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English teacher interested in language and culture, and also in fiction using magic, myth, folklore and the supernatural. Now teaching part-time in a Leicester Upper School (ages 14-19) and also writing for children, teens and teachers.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

All change around the hearthfire...

You could be forgiven for thinking that I just haven't blogged in a while, but in fact I have moved the blog over to my website.

Come on over and have a look! And if you happen to be a student or teacher of English, you may find other things of interest over there.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Review: Witchfall by Victoria Lamb

More Tudor Witch romance, intrigue and danger 


If you enjoyed Witchstruck at all (as I definitely did), even the slightest bit, you must read Witchfall. Victoria Lamb has ramped things up for the second instalment of her YA Tudor Witch trilogy: more complexity to the romance, more shadowy danger to our beloved protagonist as well as more historical reference.

The settings in this novel are great and beautifully done. The politicised atmosphere at court and the more rustic country setting are both rendered clearly for the reader, as well as the dreadful vision which plagues poor Meg more and more through the novel. Dangers are definitely lurking everywhere, and this is a very tense read.

It's difficult to say much for a sequel without giving away spoilers, but you should know that the plotting in this novel is first rate. The tension is managed exquisitely, and even when you are sure you know what's going to happen next, there are surprises and twists in store. I am also enjoying the cast of characters created in this series and am very much looking forward to seeing how it is all tied together in the end.

I think the second book in a trilogy must be quite difficult to get right and I am always grumpy with a book which leaves too many loose ends. Witchfall skilfully draws together threads that were introduced in Witchstruck without them having felt like loose ends, and also weaves in (and ties off) new ones effectively. There is clearly mileage to explore and conclude in the next novel, but this is no irritating cliffhanger.

Overall, if you enjoy historical fiction and/or witchy books and/or YA romance, I would definitely recommend this series.

Goodreads Summary

London, 1554. At the court of Mary Tudor, life is safe for no one. The jealous, embittered queen sees enemies all around her, and the infamous Spanish Inquisition holds the court in its merciless grip. But Meg Lytton has more reason to be afraid than most - for Meg is a witch, and exposure would mean certain death. Even more perilous, Meg is secretly betrothed to the young priest Alejandro de Castillo; a relationship which they must hide at all costs.

In the service of the queen's sister, Princess Elizabeth, Meg tries to use her powers to foretell her mistress's future. But when a spell goes terribly wrong, and Meg begins to have horrifying dreams, she fears she has released a dark spirit into the world, intent on harming her and those around her.

******************
Out now from Corgi Children's Books
Visit the author's website for more info or check out this blog tour interview from last year
My grateful thanks to the publisher for allowing me a review copy via NetGalley

Friday, 11 October 2013

Booktrust Top 100 Children's Books: Which Have You Read?

Booktrust have compiled a list of the top 100 children's books, naming 25 each in 4 age categories. If you head over to their site, you can vote for one in each category and help them arrive at overall winners.

* = title I have read
Top Titles for 0-5 year olds
*Each Peach Pear Plum by Janet & Allan Ahlberg
*The Snowman by Raymond Briggs
Gorilla by Anthony Browne
Would You Rather? by John Burningham
*Dear Zoo by Rod Campbell
*Princess Smartypants by Babette Cole
*Room on the Broom by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler
Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes by Mem Fox & Helen Oxenbury
Where's Spot? by Eric Hill
*Dogger by Shirley Hughes
*Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers
*The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr
I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen
*Not now, Bernard by David McKee
*Meg and Mog by Helen Nicholl & Jan Pienkowski
*We're Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen & Helen Oxenbury
*I Want My Potty! by Tony Ross
*Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
*The Cat in the Hat by Dr Seuss
*The Elephant and the Bad Baby by Elfrida Vipont & Raymond Briggs
19/25 for the 0-5 category

Top titles for 6-8 year olds
*The Enchanted Wood by Enid Blyton
*Five on a Treasure Island by Enid Blyton
*A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond
*The Milly-Molly-Mandy Storybook by Joyce Lankester Brisley
*Flat Stanley by Jeff Brown
Clarice Bean, That's Me by Lauren Child
That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown by Cressida Cowell
*The BFG by Roald Dahl
*The Story of Babar by Jean De Brunhoff
*My Naughty Little Sister by Dorothy Edwards
Asterix the Gaul by René Goscinny
*Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman & Caroline Binch
Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson
The Queen's Nose by Dick King-Smith
The Sheep-Pig by Dick King-Smith
Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney
Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren
*Winnie-the-Pooh by A A Milne
*The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy
*The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka & Lane Smith
*Horrid Henry by Francesca Simon & Tony Ross
The Arrival by Shaun Tan
*Charlotte's Web by E B White
Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
*Mister Magnolia by Quentin Blake

15/25 for the 6-8 category

Top Titles for 9-11 year olds
*The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken
*Skellig by David Almond
*Carrie's War by Nina Bawden
Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer
Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce
*The Witches by Roald Dahl
*Matilda by Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake
Flour Babies by Anne Fine
Once by Morris Gleitzman
The Adventures of Tintin by Hergé
*Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson
*Stig of the Dump by Clive King
*The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C S Lewis
*Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian
Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
*The Borrowers by Mary Norton
*Truckers by Terry Pratchett
*Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
*Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J K Rowling
*Holes by Louis Sachar
*The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
*Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild
The Hobbit by J R R Tolkien
The Story of Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson

16/25 for the 9-11 category

Top Titles for 12-14 year olds and beyond
Watership Down by Richard Adams
*Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman
*Forever by Judy Blume
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne
Junk by Melvin Burgess
Looking for JJ by Anne Cassidy
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner
*The Owl Service by Alan Garner
Coram Boy by Jamila Gavin
*The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon
Stormbreaker by Anthony Horowitz
The Kite Rider by Geraldine McCaughrean
The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
Life: An Exploded Diagram by Mal Peet
Northern Lights by Philip Pullman
*The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman
Witch Child by Celia Rees
Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve
Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison
How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff
Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
The Fellowship of The Ring by J R R Tolkien

5/25 for the 12-14+ category

Wow, I would not have predicted that the 12+ category would be the one I had read fewer of, but there we are! I think 55/100 isn't bad. I think it may be because quite a few of the titles on the list fall between the time I was in this age bracket and the time I started reading a lot of teen fiction as an adult.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Popping in to wave and give a quick update

I'm still in the midst of extreme busy-ness, and have been struggling somewhat, but I'll be back very soon. Next Friday, the 11th October, I'll be relaunching regular posts with reviews and teachery/readerly/writerly content.

Thanks for being patient with me. I think all bloggers hit a wall at some point and I've just not had the time for posting lately - much textbookish work as well as a new school post. Sometimes, something has to give and this time, it's the blog (better than my sanity, I hope you'll agree!)

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Hellloooo! (General update - plus dog pic)

I've been pretty absent online lately. Sorry about that. It's mostly due to starting a new job (yay!) and being pretty busy with writing projects (also yay!), leaving me little time for blogging (and tweeting, as it happens).

I just wanted to check in and say I am here, I'm ok and regular service will soon be resumed :)

Thanks for your patience. Here's a cheery picture of our dogs to make it all better.

