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

Friday, 22 March 2013

Time for a break!

I've had some difficulties keeping up with everything lately, so I'm going to take a blog break of a fortnight over the school Easter holidays. I'm expecting this will allow me to return refreshed and ready from Monday 8th April.

Have a lovely Easter!

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

#blogsync: Wasted Investment? Why do so many teachers leave the profession in the first five years?

The simple and somewhat glib answer is: because teaching is a harder job than many realise.

At this point in the term, I'm only capable of a slightly more complex analysis and that, I think, is part of the answer right there. Teaching is a cyclical profession of intense, focused periods of activity, during which times many routine tasks are pushed to one side. We often think we'll get these done during those famous teachers' holidays. However, many teachers spend a good proportion of those holidays sick as, exhausted, they crumple once out of the classroom spotlight. In many ways, getting through a half term can feel like sprinting a marathon.

Add to this the mental stress of  'keeping control' in a classroom: both of the pupils and of oneself, and the improbability of taking a real break during the day (break duty, detentions, setting up the next lesson) and, really, why are we even asking this question?

I think the loss of new teachers is at least partially down to the relentless nature of the job. Perhaps, in the PGCE year, and in the NQT year, people expect to be busy and tired and stressed. But after a couple more years, when the pressure isn't easing, maybe that's when it finally dawns that it's not about being new at it; it's not about getting used to the curriculum requirements and the latest teaching ideas; it's not about inexperience making things harder: it's just hard. And there comes a point when accepting that your working life will be hard forever is just a step too far.

Edited to add: visit the blogsync website for more perspectives on this topic, including more hopeful ones and some suggesting solutions.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Review: The Day I Met Suzie by Chris Higgins

Tense YA thriller focused on friendship, identity and trust 

I was gripped from the start by this fabulous teen thriller exploring trust, identity and friendship. Chris Higgins controls the tension perfectly, ratcheting it up gradually with hints and clues.

The novel is narrated directly by Indie, initially through the device of a telephone call to The Samaritans. Clearly this tells us that the situation is extreme, and since Indie has been asked to start at the beginning, we are given all the little clues that Indie can see far more clearly with the benefit of hindsight. I loved the little touches of Indie's interaction with the Samaritan - this definitely helped both to add to the realism and to increase the tension by delaying the plot developments.

Being older than your average YA reader :), the blurb and premise of this novel reminded me of the film Single White Female, and it stands up well to the comparison, while also having a few surprises of its own. It's clear from the start that Suzie has done something to cause big trouble for Indie, effectively stealing her life out from under her. Please note that this is not a spoiler - a key part of the tension is that we know this from the blurb and Indie's opening comments to the Samaritan, and are scrabbling to try to piece together how it all happened, and to see where it will go. The novel is structured perfectly to amp up the tension and propel us towards the climax and conclusion.

Indie's character is adorable and I love that she doesn't lose her openness and loving nature, despite the mess she finds herself in. Her boyfriend, Rick, is a great and realistic character too, as are her friends, especially Mel. Both Mel and Rick are suspicious of Suzie, which she is able to use against them and to help her to get closer to Indie. Suzie is an amazing character - it's hard not to admire her, even while you know she's conniving and cunning.

Overall, I would readily recommend this to anyone looking for an exciting teen read. Chris Higgins ekes out the drama beautifully, making this a delight.

From Goodreads:

'My boyfriend could get into trouble if he gets caught. He could go to jail.' I moan softly. 'So could I.' 'Anything you tell me is completely confidential.' I sigh deeply. What have I got to lose? 'I wouldn't know where to begin.' 'At the beginning?' she says. 'In your own words.' So that's what I do. I start at the beginning like she says. The day I met Suzie.

Indigo (Indie) rings the Samaritans. She is frightened and desperate with no one to turn to. Over the course of one long night, Indie tells her story to the person on the end of the phone. She realises that her friend Suzie has taken over her home, her friends, her work, her boyfriend - and her life. After every few chapters we are brought back to the present moment, and see how piecing the story together helps Indie progress towards resolution

Published March 7 by Hodder
Find more information on Goodreads
My grateful thanks to the publisher for providing me with a proof copy for review

Friday, 15 March 2013

Review: Bluefish by Pat Schmatz

Beautiful Contemporary YA: poignant yet positive 

This book has a quiet kind of greatness. Well-written and character-driven, it achieves emotional depth without being in the least cloying or over sentimental. I shed the odd tear reading it (which is unusual for me and rather awkward on the bus...), yet it is an uplifting and cheering book despite its poignancy.

We get the story through two viewpoints: Travis, who's recently moved to town, and Velveeta, who persists in talking to him despite his taciturn nature. Travis is missing his old home in the country, and especially his beloved dog, Rosco, who went missing just before they moved. Velveeta is lively where Travis is withdrawn, colourful and outgoing where he wants to blend in and stay unnoticed. Travis's viewpoint is given through third-person past-tense narration which is closely focused into his perspective, while Velveeta's first-person diary entries, all addressed to a mysterious Calvin, appear between his chapters.

