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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, 27 February 2013

Midweek Magic: The Moon

This post was originally here at the Hearthfire two years ago, in January 2011. I've dusted it off and brought it back out in honour of this week's lovely Full Moon.

Symbol, deity, influence: people believe the moon to be many things.  This flexibility as a literary or filmic metaphor or motif allows it to be used and re-used again and again.  For me, the moon is mysterious but beautiful.  She (there's no possibility, for me, of a masculine moon) has subtle power, less direct than the sun, but all the more interesting for it.  Contemporary representations tend to be 'spooky' however: a full moon on screen practically always indicates danger to come.

In the Tarot, the Moon card is the Unconscious, the unknown and the unpredictable.  For some, it represents falsehood (since we see more clearly by sunlight, the moon is thought to be deceptive), but I cannot square that view, personally - it feels like a relic of more openly misogynistic times when women's wisdom was inherently mistrusted.

Women are related to the moon perhaps because of her liminal nature, waxing and waning, which seems to be mirrored in the lives of human women, most clearly through our menstrual cycle, but also through the longer cycle of girlhood, fertility and post-menopause.   Lunar deities, however, are often virginal - e.g. Diana, Artemis - although the moon's phases are also associated with aspects of the wiccan Triple Goddess (maid/waxing moon, mother/full moon, crone/waning and dark moon).  Perhaps it is the relative 'coldness' of the moon's light which leads to its association with virginity, especially in the case of the Roman Diana and the Greek Artemis, both of whom are depicted as strongly protective of their single status.

Plath and The Moon
In teaching Sylvia Plath's Ariel collection, I often find myself having interesting discussions with students about the 'meaning' of the moon.  For me, "The Moon and the Yew Tree" is a beautiful poem about the failure of the church to satisfy Plath's desire for truth, while the moon, although (or perhaps because?) she is "bald and wild", is ultimately more appealing to her as a symbol.  In that poem and elsewhere she associates the moon with her mother, which complicates her use of the symbol, ascribing it negative qualities as well as the 'wildness' which I suspect she admires.  It is largely because of this negative association with her mother that some find "The Moon and the Yew Tree"'s moon difficult to read positively.  Personally, I think this is symptomatic of the complications of the mother-daughter relationship.

image by Graur Codrin from freedigitalphotos.net

Monday, 25 February 2013

Review: Dance of Shadows by Yelena Black

Dark secrets and fierce competition: creepy YA thriller set in the New York Ballet Academy 

This was a tense read which I greatly enjoyed. The intensity of the ballet academy environment, together with the central mystery of Vanessa's sister's disappearance, simmer together to create a highly charged atmosphere.

The novel follows Vanessa as she starts her professional ballet career in taking up a place at the academy which her sister, Margaret, went missing from a few years earlier. As with all environments where people are living and working closely together, it all feels very high-stakes and intense as allegiances and enmities are forged rapidly. Vanessa seems initially to want to keep her plan to investigate Margaret's disappearance to herself, but it was recent enough that some of the older students mention her, and she fairly quickly finds herself with a core group of friends whom she can share suspicions with, especially when one of their classmates disappears also.

The plot as whole is quite slow-burn, with plenty of tension and red herrings. We're encouraged to suspect various characters, some of whom turn out to be quite innocent and innocuous while others are not. Hints of the supernatural and of magical transformation through dance abound, as do suggestions that the missing girls (yes, Margaret is far from the only one) simply dropped out due to the pressure of high expectations.

I wasn't always completely convinced by some of the relationships, but I think the intensity of the ballet dancers' surroundings could be seen as responsible for some of that. These are young, intense people away from home and I can accept that they would form bonds and alliances rapidly.

Overall, I found this to be an absorbing read. I wouldn't recommend it to strict realism-only readers, but most YA fans are likely to enjoy this.

From the back cover:

An elite academy with the darkest of secrets.
A dancer with a talent she never wanted.
A legacy she can't escape.