Reviews coming up include:
Witchfall by Victoria Lamb (loved it - read Witchstruck first; both are ace)
Emily and Patch by Jessie Williams (a truly lovely read - definitely recommended)
Bones of the Lost by Kathy Reichs (great for Tempe Brennan fans)

Friday, 13 September 2013

Review: Crown of Midnight by Sarah J Maas

Breath-taking second instalment in YA fantasy series


With plenty of action as well as angsty emotional turmoil, this is a great read and is sure to be loved by all fans of the first novel, Throne of Glass. Sarah J Maas has ratcheted it all up a notch and introduced plenty of complications and nasty shocks. She must want to punish Celaena for something - just when I thought one thing in her life was stable and sorted, bam! No such luck for her. But I suppose ‘happy ever after’ doesn't really work before the end…

I loved Throne of Glass, and the prequel novellas, and this second novel continues in fine form, far surpassing my expectations (which were high enough that I was nervous to start reading in case book one was spoilt). If you've been thinking the same, hesitate no more!

The characters remain rich and textured, and it’s easy to ache for Celaena, while simultaneously wanting to shake her for her haughty arrogance and occasional immaturity (but then, she isn't yet an adult!). As a teen protagonist, she is complex and perfectly layered, and is surrounded by a cast of characters who are almost as textured. This world admits no caricatures or stock characters.

This is a fantasy world that I'm happy to spend plenty of time in. As I noticed in the first novel, the world is brilliantly realised and in this instalment we see further aspects of it, while the various dangers circle and hover, making it clear that Celaena will not find it easy to succeed in the mission that seems to have been chosen for her.


Ultimately, this is a classic sweeping fantasy, with themes of morality and power, greed and duty. I’d absolutely recommend the series for anyone who has ever enjoyed a ‘good versus evil’ fantasy story, be it Narnia, Harry Potter or Game or Thrones.

Goodreads summary:

An assassin’s loyalties are always in doubt.
But her heart never wavers.


After a year of hard labor in the Salt Mines of Endovier, eighteen-year-old assassin Celaena Sardothien has won the king's contest to become the new royal assassin. Yet Celaena is far from loyal to the crown – a secret she hides from even her most intimate confidantes.

Keeping up the deadly charade—while pretending to do the king's bidding—will test her in frightening new ways, especially when she's given a task that could jeopardize everything she's come to care for. And there are far more dangerous forces gathering on the horizon -- forces that threaten to destroy her entire world, and will surely force Celaena to make a choice.

Where do the assassin’s loyalties lie, and who is she most willing to fight for?

*************
Out now from Bloomsbury
Find out more at the series facebook page
My thanks to the publisher for allowing me a review copy via Netgalley

Monday, 9 September 2013

Review: Siege by Sarah Mussi

Shocking, raw and powerful - a fab YA thriller 

Reposting as this fab novel came out last week in paperback.

I know that some people have found this to be too violent. It is certainly not suitable for the younger end of the YA spectrum. However, the violence is not gratuitous and the novel is thought-provoking and challenging enough to justify its shock value (think Clockwork Orange, perhaps).

Written in a strong first person, present tense voice, and set in 2020, Siege introduces us to Leah Jackson at the precise moment a group of boys open fire in assembly. But since she was late to school and is in detention, she doesn't immediately realise what is happening. The novel then follows her as she works to avoid being shot, to escape and raise the alarm, travelling through air vents and crawling across ceiling tiles. Twists and turns abound as Leah runs into difficulty after difficulty in this tightly-plotted thriller that will have you holding your breath. Die Hard in a school is an appropriate description of this book, with the themes of containment and against-the-odds battle to protect the innocent and stop the guilty.

hardback cover
Her escape is hampered by the nature of her school. In this version of the near future, society has fractured even further and the schools are more obviously streamed by social class. Leah's school is built to contain and restrain, founded on the assumption that lower-class kids are Trouble. This means that once the school goes into Lock Down, escape is not a simple matter.

I loved the character of Leah. Loved her speech patterns ("That don't sound right."), her bravery and her resourcefulness. She's been used to looking after the family, and I found it easy to sympathise with her and her nagging worry that her brother, Connor, may be one of the boys at the centre of all this. Could she have prevented it? Should she have done more to help him? This additional personal layer of sickening guilt is just enough to rack up the tension even higher.

I found this to be an excellent read, right on the money for our times. Sarah Mussi has something to say about social deprivation, violence and responsibility and she conveys it in terms that are both accessible and enjoyable to read. Yes, there is violence and some scenes are graphic, but many kids are seeing worse on games consoles and tv screens every day - and in a purely 'entertaining' way without the subtle social analysis that is present here.

From the Publisher's Website:

Leah escapes the siege in her school, but she can't avoid wrestling with impossible choices in this topical, terrifying new novel that's essential reading for teens everywhere.

Leah Jackson - in detention. Then armed Year 9s burst in, shooting. She escapes, just. But the new Lock Down system for keeping intruders out is now locking everyone in. She takes to the ceilings and air vents with another student, Anton, and manages to use her mobile to call out to the world.

First: survive the gang - the so-called 'Eternal Knights'.
Second: rescue other kids taken hostage, and one urgently needing medical help.
Outside, parents gather, the army want intelligence, television cameras roll, psychologists give opinions, sociologists rationalise, doctors advise - and they all want a piece of Leah. Soon her phone battery is running out; the SAS want her to reconnoitre the hostage area ... 
But she is guarding a terrifying conviction. Her brother, Connor, is at the centre of this horror. Is he with the Eternal Knights or just a pawn? 
She remembers. All those times Connor reached out for help ... If she'd listened, voiced her fears about him earlier, would things be different now? Should she give up her brother?

With only Anton for company, surviving by wits alone, Leah wrestles with the terrible choices ...

*****************************************
Published in paperback 5 September 2013 from Hodder
Find more info at the publisher's website
My grateful thanks go to the publisher for sending a proof to review

Friday, 30 August 2013

Review: Oliver and the Seawigs by Philip Reeve, illustrated by Sarah McIntyre

Weird water creatures and mad explorers combine in a dazzlingly original children's fantasy adventure story 

I so enjoyed this madcap romp through the oceans, and so will the target audience of 7+. Really, I'm not convinced there's an upper age limit on this kind of fun.

The book represents a brilliant combination of text and image, being beautifully illustrated throughout. Philip Reeve's delightfully zany creations are brought to life through Sarah McIntyre's energetic and witty drawings.

The characters are deliciously quirky, with the mythical and magical elements showing an inventiveness worthy of Eva Ibbotson. There is an anarchic feel to this book, which is perhaps some of the reason it put me in mind of her work. The plot is equally strange and wonderful, featuring the most bizarre competition I've ever had the pleasure of reading about, islands that wander around the seas, mermaids, sea monkeys and a dastardly villain.

I've really emphasised the humour here, because it is one of the defining features of the book. Let me just say, though, that I tend not to enjoy the slightly-too-silly-for-me humour sometimes found in 'boys' books'. This is not in that category. Brilliantly bonkers yes, but not pants-and-bums silly.

In short, if you enjoy slightly mad humour, magic and/or adventure, this is a book you will love.

Book Description

Along with his friends, a grumpy old albatross, a short-sighted mermaid, and a friendly island called Cliff, Oliver sets out to rescue his missing parents. On their perilous journey the friends meet evil islands, a boy called Stacey (not a girl's name) and more sea monkeys than you can wave some seaweed at.

****************
Publishing 5 September 2013 by Oxford University Press
For more info visit the publisher's web page
My grateful thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy

Monday, 26 August 2013

Review: Museum Mayhem by Sara Grant (Magic Trix 4)

More delightful witchery from the Magic Trix series for young readers 

This series is really just lovely. If it's new to you, don't despair, there's time to catch up. Here are my reviews for the earlier titles: The Witching Hour, Flying High, Birthday Wishes.

