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

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Mixing it Up, or How Blended is Better

Things are better mixed up. I've always thought this and get irritated when forced to choose. My love of mixing things up is clear in my reading and viewing habits. For example crime = good; supernatural = good, hence urban fantasy supernatural crime fighters = excellent. Oral culture = fascinating; feminism = great, so feminist fairy tales are brilliant.

I think that's one of the reasons my qualifications are fairly broad, too. I studied Modern Languages - you get to do bits of history, literature and social science-y stuff as well as grammar and translation, you know - and then did a fabulous MA in Gender, Literature and Modernity which let me do modules from Women's Studies, English and Social History. They even let me bring MFL into it, so when we did Women's Writing from Africa and the Caribbean, I used some Francophone novels, and when we did the concept of the individual in eighteenth-century Europe, I was able to use some German. Brilliant. Things are definitely better blended.

And now, I have this very satisfying kind of blend in my career too. I'm teaching (secondary English, by the way) part-time in a school at the moment and writing and tutoring the rest of the time. I'm feeling really positive at the moment about what I can do and the possibilities I have. I'm balancing different writing projects, while also generating ideas and pitches for further work on a freelance basis and it's great. Interesting that this seems to be more of a 'thing' now. I just saw people discussing this 'portfolio career' model on my Twitter timeline yesterday (thanks @LynnCSchreiber, who directed me to to this interesting blogpost).

What do you think? Do you like mixing it up too? Are you a portfolio worker?

Monday, 28 January 2013

Review: Tempest by Julie Cross

YA time travel thriller 

Can Jackson save Holly? That's the big question in this fab twisty thriller. The plot centres on a nineteen year old who's just trying to methodically test out and understand his time travelling abilities when along comes disaster and he finds himself stranded in the past, knowing his girlfriend is injured in the present.

This is a greatly enjoyable read. I love Jackson! We get his story first hand through first person past tense narration with occasional entries from his journal (in which he records the results of his experimental jumps through time). His voice is fresh, chatty and believable and he's essentially a good guy who just wants to understand what's happening to him and to save his beloved Holly.  I also enjoyed the fact that romance drives the story, in that Jackson is motivated by the desire to save Holly, but this is much more a quest plot than a romance one in the end.

Holly herself is a great character too - interesting in her own right, and it's cool to see her in both the past and the present through Jackson's eyes. I think that Julie Cross captures the weirdness of this really well. Seeing Jackson interacting with people he knows in the present but who don't know him in the past makes for entertaining reading, and occasional moments of levity.

The first person narration makes it easy for us to be gradually given the rules of Jackson's time travelling, as he figures them out. These are well thought through and make the thriller aspects of the novel tense and exciting. I can't wait to find out more in the rest of the trilogy, and to see whether and how Jackson's abilities develop.

I feel that the pace is a strength of this one. As a thriller, it needs - and delivers - high octane action, but this is tempered and thrown into relief by a lot of the quieter, more 'human' moments. Jackson clearly genuinely loves Holly and some of his family interactions also make for emotionally intense writing. These moments help to round Jackson out as a character, as well as ensuring that the pace of the novel is varied enough to have impact.

Overall, I'd definitely recommend this to teens (and adults) who enjoy thrillers, are intrigued by the time travel angle and moved by epic love stories.

The blurb says:

Jackson and Holly are in love.

she will lie bleeding in his arms.

Jackson must undo it all.

Jackson has a secret - he can jump into his own past. But when a shocking event propels him further back in time than he has ever been before - he finds he can't return.

Now Jackson has to find a way to save the girl he loves before they have even met, and time is not on his side...

Published 2012 by Macmillan
Find more information at Goodreads
My grateful thanks to the publishers for sending a review copy

Friday, 25 January 2013

Review: Broken by A E Rought

Gothic romance with mystery and danger

This is a novel that I really enjoyed. Truly gorgeous, visceral writing; plenty of tension, and a romance plot with substance and genuine conflicts.

Written in the first person present tense, the book gives us Emma's experiences as she drags herself through her broken life after the death of her boyfriend, Daniel. Hanging around in the cemetery to reminisce is a deliciously gothic way to open the story! I found Emma to be a cool and easily sympathetic character: realistic in her mourning with just a hint of sassiness in her narrative. As the blurb tells us, while Emma is wrapped up in her grief, along comes Alex Franks who gets her attention far more easily than he should. I really enjoyed the eerie nature of their connection and Emma's angst over how she feels and how she 'should' feel - entirely emotionally realistic, I think.