Vanessa Adler is dancing in her sister's footsteps as a student at the exclusive New York Ballet Academy. Margaret Adler disappeared three years ago and Vanessa is searching for answers.

Dance is in Vanessa's blood, in her soul - and perhaps it holds the key to the mystery. But the academy is a sinister place, plagued by fierce rivalry and scandal. Finding her sister is going to be dangerous, and the sexy, charismatic Zeppelin Gray may lead her far beyond the truth she was looking for ...

Published 14 February by Bloomsbury
Find more information on Goodreads
My thanks to the publisher for sending a review copy

Friday, 22 February 2013

Review: Vortex by Julie Cross

Second in the YA Time Travel Thriller Series

If you haven't read Tempest, the first in this fab series, I'd suggest you go and read my review of that instead of carrying on here. This review will have spoilers for the first in the series (but not for this title).

This second instalment really ups the pace, with Jackson now working as an agent. He faces considerable challenges since he has to keep his time travelling abilities secret, so all the others assume he's a spoilt kid who hasn't earned his place in the unit. Jenni Stewart's presence in the team, along with her memories of babysitting him but without her 2007 memories of working with him, doesn't help his acceptance into the group at all.

I know that some readers - especially those who saw Tempest as primarily a romance - have found this instalment too big a departure from the first novel. Having enjoyed Tempest as a time travel thriller with romance driving the emotional heart of the plot, I enjoyed this second novel greatly. It focuses considerably more than the first on the time travel and attendant conspiracies, and it rattles along at a breathtaking speed, earning it the 'thriller' label even more than book one. Jackson's love for Holly still affects him deeply, even while her knowledge of him doesn't include their relationship, and the fact that she crops up in his life again shows that there is clearly some 'destiny' or 'fate' angle that I expect will be wrapped up somehow in the third book. It's hard to see how, though, with Vortex closing in such an unexpected way (on which subject, no more will be said except I'm in awe of the ending: the characters are set up nicely for book three, and yet it didn't feel like one of those cliffhanger endings where you feel cheated).

Overall, I really enjoyed this. It is different in emphasis to the first novel, but I felt this was positive and developed the overall story well. I still love Jackson and think that Julie Cross is very cruel to him, and I also enjoyed some of the new characters in this novel. Kendrick, for example, is a brilliantly complex and sympathetic character. I ached for her desperate attempts to keep a part of her life 'normal' even while being a secret agent investigating time travel.

My final verdict, then, is that this is a great read, with plenty of excitement, suspense and time travel complexity. I will definitely be looking to read the next part as soon as it's available.

The blurb says:

Jackson has lost Holly forever

She walks back into his life

Jackson must choose between saving her ... or the entire world

The eye of the storm is a deadly place to be...

Jackson Meyer has completed his training to become an agent for Tempest, the shadowy division of the CIA that handles all time-travel-related threats. As a time-traveller himself he's on his way to becoming the best of the best. However, everything changes when Holly - the girl he altered history to save - re-enters his life, and Jackson must make an impossible choice: erase the past or change the future?

Published 3 January 2013 by Macmillan
Find more information at Goodreads
My grateful thanks to the publishers for sending a review copy

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Guest Blog: Maudie Smith on Rules! Rules! Rules!

Yes! It's Opal Moonbaby time again! Maudie Smith's fabulous debut impressed me last year and now the sequel is out. 

About Zooming Time, Opal Moonbaby is out now (published 7th Feb) from Orion Children's Books.

I can't wait to see how Opal fares in her new life with Martha. We're very fortunate to have Maudie stopping here at the Hearthfire on her blog tour to give us a bit more insight into her (and Opal's) world.