In this instalment, Trix gets witching cough, which leads to all manner of mayhem on a trip to the Natural History Museum with her family and Holly. As ever, Sara Grant's gentle storytelling emphasises the traits Trix will need to be a good Fairy Godmother one day, offering sound messages about friendship and kindness to her young readers.

I was happy to see Jinx - Trix's magical kitten familiar - getting a good portion of the action in this story. I always enjoy the portions of the story told from his perspective, and it was great to see him more actively involved in the plot.

I really can't recommend this series enough. It will definitely appeal to little girls, offering them funny stories, magic and the chance to see girl characters doing things and having an impact. Great stuff!

From the Back Cover

The three signs that you may be a witch . . .
  • You occasionally see witches flying across the midnight sky on their broomsticks.
  • Rhyming spells pop into your head at the drop of a (witch's) hat!
  • You love planning magical surprises for your friends.
When you're a witch, coughs and sneezes can have surprising special effects - as Trix finds out when a trip to the museum leads to spotty mammoths and lively dinosaurs! Can Jinx the magic kitten help Trix find a cure before her witchy secret is revealed?

**********
Published 4 July by Orion Children's Books
My grateful thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy (which seems to have migrated to my daughter's shelves...)

Friday, 23 August 2013

Blog Tour: Student Bodies by Sean Cummings - I'm All About the Ass-Kicking (plus GIVEAWAY!)

I'm really excited to have Sean Cummings here at the Hearthfire today, having loved both Poltergeeks and Student Bodies (links to my reviews).

Click here for more tour links

I’m All About The Ass-Kicking

My thanks to Beth Kemp for inviting me to do a guest posting today.

I write urban fantasy – it’s kind of my passion because there’s something liberating about the entire genre. Yes, there are similar kinds of characters with similar kinds of story arcs, but what I really love more than anything is the serious ass-kicking that goes on.

Because slamming evildoers is really something we all might like to do deep down inside. So I tend to live vicariously through the heroes and heroines in books by Jim Butcher, Simon R. Green, Nancy Holzner … I could list all the UF titles I’ve read and probably pick out the best ass-kicking scenes in each one. So when I set about to write a young adult urban fantasy, I really wanted to create a character who epitomizes the kinds of qualities that I’ve found in protagonists by my favorite authors. I also wanted to write a book that was starkly different from what’s currently on the YA shelves at your local bookseller.

In POLTERGEEKS, teen witch Julie Richardson has something to prove to her mother. She’s cocky, snarky, independent and utterly fearless. Unfortunately for her, Mom winds up on the receiving end of a dark spell that rips her soul out of her body and leaves her in a coma. Voila! A hero’s journey. And what kind of hero would you be if you didn’t have a “chosen one” aspect to your life. Julie isn’t really chosen in the sense that she’s messianic – but she does have a magical heritage and part of her journey is to discover what it all means.

In STUDENT BODIES, I’ve really ramped up the tension and raised the stakes. Julie now knows what her place in the world is supposed to be and there’s a threat to every person at her school. She must also balance our the normal teenage mother-daughter conflict in a way that doesn’t make her come off sounding like she’s a petulant teen. Because Julie, like it or not, needs her mother. Mom is her anchor and in this second book, she still has a lot to prove. Her mother also has to begin to let her daughter figure things out for herself – Mom’s challenge is every parent’s challenge: letting go.

Did I mention there’s a lot of ass-kicking going on in book two? Because, you know, there is. We’ve got new friendships – Twyla Standingready, an aboriginal magic slinger in her own right. If Julie’s going to solve the threat to everyone at her school, she’s going to need allies because the danger is very real, very dark and it gets very big very fast.

Marcus is still there, but even he’s not safe. Julie has to deal with the fact that her newfound role places her boyfriend in danger. She’s learning that even with her great power, she can’t always protect those who are closest to her, no matter how much she tries.

STUDENT BODIES is a dark, book. Where POLTERGEEKS was light, fluffy and thrilling, STUDENT BODIES deals with some very dark themes that make all the characters much more believable. There’s a ton of magic being thrown around throughout the book and an ending that I promise you simply won’t see coming.

Well, there you go. An ass-kicking teen witch, a threat to basically everyone at her school and the clock is ticking. Do get a kick out of STUDENT BODIES, won’t you?

About the Author:

Sean Cummings is a fantasy author with a penchant for writing quirky, humorous and dark novels featuring characters that are larger than life. His debut was the gritty urban fantasy SHADE FRIGHT published in 2010. He followed up later in the year with the sequel FUNERAL PALLOR. His urban fantasy/superhero thriller UNSEEN WORLD was published in 2011.

2012 saw the publication of Sean’s first urban fantasy for young adults. POLTERGEEKS is a rollicking story about teen witch Julie Richards, her dorky boyfriend and race against time to save her mother’s life. The first sequel, STUDENT BODIES is due for publication in September 2013.

Sean Cummings lives in Saskatoon Canada.
*Author Links*
 photo iconwebsite-32x32_zps1f477f69.png  photo icongoodreads32_zps60f83491.png  photo icontwitter-32x32_zpsae13e2b2.png

About the Book:

Student Bodies (Poltergeeks #2)
Release Date: 5 September 2013

Summary from Goodreads:
Whoever said being a teenage witch would be easy? For fifteen-year-old Julie Richardson and the city’s resident protector from supernatural evil, the Left Hand Path doesn't give a damn if you've found true love for the first time in your life. There’s someone lurking the halls of Crescent Ridge High School with enough malice to unleash an epidemic of Soul Worms – supernatural larvae that feed on the very fabric of a victim’s humanity.

After witnessing the death of one of the most popular kids at school, Julie and über genius boyfriend Marcus are in a race against time to find out who is behind the attacks. All the evidence points to a horrifying plot at the City Weir during the Winter Solstice; the place where icy waters of the Bow River and a thunderous spillway will mean the deaths of more than a hundred of Julie’s classmates.

If she has any hope of saving their lives, she’ll need a little help from a coven of white witches and an Aboriginal mage whose snarky attitude is matched only by her magical prowess.

GIVEAWAY
STUDENT BODIES GIVEAWAY:
UK Prize Pack
1 Signed Copy of STUDENT BODIES
1 Signed Copy of POLTERGEEKS
1 Signed Copy of FUNERAL PALLOR
1 Signed Copy of SHADE FRIGHT
1 Amazon Kindle

CANADA/US Prize Pack:
1 Signed Copy of STUDENT BODIES
1 Signed Copy of POLTERGEEKS
1 Signed Copy of FUNERAL PALLOR
1 Signed Copy of SHADE FRIGHT
1 Amazon Kindle

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Review: Student Bodies by Sean Cummings

Great follow-up to Poltergeeks: more sass, more action, more magic! 

I greatly enjoyed Poltergeeks, the first in this series and would absolutely recommend this title if you did too. If you haven't read it yet, stop here - this review has spoilers for that title (but not for Student Bodies).

The characters are again the key strength here for me: Sean Cummings really does know how to create realistic characters who interact and react in ways that we can easily relate to, even while they're involved in a full-on urban fantasy plots involving witches, evil spells and coven politics (yes, that is what I meant). It's clear from the tone of the writing and the emotional realism here that Sean is expert in understanding people, and that really is the heart of this successful series, I think. Yes, there's a cracking plot with plenty of action and some fabulously original ideas (look out for the ultra-creepy soul worms!), but none of that would work as well without the undercurrent of realism lent by the strongly-constructed characters.

