading it wasn't that at all. I was absolutely hooked and disappointed when it all finished (but not disappointed with the ending). There is already another Mortal Chaos book out and there will be another next year. I will definitely be reading them.

Edited to add: Mortal Chaos is on the longlist for the Carnegie this year, which is what prompted me to shunt it up the TBR pile, after languishing on my Kindle.

From the Book Description:

'The Butterfly Effect ': the scientific theory that a single occurrence, no matter how small, can change the course of the universe forever.

When a butterfly startles a young rabbit, and the rabbit makes a horse rear, it starts a chain of events, over the course of one day, that will change people's lives . . . and end people's lives.

From a climber on Everest to a boy in Malawi . . . from a commercial pilot to an American psycho . . . the chaos knows no bounds.

This heart-stopping adventure by writer, film maker and climber Matt Dickinson will leave readers breathless. It's the book Jack Bauer would have read as a teenager!

Published 2 Feb 2012 by Oxford University Press
Find it on Amazon UK
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