I've seen some reviews complaining (mildly perhaps) that the blurb is a spoiler, but I disagree. I usually post these at the end, but since I'm talking about it, here's what the publisher's website has to say about this book:

Imagine a modern spin on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein where a young couple’s undying love and the grief of a father pushed beyond sanity could spell the destruction of them all.
A string of suspicious deaths near a small Michigan town ends with a fall that claims the life of Emma Gentry's boyfriend, Daniel. Emma is broken, a hollow shell mechanically moving through her days. She and Daniel had been made for each other, complete only when they were together. Now she restlessly wanders the town in the late Fall gloom, haunting the cemetery and its white-marbled tombs, feeling Daniel everywhere, his spectre in the moonlight and the fog. 
When she encounters newcomer Alex Franks, only son of a renowned widowed surgeon, she's intrigued despite herself. He's an enigma, melting into shadows, preferring to keep to himself. But he is as drawn to her as she is to him. He is strangely... familiar. From the way he knows how to open her locker when it sticks, to the nickname she shared only with Daniel, even his hazel eyes with brown flecks are just like Daniel's. 
The closer they become, though, the more something inside her screams there's something very wrong with Alex Franks. And when Emma stumbles across a grotesque and terrifying menagerie of mangled but living animals within the walls of the Franks' estate, creatures she surely knows must have died from their injuries, she knows.

I think this works beautifully to enhance our experience of the book. Since this is a first-person-present-tense narrative, there's no way in the story for the author to make sure we know more than Emma. Giving us this information ahead of time means we're looking out for the Frankenstein element (not to mention enjoying the referential nods like the Shelley High School and Alex's surname being Franks), which increases the tension. Instead of being as in the dark as Emma is, we're tense for her: when will she realise? what will she do about it? how on earth is this all going to unfold? I don't know how anyone could read this without saying "no, don't do that/go there" to Emma at some point! And the last part of the book is as creepy and tense as any high-stakes thriller. I was definitely annoyed to find my bus pulling into my stop a few pages from the end.

Anyway, if you like well-written paranormal romance with action and danger thrown in, I'd definitely recommend this. I'd love to see it filmed. Just look at this trailer!


Published in January 2013 by Strange Chemistry
My grateful thanks to the publisher for providing me with a review copy via NetGalley

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Why I'm a Sucker for 'The Chosen One'

"Only X can save the world/stop the bad guys/catch the killer": who doesn't love that angle?

I'm sure most of us immediately think of the mystical Chosen One trope (Buffy being the prime example) but that's not the whole picture. I'd argue that situations sometimes choose a hero, not just whatever Power is seen as pulling the strings. Think Die Hard, for example - circumstances focus to a point that forces him (because, you could argue, of his innate nobility) to take action and Save the Day. The situation makes him 'that guy', but we know that any other guy wouldn't (couldn't) do what he does.

Many detective stories operate in this way, I think - especially where our hero is seen as making sacrifices for his/her calling. This adds to the nobility of the situation. I know some might claim I'm stretching this trope to breaking point, but I'd want to include teams here too, particularly the 'greater than the sum of their parts' type. I'm thinking of shows like Criminal Minds, where skills are shared around the group, but all are clearly needed to achieve their exemplary results.

Isn't Hero's Journey stuff fun? :)

Monday, 21 January 2013

Review: Hold On by Alan Gibbons

Tense YA thiller with themes of bullying and suicide 

This short novel packs a real emotional punch. Using a first person present tense narrator - Annie, alongside diary extracts and the occasional poem written by John, her friend who committed suicide, there is a stifling closeness to the book. Just as Annie cannot 'get over it' or 'move on', we are locked in with her and want justice for John just as much as she does. The two voices also contrast beautifully, reflecting the two personalities: Annie's narration is crisp and sharp, while John's voice is lyrical and emotional.

The book opens at the beginning of a new school year, with John having committed suicide in the summer. Annie has been overseas for a year, during which time she met up with John by chance, and she is now returning to school, determined to seek justice. His story is gradually revealed through his diary, which Annie snatches the chance to read at his house.

Annie is a great character - loyal, determined, outraged on her friend's behalf. Her certainty that John's killers (as she sees them) must be recognised as such and punished drives her to be bold and to break some of the unwritten rules of high school. Her absolute conviction that John's death was effectively murder doesn't seem to be shared by others and it is clear from the start that if she wants to resume a normal high school existence, she will have to give up her crusade and just fit in, like everyone else. The fact that one of John's bullies - the most popular boys in the year - shows an interest in Annie cranks up the tension another notch.