Sometimes growing up can seem to be all about rules. Rules are everywhere: at the table, in the bathroom, in the street, at grandma's house, in the cinema, on the bus. Do this, do that, watch out for those, don't run here, don't walk there, mind your language, mind the gap and while you're about it, pull your socks up! It's exhausting. Talk about multi-tasking. When we send our children out into the world there are just so many different ways they can get it wrong. We might as well be sending them out onto an ice-covered minefield with a basket of eggs to juggle - actually  I think I may just have inadvertently described what it's like to write a book, but I digress.

In order to learn children do have to get it wrong. It's all about trial and error and this can lead to painful, awkward and embarrassing situations.

Opal Moonbaby gets it wrong. Super wrong. All the time. That's because she's an alien. She thinks you can swallow carrots whole and she tries to eat popcorn kernels before they've been popped. Yuk! She doesn't know much about human etiquette. How would she know who it's OK to pick your nose in front of? For all she knows, humans might sniff each other's bottoms. After all, humans' pet dogs do that. Opal Moonbaby makes a lot of social blunders but the great thing about Opal is that she doesn't really notice or care. This is clearest of all when Opal joins Martha at her school, Archwell Park Primary.

At school, children learn a whole new set of rules. Some of them are simple 'dos and don'ts' and may appear in the official school rules, but others are more subtle and learned over time, almost through osmosis. For example, children don't talk to teachers in the same way that they talk to people their own age and that's because somewhere along the line they have learned to be respectful, or at least to be circumspect. Martha has learned how to keep a low profile in the classroom which the strict and sarcastic Mrs Underedge controls with a rod of iron.

But the words 'low' and 'profile' aren't in Opal's vocabulary. She pays very little attention to either circumstances or consequences. She hasn't practised the art of conversing with adults, does not know not to answer back. She doesn't understand sarcasm either so, not surprisingly, she and the teacher, whom she hugs enthusiastically at their first meeting, get off on completely the wrong foot.

Children are so busy being trained all the time I think – I hope – it will be a relief for them to read about someone as free and untrained as Opal Moonbaby. Opal might not be an ideal role model for children to follow, but she'll definitely give them an entertaining break from the serious business of becoming 'socialised'.

Opal seems pretty quiet and demure in this illustration but just look at Martha. She knows what's coming!
‘I think that I am going to absolutely love being in Merry
Class and I’ll bet you’re a zooming fantastic teacher,
Mrs On-the-edge.’
What a great post! As a teacher, I'm very glad that children have characters like Opal to misbehave vicariously through :) Thank you so much for visiting today - and for sharing Opal with us! Here's what the blurb tells us:

The second in this sparkling series about the alien who came to stay!
And this time, she’s going to school…

Opal Moonbaby is spending a year on Earth. A whole year! Martha can't wait to take her to school, to introduce her to her friends and to recreate all the fun they had during the summer.

But things don't turn out quite as expected and before Martha knows it, Opal is off making new friends, doing new things and throwing herself into life on Earth - and Martha can't keep up.

When Opal's Uncle Bixie warns them that the nasty Mercurials, enemies from their home planet of Carnelia, are on their way to Earth, planning mischief, Martha begins to worry. But Opal is far too busy making friends to be bothering about those stupid Mercurials. Besides, her eyes would z-ray them immediately and she'd dazzle-kick them all the way back to Carnelia.

Wouldn't she?

Monday, 18 February 2013

Review: OMG! Is This Actually My Life? by Rae Earl

Hilarious diary novel perfect for tweens and younger teens 

Boys, friendships, family stuff - all the drama of the early teen years is here in Hattie's diary. I enjoyed this and found myself snorting and laughing out loud more than once (much to the surprise of some nice bus passengers...). It's worth noting that the author is also the writer of TV's 'My Mad Fat Diary', but this is pitched much younger than the series.

Hattie is a typical 14 year old with normal 14 year old worries. She's trying to figure out who she is and where she fits in and for Hattie, this poses a particular difficulty. She's never known her father and sets out to do some detective work and figure out what's in her genes. That is, if she can fit it in around trying to date and generally navigate the social minefield that is being 14.