As a development from Poltergeeks, this novel is brilliant. There is a complete story here, whilst the world-building and overall story arc is developed, so it doesn't have that flat feel that some 'second/middle of a series' books can. Julie's knowledge and understanding of her own powers and the magical world generally expand here, taking us along with her. Her relationship with Marcus has evolved since the start of the first book and this is a major subplot now, as her mother worries about his involvement in Julie's life as a witch. It's clear that there is more to learn about witchcraft generally, and about Julie's family history and her powers specifically (but not to the point where you feel like stuff is being artificially kept back for the next book), so I'm looking forward to the next instalment.

Overall, I'd absolutely recommend this as a strong urban fantasy which is a perfect example of how to continue a series.

Do come back on Friday for a guest post from Seah Cummings as part of his blog tour (for more on the tour, click the link top left).

Summary from Goodreads:

Whoever said being a teenage witch would be easy? For fifteen-year-old Julie Richardson and the city’s resident protector from supernatural evil, the Left Hand Path doesn't give a damn if you've found true love for the first time in your life. There’s someone lurking the halls of Crescent Ridge High School with enough malice to unleash an epidemic of Soul Worms – supernatural larvae that feed on the very fabric of a victim’s humanity.

After witnessing the death of one of the most popular kids at school, Julie and über genius boyfriend Marcus are in a race against time to find out who is behind the attacks. All the evidence points to a horrifying plot at the City Weir during the Winter Solstice; the place where icy waters of the Bow River and a thunderous spillway will mean the deaths of more than a hundred of Julie’s classmates.

If she has any hope of saving their lives, she’ll need a little help from a coven of white witches and an Aboriginal mage whose snarky attitude is matched only by her magical prowess.

***************
Publishing in September from Strange Chemistry
For more info, visit the author's website
My grateful thanks to the publisher for providing me with a review copy via NetGalley


Friday, 16 August 2013

Review: Soul Storm by Kate Harrison

Cracking conclusion to a YA suspense trilogy 

If you haven't read the first two books in this series, I'd suggest you stop here (and perhaps instead visit my review for book one, Soul Beach). I will not have spoilers in this review for this book, but cannot guarantee to be spoiler-free for the earlier parts of the story.

OK, so the stakes are raised, the suspects narrowed (thanks mainly to the killer having struck again and turning other suspects into victims), and Alice's determination to catch the guilty party heightened. Of course, at the same time, Alice's behaviour is looking more and more bizarre (particularly with a little help from the killer) and her parents' concern leads to tighter controls on her movements and her online time.

Where it all began...
I rate this book highly for its management of the suspense and the thriller angle of the plot. We know that Alice is in danger - reminded helpfully by the occasional creepy bit of narration from the killer's perspective - and, if you're anything like me, you'll have suspected practically everyone of killing Meggie before the final reveal. I'm pretty sure Alice is the only character I never suspected, and I was certainly wrong for most of this last book (not to mention certain of my choice - Kate Harrison certainly knows how to seed a red herring).

Book 2
I also enjoyed - through the whole series - the innovative concept of Soul Beach, where only the young and beautiful and 'before their time' dead hang out. I would have liked to see more exploration or explanation of exactly how that worked, but maybe it is best to leave some mystery and it is certainly true that this plot strand was moved on and developed in this instalment.

Overall, I would definitely recommend the series as a contemporary YA thriller with a hint of the paranormal. It kept me reading and I was rooting for Alice throughout. I envy those with the luxury of being able to read the whole series straight through, now that all three are available.

The publishers have been celebrating the publication of this book, along with James Dawson's Cruel Summer, under the hashtag #murderonthebeach. It's well worth checking out the blog tour posts and the twitter beach party if you want more info on this series and on Kate Harrison.

Cover blurb:

Someone is stalking Alice Forster. She's sure it's her sister's murderer, but her parents think she's cracking under the stress of Meggie's death. Only in the virtual world of Soul Beach - an online paradise for the young, the beautiful and the dead - can Alice feel truly free. But there's trouble in paradise . . .

Clouds are gathering.

A storm is brewing.

The killer is about to strike.

****************
Published 1 August 2013 by Indigo
More info at Goodreads
My grateful thanks to the publisher for sending a copy for review

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

#murderonthebeach Blog Tour: Deleted Scene from James Dawson's Cruel Summer

I hope you're ready for the awesomeness that is here today. James Dawson's Cruel Summer, out now from Indigo, is a fabulously tense tale of murder and friendship. I am so excited to be a part of this blog tour, celebrating both Cruel Summer and Kate Harrison's Soul Storm, wrapping up her fantastic Soul Beach trilogy.

CRUEL SUMMER – DELETED SCENE

In early drafts of Cruel Summer, Katie also had a narrative. It was felt, however, that it was more interesting if all of the novel was told from the point of view of the ‘sidekicks’. In most YA novels, Katie would be the main character, but Cruel Summer plays with that format. This scene still exists from Alisha’s point of view, but in this deleted scene we actually get to hear what Katie and Ben are saying.

Katie stared at the fire for what felt like hours. The roaring flames lost their will to fight, tiring to feeble tongues before dying to embers. They still glowed scarlet though, and they still gave heat. When she poked them with her stick, they flared up angrily, trying to spark. If she weren't so tired she’d have thought up some poetic analogy about them being like the dying fire, but she couldn't be bothered.

Most of the others had drifted back to the villa, blaming coldness or tiredness. Maybe it was all too much: the flight, the wine, the sun. Janey. Alisha remained on the other side of the ashes, playing with her camera. The pair sat in companionable silence.

The mood had lightened a little after the talk about Janey, but the elephant, although acknowledged, didn't go anywhere. Katie didn't feel any better for getting things out in the open. OK, they’d talked about it, but there was still so much left to say.

‘Hey,’ Alisha finally said. ‘I'm gonna get ready for bed.’

Katie nodded. ‘I’ll be in in a minute.’

‘You OK out here by yourself?’

‘Yeah. I like the quiet.’

Alisha walked over and gave her a kiss on the head. It was a reminder of how close they’d been once upon a time, but Katie wasn't sure anymore. The gesture felt awkward. It was like Janey had been the stitching holding them together, after she jumped, everyone fell apart, tumbling miles apart in different directions.

Alisha's flip flops clattered up the stairs towards the villa and she was alone with the tide and the embers. Katie closed her eyes. Still noisy in her head, but quiet on the beach. Things would seem better in the morning. They always did.

Without needing to open her eyes, she became aware of someone approaching. She opened them to see Ben’s silhouette amble onto the sand. She’d recognise his walk anywhere. ‘Hey.’

‘Hey.’ She tried to think of something cute or funny to say. There was nothing. This was painful – she hated not being able to banter with him.

‘I just wanted to come and make sure you were OK. You went pretty quiet.’

She looked up at him. With nothing to say, she just shook her head. If she opened her mouth, she was pretty sure a sob would find its way out. Ben sat alongside her, their shoulders touching this time. Unsure of himself, his arm hovered for a moment, like he was scared something might bite it. But as soon as his hand made contact with her arm, it all made sense and he pulled her into an embrace.

She rested her head on his shoulder and closed her eyes. He was so warm and so soft. He still used the same washing powder. Katie buried her head in his t-shirt. It was all the same – a familiar feeling blossomed inside her chest. It was the same as it had been, and it was unique to him. She loved other things and other people but no-one else made her feel exactly like this. It was Ben-love.