I am sure that many teens will enjoy this book, and that it will provoke many to consider its themes in more depth. It would be a great class read, as there are so many opportunities for a probing 'what would you do?' discussion, or to discuss concepts such as guilt and responsibility. The circumstances of John's bullying, of his death, and of Annie's campaign are absolutely convincing and realistic. Teen readers will have no problems imagining that this could happen in their school, unfortunately.

Overall, I would definitely recommend this book to teens and up. This is a book that should be in every secondary school library.

The blurb says:

Glass breaks because it is fragile.
You don't blame the glass for breaking.
A heart breaks because it is fragile.
So why blame the heart for breaking?
Why blame me?
John Sorrel

I won't be afraid anymore. I won't beg. I won't plead. I won't hurt. I will be strong. This will the the last time that I cry.

But a month later John commits suicide.After a chance meeting with him on holiday in Florida, Annie feels she's on the edge of being John's friend. She didn't realise she was his lifeline. Now she vows to uncover the truth about John's short life. This is his story - a story of our times.

Published 2012 by Orion
Find more information on the publisher's website
My grateful thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy

Friday, 18 January 2013

Review: North of Nowhere by Liz Kessler

Family tale with a hint of magic for 9+ readers 

I really enjoyed this story and would probably (if it were for adults) class it as magical realism: there is an element of magic or the impossible in the plot, but it isn't a fantasy world. This pitch-perfect family story is fully rooted in a reality that will be completely recognisable to readers, with a plot that is ultimately focused on an intriguing mystery of a magical nature.

Mia, the protagonist, had my sympathy from the start. After looking forward to her half term break, she finds at the last minute that they have to spend it at her grandparents' pub in an isolated coastal town (without even a mobile signal, never mind the internet!), as her beloved grandad has gone missing. Her struggles to be supportive to her mum and her difficult grandma, despite her disappointment and boredom, are entirely convincing and will enable readers in the target age group to easily connect with her.

The story is largely told in Mia's lively voice, in the past tense. The opening passage, telling us that what will follow is unbelievable and yet true, works to pique our curiosity and prepare us for the fantasy element. She shares the narration with Frank, whose occasional chapters mean that we are aware of what is happening (or at least that something unusual is happening) before Mia. A third narrative voice is also present, as Mia finds and reads the diary of a girl who signs herself "D".

Plotwise, this novel is tight and skillful. While we may, as readers, have some idea of what is happening, the precise ins and outs are unlikely to be clear to the target reader until they are revealed. At the same time, this is beautifully managed so as to be a delicious mystery rather than a frustrating uncertainty.

Another high point, for me, is the setting. Liz Kessler captures the small coastal village and the vagaries of the sea beautifully. The need to be aware of tides, the fishermen's reliance on nature and the ever-present and very real risks from storms are clear. This is also the focus of the beautiful cover.

All in all, I'd definitely recommend this to readers of 9 and over (including adults). I enjoyed this book immensely. I'd also recommend checking out the blog tour to celebrate publication of this lovely novel (see listings below on the right). Liz will be here on the 1st February with more about her inspiration for the book and about the place that sparked it all off.

The blurb says:

The sleepy seaside village of Porthaven hides a mystery

Mia's grandad has vanished and nobody knows why. When Mia and her mum go to support her grandma, Mia makes friends with local girl, Dee. But why does Dee seem so out of reach? Why does she claim to be facing violent storms when Mia sees only sunny skies? 

And can Mia solve the mystery and find her grandad before time and tide forever wash away his future? 

A night of storms. A lifetime of secrets. A week to find the truth.


Publishing 24 January by Orion Children's Books
Find more information on the publisher's website
My grateful thanks to the publisher for sending me a proof to review

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Powers and Gifts in Fiction

Note: I'm recycling! This post originally appeared in August 2011, back when no-one was looking... 

I've always enjoyed reading stories where characters have powers, but I especially enjoy it when those powers are somehow unusual or limited. In some story universes, magic exists and anyone (or certain people) can learn to manipulate it, while other stories exist in our world, but with magic accepted here too.

I remember being really impressed when I first read Sarah Addison Allen's Garden Spells, in which a particular family in an American small town is known locally for having certain abilities, including unusual and very specific gifts such as: knowing the right place for everything and everyone; being able to create everyone's perfect hairstyle; giving people strange items that will become essential later (she can't 'see the future' as such, just knows that so-and-so is going to need a small hairbrush, chewing gum or a mirror). This small-scale magic is a pattern repeated in her other books that I've read too, and part of the delight of reading them lies in discovering these quirky powers.