This diary-style novel tracks a whole year of Hattie's life and I greatly enjoyed getting to know her, her friends and her family. Her writing style is hyperbolic, full of capitals and dramatic statements but she is over-the-top in an endearing and naive way. I grew quite fond of her, and I defy anyone to read this and not be charmed by her.

Characterisation is definitely a strength here, which is no mean feat considering it's entirely presented as a diary so it's heavily filtered through the lens of Hattie's point of view. It takes real skill to present a whole novel this way and to maintain interest, and Rae Earl makes it look easy. I loved Hattie's Gran in particular - she was definitely responsible for some of my embarrassing public laughter.

The plot, with its various strands of family detection, romantic endeavours, social hierarchies and getting through school, is bright and breezy and zips along nicely. Hattie does deal with real-world problems but it's all very light and frothy and non-threatening, with a hearty dose of humour.

Overall, I enjoyed this and would definitely recommend it for its target 11+ audience. My 14 yr old was certainly drawn to it.

From the Back Cover:

Hattie Moore's OFFICIAL secret diary.

Fourteen-year-old Hattie Moore doesn't actually know who her dad is - but that's the least of her problems. How can she become a TOTAL HOTNESS GODDESS when Miss Gorgeous Knickers at school hates her and no one fancies her because she has no breasts? And her family are an actual nightmare. Her unbelievably annoying brother is EVIL and on top of that, her gran is a TOTAL mental, who may be texting rude jokes to just about EVERYONE in the world. Including her dentist.

Hattie's diary of this tumultuous year is an absolutely hilarious account of the ups and downs of teenage life, including a dating bogey phobia, near death from biscotti and a home-made breast-growing machine.

Published 7th February 2013 by Walker Books
Find out more at the publisher's website
My grateful thanks to the publisher for sending a review copy

Friday, 15 February 2013

Review: The Diamond Thief by Sharon Gosling

Fabulous steampunk mystery adventure for 9+ 

Amazing contraptions, an intriguing mystery, Victorian London, the circus, a hint of romance between a detective and a cat burglar - this book combines so many elements brilliantly. The result is a riproaring adventure that will appeal to a wide range of readers in (and above) the target age range. I've already had to bat my 14 yr old away so that I could read it in time for this review!

Remy is a circus performer. She is a skilled acrobat, working on the trapeze and also as a jewel thief. Fiercely independent, she seems to be an orphan, but does have close relationships with some of the other circus workers. I love her pride in her work and her stubbornness, as well as her admirable loyalty to her beloved Claudette and Amelie. She is clearly beholden to the circus owner, Gustave, who sends her on a mission to steal a precious diamond on display in the Tower of London - and here the adventure begins.

Thaddeus is a young detective. Clearly from a lower class background, he is not always taken seriously as a detective due to this and his age. Nonetheless, he is a very serious young man with a strong sense of morality and a desire to do the right thing. As the blurb tells us, he finds himself implicated in the theft of the diamond and sets out to find Remy and clear his name. The speed with which his colleagues turn against him and believe him to have broken the law is shocking and ensures that our sympathies lie with him.

Sharon Gosling skilfully plays with our sympathies, making sure that we cannot possibly 'take sides' between Remy and Thaddeus. We see the best aspects of both of them, and (at least for the first half of the book) understand each far better than the other can. Characterisation is definitely a strength of this book. There isn't space here to delineate each of the fascinating supporting roles here, but trust me, you'll also love the Professor, and young J and the noble Desai.

Another strength is the setting. We get to see a range of Victorian London which is relatively unusual - often books are confined to a particular social milieu - as we follow Remy to the showing of the diamonds in the Tower, as well as getting views of London's poorer aspects. The circus and the creepy below-London network are also sharply drawn and younger readers will have no problem keeping up with the scene changes due to the detailed (but not excessive) description.

And finally, the plot is strong too - pacey but not confusing for the target audience; twisty enough to reward reading; and satisfying in the end.