A flock of what ifs flew into her mind. What if they’d never split up? What if he’d never gone out with Janey?

His stubble grazed the top of her forehead. His skin on her skin was too much to stand. She opened her eyes to find Janey sat on the other side of the fire, watching them. Not as she had been, but as she was. A drowned girl. White, dead eyes. Bloated cheeks. Grey-blue skin. Katie recoiled, but the vision had gone.

‘What?’

‘We can’t do this, Ben.’

‘Can’t do what? We weren't doing anything wrong.’

Katie stood and started back towards the villa. She held her arms close to her body like a shield. Turning to face him, she said, ‘Ben, we can fancy this shit up as much as we like. What happened to Jane was our fault. You and me.’

‘Katie, it wasn't. We have to stop blaming ourselves. We have to let it go.’

Katie shook her head. ‘We don’t have that right. We don’t deserve it.’ She ran up the stairs to the villa and didn't look back to see the hurt on his face.

**********
Wow! Thank you so much, James, for this peek into the earlier life of the novel. If you haven't already read Cruel Summer and this has whetted your appetite, do not delay - the blogosphere is raving over this one with good reason. Check out all the other fun with the hashtag #murderonthebeach, including many more fascinating blog posts and a fab Twitter Q&A with both authors.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Review: Girls, Goddesses and Giants by Lari Don

Brilliant collection of folk tales, legends and myths with active heroines 

Firstly, I have to comment on this gorgeous cover! Bold and strong, showing a silhouetted girl in action with a sword and decorated with dragon and pretty flowers, it's wonderfully attractive without playing to cloying stereotypes of femininity (for little girls). What a great job! And, as you might guess, this is absolutely the theme for the collection: bold, clever, resourceful and active girls taking charge and saving the day. It's the perfect antidote to the many pink and princessy collections out there.

The book features twelve stories, each from a different culture and all focusing on the actions of a central girl character. The stories themselves are quite short, and nicely illustrated with occasional bold silhouettes. The print is quite large, too, so the stories are not daunting for young readers. The book is perfect for bedtime reading to or with a child, and its cover and style make it likely to appeal to boys as well as girls.

There are mythical monsters and creatures of folklore to be defeated or outwitted, challenges to be met and prejudice to be ignored. Lari Don has done a great job in sourcing and retelling these tales. The narrative style is warm and friendly, well suited to reading aloud, and with perfectly judged pace and tension for the target age group (younger readers and pre-readers).

Overall, I would absolutely recommend this. As a beautiful hardback with dustjacket, it would make a lovely gift.

The cover blurb says:

Greedy giants. Unjust emperors. Shape-shifting demons. And the heroines who deal with them.

From China and Japan, the Americas, Europe and Africa, this collection of traditional tales shows girls who win the day, whether by cleverness, courage, kindness or strength. Who needs a handsome prince?

*************
Published 18 July 2013 by A & C Black
Find more info at the publisher's website
My grateful thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy

Friday, 9 August 2013

Review: The Night Itself by Zoe Marriott

Fabulous urban fantasy YA fusing Japanese folklore and contemporary UK setting

This novel is beautifully constructed and grabbed me right from the start. Zoe Marriott has really nailed everything about this book. It's the perfect opener for a trilogy: sets up a truly epic battle whilst still having a complete and resolved story arc in this instalment. It's also a skilful urban fantasy, bringing fantasy elements to life in a fully realistic contemporary UK setting.

That realistic setting is one of the novel's core strengths. There is a quirkiness (but not too studied or false a quirkiness) to many aspects of this novel which made me smile many times while reading. And, as a language geek (forgive me, it's my thing), I noticed the voice and tone of narration and the dialogue, all of which completely ring true for contemporary UK teens. The fantasy elements are pretty unusual and make a lot of demands on the reader (and characters!) in terms of suspension-of-disbelief, so the novel's realism for the 'urban' side is essential.

Talking about the characters - they are all brilliant. I wanted to say I loved them all, but please don't misunderstand me: I loved the solidity of them, their construction as characters. Trust me, the baddies are plenty bad enough to not be 'loved'! Again, the author's ear for dialogue helps a lot here, and Mio's voice as narrator is an easy shortcut into her mind, enabling us to easily be fully on her side. I loved Jack! I bet Jack (Jacqueline is her 'trouble name') has the affection of many readers. I loved that once Mio starts revealing a little of the fantasy side of the story, Jack pulls her up on it, not doing the sappy sidekick thing of dumbly accepting anything her mate tells her. I also love that she's a lesbian and that this isn't 'a thing' (and agonised about mentioning it, since that undoes the coolness of her existence without fuss, but I do think it's a plus point even while wishing it wasn't rare enough to merit mention). I apologise for the clumsiness of that sentence, but it expresses a clumsy emotion.

Plot-wise, the book is strong again (I told you it did everything right!). Things move along at a good pace for an action-type fantasy, and there was tension and danger aplenty. The trilogy centres on Mio's sword, so you can be sure there are plenty of fight scenes and risk to life and limb. At the same time, a romance subplot is bubbling up and clearly sowing seeds to be developed later in the trilogy. The key ingredients of a great urban fantasy are all here.

There is so much to rave about in this book. It's definitely a contender for my top books of the year. Strongly recommended.

From the blurb:

When fifteen-year-old Mio steals the katana – her grandfather’s priceless sword – she just wants to liven up a fancy-dress costume. But the katana is more than some dusty heirloom, and her actions unleash an ancient evil onto the streets of modern-day London.

Mio is soon stalked by the terrors of mythical Japan and it is only the appearance of a mysterious warrior that saves her life. If Mio cannot learn to control the katana’s legendary powers, she will lose not only her life … but the love of a lifetime.

***************
Published July 2013 by Walker Books
Find more info and an extract at the publisher's website
My grateful thanks to the publisher for sending a proof for review

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Stress and anxiety: my top five tips for coping

You may not want to take advice from someone who regularly struggles, but then again, I struggle and I'm still here so maybe I do know something about it :)

Here are my top five tips:

  • Don't neglect yourself. You may be busy and annoyed with yourself for 'wasting time' by worrying, fretting or endlessly googling worst-case-scenarios (or maybe that's just me...), but you still need the time to calm down and look after yourself. Clearly, in fact, you need that time more than when you're not in an anxiety spiral. A walk, a jog, a hot bath - whatever does it for you, allow yourself that time. I would also recommend the positive to-do list, which we used last summer holidays to great effect. Basically, you make a list of things you want to do (kind of like a bucket list, or a before-a-certain-age list) to remind you when you're at a loose end or have some spare time/cash to play with.
  • Complementary therapies. As mentioned here before, I love aromatherapy (I have citrus and spice oils on my pulse points to help me focus), but I have also benefited from nice calming herbal tea (chamomile and spiced apple is a favourite) and creative visualisation (pushing worries into a box which you then lock up can be helpful, as well as the old 'happy place').
  • Break down your to-do list. Yes, this will make it longer, but it also allows you to cross off a bit at a time of a big job. For example, with a recent writing job, I've made a massive grid listing the sub-topics I'm covering with columns for each labelled 'planned', 'started', 'drafted', 'revised, 'submitted', 'feedback received' etc. Don't snigger; it helps and it's clearly not fully obsessive as it isn't colour-coded :)
  • Use a timer. I generally work in 15 minute chunks, although often I'm resetting the timer for another 15 minutes once I've got going. Just committing to 15 minutes at a time really does work.
  • Try a gratitude practice. I know, I know, but it really is very encouraging to think about all the reasons you have to be grateful. I also use this basic positive statement idea to remind myself of past accomplishments when I'm busy freaking out that I can't do what I've set out to do. (Don't tell anyone, but sometimes an "I know I can do this because..." list is stuck up above my desk, including examples of things I've done and should be proud of and nice things people have said/emailed to me like positive comments on my work. I know, but sometimes I need these reminders.)