I think that in many ways it's more interesting to give a character (or a family or other group of characters) specific and limited powers, rather than more general ones. It all depends on the world you've created, of course, and the genre you're working in. High Fantasy, for example, arguably requires magic to be a more general power, which can be used for good or ill in a number of ways. I suppose that, in this as in many other aspects, writing in sub-genres allows more freedom to be a bit quirky with it.

What magic-using stories have you enjoyed? If you write using magic, do you use it as a broad force, or in a more specific way?

Monday, 14 January 2013

Review: Operation Eiffel Tower by Elen Caldecott

Funny, heartwarming family tale for 9-12s 

For a story about family breakdown, this is beautifully funny, light and enjoyable. Both I and my 9 yr old daughter loved it. I'm not surprised it's one of the three contenders for the Red House Children's Book Award for this age group. It deals with familiar concerns that children have, hitting just the right tone. I'm sure children in similar situations would find reassurance here, while all readers can enjoy getting to know Jack and his siblings Lauren, Ruby and Billy, as they hatch plans to reunite their parents.

Jack is the main character here - the story is told from his perspective, although it's third person - and most of the planning springs from him. His older sister Lauren, as a teenager is less optimistic about their chances and Ruby and Billy are too young to contribute much in the way of plotting and planning. With four children in the family, we can see a range of responses and reactions to the family's background. Elen Caldecott makes it clear, without a whiff of didacticism, that the parents in this case are not getting things completely right, and that this has a clear effect on the children.

The plot is amusingly 'out there', as the children's plans are suitably childish and unlikely. At the same time, there are some close to tear-jerker moments of poignancy. The combination of these is a key strength of the book: it doesn't make light of a serious situation, but nor does it wallow. I would happily give this to any child in the right age bracket to read: the ensemble cast, the tone of the writing and the cover work together to make it perfectly gender-neutral.

Overall, I definitely recommend this as an enjoyable light read that explores some important issues for children in a delicate and gentle way.

From Goodreads:

Lauren, Jack, Ruby and Billy live by the seaside with their mum and dad. But their parents are always arguing, and then their dad moves out. Lauren and Jack decide they have to get them together again. And so begins Operation Eiffel Tower...

Published July 2011 by Bloomsbury
Find more info on Goodreads
My grateful thanks go to the publisher for sending a review copy

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Swearing in Childrens and YA Novels

Warning: this is no nice neat conclusion...

Here's what I think as a writer and a reader (and a parent, as it happens): kids swear. Therefore showing kids swearing in books is valid. I would probably not enjoy reading a book where every other word is a swear word, but then I don't like TV shows and films like that either. (I've also never come across such a book for kids or YAs).

But here's the rub: as a teacher, it can be a bit more tricky. For the last 10 (or so...) academic years, I have taught over-16s exclusively: sixth formers and adults. Now, in a sixth form situation (and studying A Level Language no less), I'd seen kids get very, erm, over-involved in any swearing in texts, and it can be quite a challenge to get them to notice anything else in a text peppered with profanity. It's amazing how their maturity levels can plummet when faced with swearing (or, of course, the bane of the English teacher - sexual reference).

Since September, I've been working with younger students in secondary school and have discovered the absolute lesson-halting power of even the mildest 'naughty' word. In reading Skellig as a class text with year 7s, the relatively weak "bloody" caused hysteria among the less mature in the class and Leaky's fondness of the word "bo**ocks" (forgive me the coyness: some people read blogs in schools...) nearly led to injuries.

So now, I'm less sure and have a lot more sympathy with those who avoid texts including swearing in the classroom. With Language A Level students, mocking their immaturity is always an option, but it's harder to explain to the less subtle members of year 7 why sneaking in a quotation with a swearword in it to demonstrate every possible point is a bad idea, or why it's okay for Leaky but not for them.

What do you think? Do you remember reading books with 'bad words' in at school? I remember studying Tony Harrison's V for A Level Lit, which was (in the early 90s) shocking enough that the new and edgy Channel 4 made a film of it. We had to bring letters home to get permission to read it. I don't know what would have happened if someone's parent had said "actually, no". I also remember us being embarrassed in reading and discussing the language, but I don't think that the strongest words were as commonly heard then as they are now.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Review: Beyond by Graham McNamee

YA ghost story with an unusual premise

I really enjoyed this creepy read for its slow-burning tension and gradual increase in threat.

The idea is great: Jane's shadow keeps trying to hurt or kill her, dragging her into danger. Naturally, this makes people suspicious about the number of 'accidents' she has and she appears to many as suicidal or attention-seeking. Her best friend, Lexi, is the only one who understands, the only one she's told and together The Creep Sisters, as they are known, seek to figure out what is going on with her shadow, and whether it can be stopped.