Overall, I'd absolutely recommend this. With its dual protagonists, its blend of mystery, adventure and character development, it's definitely a book that will be enjoyed by readers of either gender and fans of many genres.

From the back cover:

And there she was. A girl who seemed to fly without wings, as perfectly as a bird. Even the thought of  it made his heart freeze. The memory of her, plummeting to the ground...

No-one performs on the circus trapeze like 16-year-old Remy Brunel. But Remy also leads another life, prowling through the backstreets of Victorian London as a jewel thief. Forced by the evil circus owner Gustave to attempt the theft of one of the world s most valuable diamonds, she uncovers a world of treachery and fiendish plots.

Meanwhile, young detective Thaddeus Rec is determined to find the jewel and clear his name. Will Thaddeus manage to rescue the jewel? Or is it really Remy that he needs to save?

Published 14 February 2013 by Curious Fox
Find out more at the publisher's website
My grateful thanks to the publisher and @GeorgiaLawePR for providing me with a review copy.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Top five things more likely to make me quit teaching than equal marriage

I was quite startled last night to discover that my profession is being used as a political pawn once again (no that's not a shock in itself - quite used to that!). This time it's being claimed (by the Coalition for Marriage) that the very idea of Equal Marriage is causing a shortage of teachers in the UK.

Just for fun, we're going to ignore the first and very obvious fact that there is no shortage of teachers, and the second fact that sharing any nasty little homophobic views you have has been against the law for teachers for some time, and I'm going to share my 'top 5' things that just might make me (in some cases, have made me) consider quitting the job I'm passionate about. I needed to limit it to 5 since, as I'm sure you'll realise, there are rather more factors that would come higher up the list than the Equal Marriage Bill.

1: Arbitrary and dishonest goalpost shifting, aka the #GCSEfiasco. Do you have any idea how hard it is to talk to GCSE English candidates about their options and likely outcomes now?

2: Rushed overhaul of examinations without listening to consultation. Yes, like Guardian's "Secret Teacher" column of a couple of weeks ago, I accept that A Levels could do with reform, but sort of  - not entirely - removing AS levels, and focusing exclusively on how and when the exams are taken (once, after two years - no modules, no resits) hardly seems the best way to achieve this.

3: Fear of teaching the new GCSEs which are not tiered (no 'higher' and 'foundation'), which we're somehow claiming is fairer and gives everyone an equal chance, and which are at the same time harder. I cannot for the life of me picture how one exam can test the A*-G range.

4: More concrete (read pay-enforced) responsibility for students' results. Of course I accept that I have a role to play, but my input is far from the only factor - merely the only one I personally have control over.

5: Consistent and systematic rubbishing of my professionalism in the media. I'm responsible for riots, family breakdown and the country's economic decline, apparently.

Clearly, as I said, there are more. I was quite tempted to simply put "Gove" as my top potential reason for quitting, but that particular factor is a hundred reasons by itself...

And just in case anyone's wondering, I'm in favour of equal marriage and feel that its presence in the news has given me more opportunities to challenge homophobia in teens (which there is a lot of by the way - many teens are immature, after all). It's also made it possible to show that homophobics are in the minority, which I've never been able to so easily claim before.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Sylvia Plath and me: negotiating and teaching Ariel

Today marks fifty years since Plath's death. I've seen lots of pieces in newspapers: interviews with people who knew her, extracts from books exploring her life and works, links to interpretations of her poems and plenty of discussion of the new cover image for The Bell Jar. Personally, I think there's a strong possibility the new cover will attract new readers to the novel; hard to see how that could be a bad thing, even though at first glance the cover looks like it trivialises Plath's themes. This Telegraph piece explains rather nicely how the cover fits the book.

But anyway, I came here today to write about my own experiences of working with Plath's poems, having taught Ariel as an A Level text many times.

More than any other writer whose work I've had the pleasure of teaching, Plath herself gets in the way. It's nigh on impossible to get students past their fascination with her life. There are no absolute answers, and therefore we want to know, damnit! But then, isn't that a large part of what A Level English is about: the lack of immediately reachable answers?