Monday, 5 August 2013

Review: Birthday Wishes (Magic Trix 3) by Sara Grant

Another charming story about the trainee witch 


I love these little books! Pitched at the 5-8 crowd, but perfectly enjoyable for older readers too :), they capture all the magic and charm I remember from my own childhood reads such as Enid Blyton and Jill Murphy.

In this instalment, Trix is desperately hoping that her best friend Holly, whose tenth birthday is coming up, will learn that she too is a witch. At the same time, there are new witchly skills to learn and more trouble from the less-than-nice Stella. Another thing I appreciate about these books is that they are also about friendship, with good models for young readers without a whiff of preachiness.

Trix is a great main character. She's not perfect, but she is good and kind and tries hard. She's easy for young readers to both like and look up to. I also love her familiar, Jinx the visible-only-to-witches cat. He is so sweet and it's a real bonus that some sections are narrated from his point of view - a real stroke of genius!

If you have an under-10-year-old around, I'd definitely recommend this series. Or, you know, for yourself if you're a kidlit reader :)

See my reviews of the earlier books in the series: The Witching Hour and Flying High

From the blurb:

The three signs that you may be a witch...

* You occasionally see witches flying across the midnight sky on their broomsticks.

* Rhyming spells pop into your head at the drop of a (witch's) hat!

* You love planning magical surprises for your friends.

Parties and potions. Secrets and surprises!

Witch-in-training, Trix Morgan, is planning a surprise birthday party for her best friend, Holly. But nothing goes according to plan - especially when mean-girl Stella adds a secret ingredient to Trix's magic potion...

************
Published May 2013 by Orion Children's Books
Find it on Goodreads
My grateful thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy

Friday, 2 August 2013

Review: The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker

Spellbinding in execution and epic in scope: a beautiful book to savour. 

This novel combines two different folklore traditions into a narrative about immigration and finding one's place. Through exploring the very different experiences of a masterless golem and a djinni bound in human form, this lyrical and intelligent novel questions what it means to be human. Set in New York in 1899, Helene Wecker uses the two folkloric creatures to probe questions of fitting in and relating to others.

I thoroughly enjoyed this and recommend it to readers of fantasy but also those who enjoy contemporary literary novels. Comparisons to Susanna Clarke's fabulous Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell are justified (although this is both shorter in length and perhaps smaller in scope).

The writing is superb. The story is narrated in the third person, which allows us access to various characters' perspectives. Although both title characters do have negative qualities (from a human perspective), and both make mistakes, they both have our sympathies for at least part of the narrative, thanks to this close access to them. The narrative also sweeps through time and space, encompassing various characters' past experiences, enabling us to see where people have come from.

The plot itself centres on the Golem and Djinni's attempts to live without drawing undue attention to themselves - or going mad from the pressures upon them. Imagine if you didn't need to sleep? How would you fill the nighttimes? Details such as this are what drive the plot to its eventual crisis point. There are parts where the pace is a little slow, but the gorgeous writing and skilful character development make up for this. Overall, this is definitely a book to lose yourself in.

From the publishers' blurb:

If you were bewitched by The Night Circus… If you were mesmerised by A Discovery of Witches… If you were enthralled by Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell… You will be enchanted by THE GOLEM & THE DJINNI

Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic. When her master, the husband who commissioned her, dies at sea on the voyage from Poland, she is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York in 1899.

Ahmad is a djinni, a being of fire, born in the ancient Syrian desert. Trapped in an old copper flask by a Bedouin wizard centuries ago, he is released accidentally by a tinsmith in a Lower Manhattan shop. Though he is no longer imprisoned, Ahmad is not entirely free – an unbreakable band of iron binds him to the physical world.

The Golem & The Djinni is their magical, unforgettable story; unlikely friends whose tenuous attachment challenges their opposing natures – until the night a terrifying incident drives them back into their separate worlds. But a powerful threat will soon bring Chava and Ahmad together again, challenging their existence and forcing them to make a fateful choice.

**************
The Golem and the Djinni will be published by Blue Door on 15 August
My grateful thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy via lovereading.co.uk

Monday, 29 July 2013

Q and A with William Sutton, author of Lawless and the Devil of Euston Square

Today I'm very happy to bring you some fascinating insights into the work of William Sutton, author of the fabulous Lawless and the Devil of Euston Square, a Victorian detective novel being published this week. If you're in the London area, do take a look at the open invitation to the book launch below *sigh*. Maybe next time... Anyway, here's what William had to say:

Why historical crime?

By mistake. I fell in love with the construction of subterranean London. The 1860s became my domain.

But in constructing my techno-thriller of the past, I discovered I could be blunter than I would be allowed to today. In a diseased society, if your friends went about cleansing it, how far would you support them?

Favourite fictional detectives?

I do like non-detectives detecting:

Oedipus the King, Sophocles
Porfyry Petrovich in Crime and Punishment (the original Columbo)
Inspector Cuff, Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone: “I own that I made a mess of it. Not the first mess which has distinguished my professional career!”
Utterson, the lawyer, in Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
Joseph K in Kafka’s The Trial
Detective McDunn in Iain Banks’ Complicity
Diane Keaton in Manhattan Murder Mystery (first mystery: is there even a mystery?)
Woody Allen in The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (see Oedipus above)

Your writing process? I'd like to know about planning - were all the pieces in place before writing?

Every book is different, every story is different, as I scrabble to find new ways to annotate and organise the waves of ideas.

I take notes, write scenes on backs of envelopes, wake up in the night. Notebooks, pads. Now I’m using Evernote and Scrivener, which let me check and add to notes anywhere.

I write by hand in fountain pen in A4 notebooks at a desk with no computer. I just love turning the page, numbering the pages, the cartridges running out, the whole process. I’ve now started typing up on to typewriter (my mother’s, a 1958 Eaton). I know it sounds mad. But my last book I spent so long faffing around with computer files, it’s actually quicker to rewrite decisively, revising with care but without deleting and cut/pasting, then to type up finally on to computer.

I’ve used speech to text software to help me type up. I’ve used text to speech software to listen back to (a robotic reading of) what I’ve just written.

My acting teacher told me, “On n’est jamais trop aidé.” You can’t be helped too much: ie whatever helps, do it.

Could you give us a crash course in writing crime fiction?

1. Go with your instinct on what you want to happen and why it matters.
2. Gather ways it could have happened.
3. Split them up. Wilkie Colllins: “Make ’em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait.”

Thanks to William for this little bit of insight. Fountain pen, eh? If this has whetted your appetite to hear more from him, check out the details for Thursday's launch:


Friday, 26 July 2013

Review: Lawless and the Devil of Euston Square by William Sutton

Great start to a new Victorian detective series 

Strong setting, lots of clues and misdirects, intriguing characters: there's a lot to enjoy in this debut detective novel from William Sutton, out 1 August through the new Exhibit A imprint from Angry Robot Books.