As suggested above, the novel had just the right amount of creepy tension for me and I greatly enjoyed it. Those made of sterner stuff than me, drawn by the cover's tagline of "If Stephen King wrote YA..." might be left waiting for the full-on horror element, though. I wouldn't class it as horror really and am glad to see that the King reference doesn't seem to have made it onto the final cover.

A key strength is the relationship between Jane and Lexi, which is convincingly portrayed and offers nice touches - even some humour to break the tension. Jane's voice is fresh and direct. Just look at these opening lines:
I remember dying.
After I got injured my heart stopped and I flatlined.
I was done and gone. But I wasn't alone.
There was something waiting for me when I died. Something dark and cold tried to take my soul away.
How brilliant are they? This directness, the no holds barred voice, continues throughout and is a large part of the book's appeal.

Overall, I'd definitely recommend this for fans of ghostly stories and of chillers.

From the Back Cover:

Jane is not your typical teen. She and her best friend Lexi call themselves the Creep Sisters. 

Only Lexi knows why Jane is different from anyone else: Her own shadow seems to pull her into near-fatal accidents. 

Jane is determined to find out why these terrifying things happen, and to overcome her shadow enemy. Her sleuthing with Lexi connects her own horrors to the secret history of a serial killer...

Published 3 Jan by Hodder
Find more info on Goodreads
My grateful thanks go to the publisher for sending a proof for review

Friday, 4 January 2013

Review: Black Spring by Alison Croggon

Wuthering Heights with Wizards!

No, I couldn't believe it when I read that either, but I loved it. Much of the darkness and strangeness, the ethereality of Wuthering Heights is captured through the fantasy elements in this retelling, while the romance is brought more clearly into focus. Set in a rough, backwards Northern landscape where wizards rule and the bizarre (and tragically pointless) tradition of Vendetta can wipe out entire communities, a southerner, Hammel, takes a break from society. Having become injured on visiting his intriguingly rude and brutish landlord, Hammel wants to know more about the strange man while convalescing so Anna, the servant, tells him all she knows.

Those of you who know Wuthering Heights will recognise the narrative frame there and at the start of the novel, this version is uncannily similar and yet still its own. All the way through, there are episodes and details which mirror the original and were an absolute delight to me. My knowledge of the original (I've taught it as an A Level text a few times so know it quite well) definitely enhanced my enjoyment of this version, but I think it would still stand on its own as an effective novel.

Hammel's similarity to Lockwood is brilliantly done. His lofty voice, his lack of social awareness, his fondness for unnecessarily complicated prose are all present, and (just as in the original) this makes the first few chapters harder to digest than the rest of the novel (largely in Anna's voice). I know that when I've taught this to less-than-keen students, I've had to drag them through the first section until we get to Nelly's bit, and although this isn't as dense (nineteenth-century sentences are at least partially to blame as well!), I fear that some readers may be lost due to this faithfulness to the original. At the same time, of course, any teen readers picking up Wuthering Heights after reading this may well be encouraged to continue due to their experience in finding Anna's narrative more accessible than Hammel's.

There are, of course, differences. Wizards and Vendetta are the most obvious, but there are also others. Alison Croggon has removed some characters and simplified some plot lines. For example, the romance is less of a triangle here and many of the changes add up to make the older Lina (the older Cathy character) more sympathetic - to me at least. [And I should probably own up that, upon returning to Wuthering Heights as an adult, I have found Cathy less sympathetic and more irritating each time. Sorry, Cathy fans! I loved her as a teen but now just, well, don't.]

I apologise that this review is so comparative, but I really can't address Black Spring on its own. It is a reimagining and, for me, a very successful one that is not only likely to encourage teen readers to investigate Wuthering Heights for themselves, but also prepares them for some of the difficulties they may face in doing so. As I said above, I feel that my familiarity with the original enhanced my reading of this and it has very much been a comparative experience. I would still recommend this to you if you don't know the original though, as it is an involving and engaging story in its own right.

From the Back Cover:

An evocative reimagining  of Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte's timeless tale of doomed love.

When Oskar Hammel seeks refuge in the grim Northern Plateau, he discovers a patriarchal society where vendetta holds sway and wizards enforce the code of blood and vengeance.

Through a shocking encounter with the brooding Damek and his wilful young wife, Lina, Hammel uncovers a story of destructive longing and possessive desire beyond his bleakest imaginings.

Published 3 Jan 2013 by Walker Books
Find more info on Goodreads
My grateful thanks to the publishers for sending a review copy
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