What fascinates me is that my opinion of her life and her problems has changed, and not just once. Don't forget also that this is in the middle of my attempts to get students past her biography and into the poems for their own sake. I can't have students continuing to claim, as some will at the start of the course, that Lady Lazarus "proves" that Plath didn't intend to kill herself fifty years ago (believing herself able to rise again), or that Daddy tells us that she was a Jew and her father was a Nazi. It's very difficult to teach Ariel as a collection without any reference to biography (she says, never actually having tried it). And even her most clearly fantasised poems - like Lady Lazarus which she told us was about "a woman who has a great and terrible gift of being reborn" - intertwine with her own life so much that it's difficult to discourage students from looking for bits about Hughes or her father.

And yet. For all the frustration, I'd still choose Ariel any chance I had. Yes it explores dark emotions that some suggest it's immoral to 'expose' teenagers to, but I'd argue that many teens are exposed to those emotions anyway, and a safe distance to discuss and explore them might be just what they need. And yes, some teens will almost worship Plath and practically make a cult out of her perceived suffering, but again, those who react so strongly to her would have found something else to ritualise (and again, discussing those feelings in class at a safe third party distance may be helpful). When there's time to go there, it's also interesting to discuss the phenomenon of this fascination with her and what she's come to represent. Frieda Hughes' poem, My Mother, published when the Gwyneth Paltrow/Daniel Craig film Sylvia came out is great for stimulating this.

In many ways, for all its extremity of emotion, Plath's work offers us something that everyone can relate to on some level. Who hasn't had frustrating relationships with their parents, been jealous or had thoughts which they know are destructive?

Lastly but absolutely not least, the poems have such a savage beauty. I love her use of sound - she clearly enjoyed the performance aspect of poetry - and some of her imagery is strikingly original and just gorgeous.

Friday, 8 February 2013

Review: Seconds Away by Harlan Coben

Gripping YA crime thriller from a master writer 

This is the second in Coben's YA series focused on Mickey Bolitar, nephew of his main adult character, Myron Bolitar. The first in the series was the fabulous Shelter, and this follow-up is just as good. As always, since this is a review for a sequel, there may be spoilers for the first book in the series here - please look away if you haven't read it yet!

The novel's action picks up from where Shelter leaves off, and takes us deeper into the mystery and conspiracies that were beginning to be unpicked in the first novel. At the end of Shelter, Mickey received some startling news, which naturally he investigates in this instalment, along with other new mysteries that crop up. The shadowy figure of The Bat Lady still hovers and the truth about the Abeona Shelter is clearly going to be a long-running plot thread, which the teens do unravel a bit further here. At the centre of the plot is another death: this time Rachel, who helped to save Ashley in Shelter, is shot along with her mother.

A key strength of both books is the characterisation. I challenge you to read this and not be sucked in and rooting for Mickey, Ema and Spoon! Their determination to do the right thing, and their schemes to sneak around and investigate are endearing and brilliantly drawn. Ema remains delightfully intractable and yet both brave and dependable, while Spoon's dorkiness knows no bounds. Mickey's inability to ignore injustice continues to drive the plot and inspire them all to plunge further and further into the murk that surrounds them.

Overall, this is a great read, which completes a new mystery and takes us further in the overarching mystery of the Abeona Shelter. I can't wait to see what Mickey and co will uncover next!

The blurb says:

This action-packed second book in international bestseller Harlan Coben’s Mickey Bolitar young adult series follows Mickey as he continues to hunt for clues about the Abeona Shelter and the mysterious death of his father—all while trying to navigate the challenges of a new high school.

When tragedy strikes close to home, Mickey and his loyal new friends—sharp-witted Ema and the adorkably charming Spoon—find themselves at the center of a terrifying mystery involving the shooting of their classmate Rachel. Now, not only does Mickey need to keep himself and his friends safe from the Butcher of Lodz, but he needs to figure out who shot Rachel—no matter what it takes.