Firstly the setting: Victorian London. This was rendered in glorious technicolour - or perhaps not so glorious, as it is the time of the Big Stink, after all! I felt that William Sutton really nailed the setting and transported me wholly to another time and place. I particularly appreciated the various nods to the contemporary period and recent past; I thought the author did a great job of using the past to comment on the present, although please don't think that's the main point of the book. It is, first and foremost, a complex historical police procedural focusing on Campbell Lawless, a Scotsman new to Scotland Yard.

In terms of plot and theme, this book is tightly wound. Encompassing terrorism, industrial strife, technology and the concept of progress, corruption and class issues, there is plenty to get caught up in here. Poor old Lawless has plenty to contend with to get in the way of solving the case, and it's safe to say that I did not see the twists coming. Although there were points where I needed to re-read to get developments clear in my head, that was probably more to do with my fogged brain than the writing.

The characters, as well as the setting, were a key strength of this book. William Sutton has a keen eye for detail and a great ear for dialogue and turns of phrase. There were so many distinctive and intriguing characters in this book! Lawless of course is great: an honest man who naively assumes that his job as a policeman is to find the truth (imagine!). Other highlights include Inspector Wardle, intimidating and worldly; the Worms, a band of street urchins who run errands and Ruth Villiers, a curious librarian with a keen sense of morality.

I really enjoyed the way the story was told, as well. With regular newspaper extracts, contextualising the story's events and showing how Lawless's successes (and failings) are reported in the press, these extracts really add to the novel. I'm a sucker for multiple voices and unusual narrative devices, so I felt these added an interesting counterpoint to the main storytelling.

Overall, I'd definitely recommend this as a solid police procedural, and I look forward to following Lawless's future adventures also.

William Sutton will be here at the Heathfire on Monday, answering some questions about his work, so do pop back then.


From the Publisher's Website:

“Before Holmes, there was Lawless… Before Lawless, the London streets weren’t safe to walk…”

London, 1859. Novice detective, Campbell Lawless, stumbles onto the trail of Berwick Skelton, an elusive revolutionary, threatening to bring the city to its knees with devilish acts of terror.

Thrust into a lethal, intoxicating world of sabotage and royal scandal – and aided by a gang of street urchins and a vivacious librarian – Lawless sets out to capture his underworld nemesis before he unleashes his final vengeance.

Lawless & The Devil of Euston Square is the first of a series of Victorian mysteries featuring London policeman, Campbell Lawless, on his rise through the ranks and initiation as a spy.

Murder. Vice. Pollution. Delays on the Tube. Some things never change…

**************
Publishing 1st August 2013 by Exhibit A Books
More info at the author's (particularly brilliant) website
My grateful thanks to the publisher for providing an e-arc via NetGalley

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Writing Life: In Praise of Timers

I don't think I would get anything done without a timer. When I'm struggling, when I'm in full rabbit-in-the-headlights, why-do-I-have-73-things-on-my-to-do-list mode, the timer is often the only way I can get started. I say to myself, I'll spend 15 minutes on this job, then the next, and so on. Sometimes, some of my to-do-list jobs can be done in 15 minutes (usually to my complete surprise), but often not. This doesn't matter. 15 minutes of that job done is 15 minutes more than I would have had done without the timer - not to mention 15 minutes less of "omg what am I going to do?" being quite good for my health.

Some days are '15 minute days'. The timer goes off all day, as I switch from task to task, chipping away at them. And if I'm being good, some of those 15 minute blocks can be 'me time'. It's amazing, but 15 minutes reading time can be a real break. This is something I learnt when exam marking. Very little else has the power to refresh in so short a time.

If this sounds helpful to you, and not like the confessions of a crazy person, you may like to check out the Flylady website, where I learnt the 15 minute rule. As a no-longer-Christian Brit reading her US Christian comments, there are times when I find her style a bit gushy and preachy, but at the same time, her advice is sound, and some of the sentimentality even rings true - for example, I think she's right that getting your house in order (quite literally - she's a housework life coach, first and foremost) is a way of loving yourself. I would not be as productive as I am today without having followed her system closely when I was first at home all day with a baby (argh! just realised that was almost fifteen years ago!) Anyway, startling realisations aside, I'll leave you with the suggestion to give the 15 minute thing a go if you're struggling to get going. As Flylady says, "you can stand anything for 15 minutes".

Monday, 22 July 2013

Review: Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo

Brilliant second instalment in this glorious YA fantasy trilogy 

I adored Shadow and Bone last summer (initially published in the UK as The Gathering Dark), and couldn't wait for book 2 to see how Alina's adventures would continue. If you haven't read the first book, I wouldn't recommend reading on, as I can't be sure to avoid spoilers for it here.

(Did they go yet? Can I get on with it? Good.)

Siege and Storm jumps straight in with Alina and Mal on the run, helping us to recall all the reasons they should be together. But having reminded us of their connection, their love, the wicked Ms Bardugo throws all manner of stuff at them to complicate things. At different points in the novel I was frustrated with each of them - both being realistic characters (yes, despite the high fantasy world with tons of magic), they both acted badly (or at least ill-advisedly) at different points. It's a clear indicator that characterisation is a strength of the series that many of us as readers have shifted allegiances at different points and felt that characters 'should have' behaved differently, whilst also understanding why they did act as they did. When readers talk about characters as though they were real, you've cracked it as a writer.

As well as testing Mal and Alina and making it impossible for their relationship to progress naturally (to the point that we begin to question, at times, whether they can have a relationship beyond friendship), Leigh Bardugo has introduced some brilliant new characters to this instalment. Sturmhond the privateer (don't say pirate!) and his crew are a particular high point of this book. Sturmhond is unpredictable, unreliable and harbouring a secret (which I absolutely did not even begin to guess at) - but Alina and Mal may have no choice but to depend on him. I haven't yet mentioned the Darkling, but don't worry, he is not missing from the novel. Still dark, still alluring and still troubling Alina with his ability to say the most unsettling thing possible, he also has a new and dangerous power.

Siege and Storm continues in the truly epic vein of Shadow and Bone, ramping up the tension and the obstacles in Alina's way. As well as having to deal with her personal feelings, her uncertainties about what is right and her growing power, her life is now complicated by the fact that she has been elevated to the status of a saint in popular belief.

Overall, I would absolutely recommend this series. It's beautifully written to the point that you can luxuriate in the language; the plotting is first rate and the characterisation is powerful and skilled. Be warned, though - it's a long wait until next summer for book 3 and the ending of this novel may just leave you desperate. Leigh Bardugo is a superb writer, but she has no qualms about making her characters or her readers suffer!

From Goodreads' book description:

Darkness never dies.

Hunted across the True Sea, haunted by the lives she took on the Fold, Alina must try to make a life with Mal in an unfamiliar land. She finds starting new is not easy while keeping her identity as the Sun Summoner a secret. She can’t outrun her past or her destiny for long.

The Darkling has emerged from the Shadow Fold with a terrifying new power and a dangerous plan that will test the very boundaries of the natural world. With the help of a notorious privateer, Alina returns to the country she abandoned, determined to fight the forces gathering against Ravka. But as her power grows, Alina slips deeper into the Darkling’s game of forbidden magic, and farther away from Mal. Somehow, she will have to choose between her country, her power, and the love she always thought would guide her--or risk losing everything to the oncoming storm.

***********************
Siege and Storm is out now (published 6 June 2013) from Indigo
Find more info on Goodreads
My grateful thanks to the publishers for providing me with a review copy

Friday, 19 July 2013

Review: Decoding Your Twenty-First Century Daughter by Helen Wright

Sound and sensible advice for parents of teen girls 

This book is subtitled "The Anxious Parent's Guide to Raising a Teenage Girl" and it certainly lives up to it well.