Mickey Bolitar is as quick-witted and clever as his uncle Myron, but with danger just seconds away, it is going to take all of his determination and help from his friends to protect the people he loves, even if he does not know who—or what—he is protecting them from.

Published Nov 2012 by Indigo
Find out more at the publisher's website
My grateful thanks to the publisher for providing a copy for review

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Top Five Things You Shouldn't Say to the Wife of a Stay-at-Home-Dad

This was originally published back in June 2011, but unfortunately it still stands...

1: But does he do the cleaning/dusting/washing/ironing etc?
Er, yeah  - that's clearly part of the deal. (Not to mention none of your business! I bet stay-at-home-Mum families don't get quizzed about the nitty gritty of their domestic arrangements).

2: I'd still have to clean the toilet myself. Don't you?
Er, no. (Strange as it may seem, men are just as capable as women of getting things actually clean).

3: But don't the kids want you when they're sick? It's natural, isn't it?
It's probably natural if you're the one who's done the bulk of the caring. The kids are perfectly happy to have Daddy look after them.

4: Did he lose his job? / Can't he get a job?
Although this is often said in a sympathetic way, commiserating with me, it's still pretty rude. This is our choice, not an accident; if he were unemployed, that's probably how I'd describe it rather than saying he stays at home. Again - I doubt husbands of stay-at-home-mums get this question.

5: Wow, that's a lot of pressure of you to 'keep' the family.
This is also very often a sympathetic comment, but one I doubt male single earners get.

Generally speaking, many people still find our situation either hard to understand or fascinating. I always answer questions as though I'm happy to, but really I'm sad that in the 21st century a family with a working mum and a stay-at-home-dad is enough of an oddity to create interest. Clearly, many people believe in 'natural' gender differences, especially when it comes to parenting.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Review: A Witch Alone by Ruth Warburton

Satisfying conclusion to a brilliant paranormal YA trilogy 

I was looking forward to this, having loved the first two books in the series, and I was not disappointed. This twisty, clever book surprised and delighted me.

If you haven't read the first two, I'd suggest you stop right here, go to A Witch in Winter (book 1) or A Witch in Love (book 2). I can't guarantee this review will be spoiler-free for the earlier novels.

Again there is a gap between the novels and we join Anna a few weeks after the events of A Witch in Love, allowing her to have settled into a different routine since last we saw her. She remains the strongly principled character I've come to love, and the wicked Ruth Warburton continues to pull her in many directions, testing those principles at every turn. Torn between loyalties to her father, her long-dead mother, her powerful grandmother who represents the forces that tried to kill her in the first book, her witch friends and her love for Seth, Anna is constantly having to weigh up the likely effects of her actions on others.

The supporting cast also remains true to the form we've come to expect. Seth is away, trying to separate himself from Anna and her inability to have faith in his love for her. Abe is difficult but appealing in a bad-boy, rough-around-the-edges kind of way, while Emmaline is her practical, down-to-earth self. Anna's pulled loyalties and quandaries about trust are perfectly replicated in the reading experience and I was unsure whether Anna had put her faith in the right people at several different points (sometimes I was right, and sometimes wrong). This effect is enhanced by the fact that we get everything from Anna's point of view via the first person narration, so others' motives are never clearer to us than to her.

One of the great pleasures of this trilogy has been its ability to surprise me and this last instalment is no different. There were several key twists that I did not see coming, and I really enjoyed that the story got much 'bigger' from the middle of the first book onwards. What started out (or at seemed to) as a paranormal romance with witches, ended up as an epic quest narrative with action happening around the world and a genuine threat to the whole human race.

Overall, I would strongly recommend this novel (and the whole trilogy) to readers of YA, especially those looking for something 'more' in their urban fantasy or paranormal romance. This is a perfect example of a satisfying romance novel, with an admirable heroine and a strong plot beside the romance threads.

The blurb says:

Where do you go when your heart has been ripped out?

For Anna there is only one answer: into her past, where the truth about her mother, her power and her real identity lie hidden.

Publishing 7 Feb 2013 by Hodder
Find more information at the author's website
My grateful thanks to the publisher for sending a review copy

Friday, 1 February 2013

North of Nowhere Blog Tour: A Place of Inspiration

Today is a very exciting day here at the Hearthfire: Liz Kessler is here to talk about her setting for North of Nowhere (which by the way is a fabulous story of families, mystery, magic and the sea - my review's here). So, without further ado, I'll hand you over to Liz.

About seven years ago, I went on holiday in the Scottish highlands. Whilst there, I visited various tiny towns and attractions along the coast. One of these was a small town called Pennan, the setting for one of my favourite films, Local Hero. But just a little way along the coast from this town that has now become a tourist attraction, there was another, smaller village. Little more than a row of houses standing silently, yards from the water's edge, this one is not on most people's tourist destination maps. And yet it was the one that stayed with me.

Crovie (pronounced 'crivvy') was once a busy fishing town. A storm in 1953, however, put an end to that. The storm washed away many of the houses and forced the residents to flee. Today, the houses that remain are mostly holiday lets – I guess, for those who really want to get away from it all. There is certainly not a lot to do here.
But as I walked along the tiny ridge between the houses and the sea, what struck me was the intensity of the silence, the feeling of history trapped here, the creepy atmosphere that seemed to fill every inch of the place. It was the atmosphere that got inside me, and I knew instantly that I wanted to write a book that featured this place or somewhere like it – and most certainly this atmosphere.

It was about five years later that I began to write the story.
Many of my books are inspired by a place and, if possible, I always try to go to the place itself in the early stages writing the book. As I had now moved to Cornwall, the prospect of a visit to the Scottish highlands – and the fifteen-hour drive that this would involve – was, I confess, not the most enticing thought in the world.

So I began to look at other possibilities. Were there any other similar towns a
little nearer? That was when I discovered Hallsands.

Hallsands has a similar history to Crovie – only worse. A small but thriving fishing town in Devon, the village was all but destroyed in a storm about 100 years ago. Almost every house was destroyed. Miraculously, there were no casualties from the storm – but every inhabitant had to start a new life elsewhere.

It didn't take me long to pack a bag and book a trip to Hallsands.

A few nights in a nearby apartment; a few conversations with the right people to allow us over the fence and through the gate that blocked off the land as it is now too unstable to allow public access; a few pages of scribbled notes as I wandered around soaking up the atmosphere of this incredible place; a few hundred photos…All of this led to a head buzzing with ideas and inspiration.

For me, there is nothing quite like going to the place that has inspired a book.

It's not just about what you can read in a book or on the internet. It's about standing in the place itself and feeling its history – almost hearing and seeing the events that took place where you are standing – this is what gets my creative juices flowing. This is what really excites and inspires me.

And so, seven years on from the original moment of inspiration, North of Nowhere is written and out in the shops, and this feels like a very exciting point of an amazing journey.

I hope that I have managed to do justice to the places and the people that inspired this book. And I hope that, if you happen to read it, you will feel at least an inkling of the atmosphere and drama that I have tried to convey.

Thank you for having me as a guest on this blog, and for giving me the opportunity to relive the feeling of inspiration that I had when this book began to form in my mind.

The path down to Hallsands
Thank you, Liz - what a fab post! The sea is such a great place for stories. Where I grew up, on the East Anglian coast, Dunwich is the focus of 'washed into the sea' stories, having been diminishing for centuries - at least half a dozen churches and monastery buildings, for example, are 'out there' in the sea somewhere, the tower of the last having fallen in 1922.

NORTH OF NOWHERE by Liz Kessler was published by Orion Children’s Books on 24 January in hardback at £9.99.
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