The author is an experienced head teacher, having successfully run independent girls' schools in the UK and in Australia, as well as a parent and her calm and reassuring style clearly springs from her wealth of relevant experience. Reading as someone who both parents a teenage girl (and a pre-teen) and teaches teens, I found plenty to agree with and some ideas I hadn't come across before or hadn't thought of in quite those terms.

The tone of the book is very no-nonsense and straightforward, which may on occasion have the effect of making things appear simpler than they in fact are, but in a calming way. The book can be quite conservative (small c), making assumptions, for example, about the extent of control that a parent would wish to have over a teen's life, but at the same time it contextualises those beliefs and supports a lot of its ideas with evidence of one kind or another. Its straightforward tone doesn't feel lecturing or rhetorical and it is definitely something that can be read and sifted through - it is not an 'all or nothing' book, where disagreeing with one claim necessitates abandoning the whole thing.

One area that I felt it excelled in was in presenting ideas about the brain development of teens and how this influences behaviour. I particularly appreciated this information because it was completely new to me, and was presented in a way that made clear what this means for parents trying to raise a daughter. I also liked the writer's insistence that it is natural for our daughters to pull away and want to establish strong friendships, and her advice on making ourselves available to our daughters regardless to ensure a good lifelong relationship. She was also supportive to the reader in recognising how we might feel about this and suggesting how to work with it. A further area that I thought was well-handled was a section on the sexualisation of teens in our society with some sound, up to date advice on helping girls negotiate this minefield and grow up with some self respect.

The book is well structured and clearly organised, presenting a series of different issues that we, as parents of teen daughters in this day and age, could think about or be concerned with. Each issue is presented in terms of how teenage girls are affected and what parents can do (and what we shouldn't or can't do and when to seek outside help, for example in cases of drug problems or eating disorders). Each chapter features a bullet point summary at the end, using the headings: What Parents Need to Know and What Parents Need to Do.

Overall, I found this meatier than a lot of self-help or parenting books (probably due to the use of science and data to support ideas), while being sufficiently gentle in tone to feel helpful and non-judgemental. It is clear that Helen Wright knows her stuff when it comes to teen girls, and she has a lot of helpful things to say. I would definitely recommend this title for anyone with a teen (or soon-to-be-teen) daughter.

From the Product Description:

DECODING YOUR 21ST CENTURY DAUGHTER: The Anxious Parent’s Guide to Raising a Teenage Girl is a no-nonsense, snappy, practical handbook for anyone who has to guide a young woman through the most turbulent years of her life. Distilling the wisdom acquired by Dr Helen Wright during nearly two decades as one of the UK’s leading teachers, it is both a source of encouragement and a fount of knowledge.

Key lessons become memorable messages, collected into checklists of what parents need to know and what parents need to do. An easy reference guide tackles area of concern for parents of teenage girls, including friendships; self-image; sexuality; drink and drugs; and external pressures.

“Parents will be lucky to have Helen Wright's ideas and wisdom on hand at this critical turning point in their teenage daughter’s development. Her approaches to coping with eating disorders and cyber-bullying are practical, sensible and lucid. This is an excellent book, full of ways to improve the everyday quality of life with teenage girls." Professor Tanya Byron, clinician, author and broadcaster

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Published 1 May 2013 by emBooks (ebook only)
I am grateful to the publisher for allowing me a copy via Netgalley for an honest review

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Writing Funny Books for Children by M L Peel

Today at the Hearthfire, we are privileged to be visited by the fabulous M L Peel, author of The Fabulous Phartlehorn Affair, out now from Walker Books and a great fun summer read. Here is a brilliant authorly meditation on laughter and humour in children's books.

The first time my daughter really laughed, she was around five months old. We were in the bathroom blowing bubbles. Pop. Pop. Pop. I burst them with my finger, and each time I burst one, she gave a little giggle. But then, I failed to blow one. Bubble-less, I was left fat cheeked, puffing into the air. My daughter stared in confusion, and then, from deep within her belly, there erupted a gurgling torrent of laughter.

When we had stopped laughing along with her, my husband and I stared at each other in amazement. Our baby could not yet feed herself or even sit up unaided, and yet she had just displayed a fully-fledged sense of humour: she had laughed at the incompetence of her bubble blowing mother.

I finished writing my first comic novel for children ‘The Fabulous Phartlehorn Affair’ a year before my daughter was born, but it is only since observing her instinctive sense of humour, that I have really stopped to consider just how important laughter is to children’s emotional development, as important in its own way as food and water, touch and movement.

Laughter is bonding. It unites a family. Funny books make reading together a shared joyful experience. When reading together is a pleasure, parents will be inspired to do it more often, and children will concentrate for longer. Funny books foster a love of reading in general, a love that will last well into adulthood and be passed down into the next generation.

Even base bodily humour can be educational when it helps to keep children turning the pages. When I wrote my book The Fabulous Phartlehorn Affair, I was aware that the concept of ‘phartling’ would be off putting for some adults. Many agents rejected the manuscript with a cursory glance at the synopsis. One agent wrote to tell me that “whilst the odd whizz popper may be amusing, a whole book about them will not be.” One posh London primary school cancelled my school visit over fears that parents would feel they had put “unsuitable material into the hands of children.” (My favourite rejection letter ever…)

In one sense, the agent who wrote to tell me that a “whole book about whizzpoppers” would not be amusing was right. But had she read the book, I hope she would have discovered that whilst it’s full of whizzpoppers it’s not really about them. Whizz-poppers are the pretext that let me talk about our society’s obsession with instant fame, without, I hope, ever sounding worthy or pompous. The farcical nature of ‘phartling’ allows me to discuss (amongst many other things…) both Mozart’s work for opera and stranger-danger, two topics which, in their different ways, would indeed be ‘unsuitable material for children’ if presented in a more serious context. When I talk to children on school visits, after the initial sniggers, it is rarely the ‘phartling’ they dwell on: instead they enthuse to me about the parrot disguised as an owl; or the Duke of Phartesia’s moustache done up in curlers; or Agent Frogmarch shouting at the spoilt celebrity parents….

As well as being bonding, laughter is sometimes punitive. Anyone who has been a child knows, laughter can be cruel as well as joyful. One thing I have been mindful of when writing is to avoid poking fun at ‘easy targets’. I have tried to make the rich and the powerful the butt of my jokes (excuse the pun, I just can’t help it…), rather than the weak or vulnerable.

Since my daughter has been born, I have become even more conscious of the way in which girls and female characters are portrayed in children’s fiction. My characters are deliberately larger than life and so can sometimes sail close to stereotypes, but I have tried to make sure that I tease men, women and children equally. A few friends have asked if I could put their children into a book, or name a character after them, but since my characters are rarely one hundred percent pleasant, this is a request I have had to decline!

Above all, I try to remember the weird and wonderful things that made me laugh as a child, and to use those memories as my inspiration, (so for instance, the origami loo paper is a standing joke in my family). I also try to make myself laugh as an adult and to include a few jokes especially for the parents reading aloud to their children. Sometimes, I have to sit down to write when I am not feeling particularly funny, but if I haven’t cheered up by the end of my writing session, I know I’ll probably end up going back and deleting most of what I’ve written later. If I’m not laughing, why should anybody else be…

What a fascinating post! Thank you so much. 

If this has whetted your appetite for a funny summer read, The Fabulous Phartlehorn Affair is available now.
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