The characterisation is exquisite: I don't see how anyone could read this without aching for these characters, both grieving and struggling to find their niche in their own way. Both have had inadequate family lives and both keep secrets to hide their problems. A third beautifully-drawn teen, Bradley, is also important to the key YA themes of identity and finding your niche. His interaction with Travis and Velveeta contributes to the novel's gentle humour, and allows the author to introduce other angles to these perennial teen issues, as Bradley's experiences are very different to Travis's and Velveeta's but he also has his own secrets and worries.

"Sometimes life is hard to read" is the tagline featured on the cover and there is a strong theme of reading and books. One particular English teacher, Mr McQueen, is important to the story and is another gem of a character. Unsurprisingly, I'm a sucker for a nice teacher cameo, and this is a particularly good one. Another theme that appeals to me personally is that of the outdoors: one of the reasons Travis feels like an outsider is because he's a country boy at heart, interested in nature and animals, and is struggling to manage in the town where he can't use the woods to regain peace.

This is a rich novel, with much to say about relationships and families. It is old-fashioned in all the best ways: not difficult or distant, but warm and comforting, despite delving into some difficult subjects. It would make a good class reader as there's a lot to discuss, has beautiful writing and is accessible and engaging. I'm struggling to explain why it feels old-fashioned to me; it may be partially because it isn't focused on romance, even though a boy-girl relationship is central to the novel.

Overall, I would absolutely recommend this for the full YA age range. The characters are at the young end of the YA scale, but a lot of the themes - especially the family issues Travis and Velveeta both face - give the book plenty for older readers to digest.

From the Back Cover:

First day, new school, no way out.

Travis hates being in this new town with Grandpa. He hates that they left their old home without finding their dog, Rosco. Travis doesn't see the point of trying anymore. He feels stupid, angry, alone.

Then, suddenly, there's a girl. Velveeta is as loud as Travis is quiet, as outgoing as he is shut in. She can see that Travis has a secret. And she should know, because she's got a few of her own.

Velveeta is on the case: it's time for Travis to tell the truth.

Published in January 2013 by Walker
Find more information on Goodreads
My grateful thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Top Fives: Witches

From Hansel and Gretel to The Craft, witches have long fascinated us, thrilling and repelling in equal measure. I can never resist a witchy story, so here's a nice set of three top fives of witches. Please note that these are personal lists.

Top Five TV Series/Films with Witches

  1. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Not just because Willow's development from geek to witch is awesome, but also because of that fabulous addiction metaphor when she loses herself to magic
  2. The Craft
  3. Charmed (even though it's a bit whiter-than-white with all that 'personal gain' stuff)
  4. Practical Magic
  5. Sabrina the Teenage Witch 
And now, my age is clear to all... :)

Top Five Witchy YA Books

  1. Hollow Pike by James Dawson (contemporary and creepy)
  2. The Winter Trilogy by Ruth Warburton (great quest-style adventure)
  3. The Tiffany Aching series by Terry Pratchett (brilliant intro to Discworld)  
  4. Witchstruck by Victoria Lamb (Tudor witches)
  5. Witch Hill by Marcus Sedgwick (deliciously creepy)

Top Five Witchy Children's Books/Series

  1. The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy
  2. Meg and Mog by Helen Nicoll and Jan Pienkowski
  3. The Witches by Roald Dahl (the only one of these with scary witches) 
  4. Winnie the Witch by Valerie Thomas/Laura Owen
  5. Pongwiffy by Kaye Umansky

Monday, 11 March 2013

A Reading School: Guest Post from Alan Gibbons

I'm thrilled to have Alan Gibbons on the blog today. He's touring blogs to celebrate his latest teen publication with Indigo, Raining Fire, out last week. See the bottom of this post for more info about the book. As a former teacher, and a campaigner for libraries and reading, Alan decided to share with us his views on what a reading school looks like. It sounds like a great place; I'd certainly like to be able to teach there!

A reading school is a successful school

A reading child is a successful child. You wouldn’t argue with that, would you? A 2005 Unesco report identifies reading for pleasure as the single most powerful agent of academic and social success. It should follow therefore that a reading school is a successful school. Well, it’s full of children, isn’t it?

Go into some schools and, whatever the personal feelings of the teachers, it just doesn’t feel like that. You can go into schools without libraries, schools where the children seem only to read excerpts, schools where reading is about technique, synthetic phonics, targets or where the culture of controlled assessments is the be all and end all.

Let me take you on a tour of a reading school. Walk through the door and the foyer has bright, new books on show, usually covers facing you. There are anthologies of reviews written by the staff and students laid out on the tables. There are posters of the students’ favourite authors. There are book cover designs and bookmarks made in class. The TV screen features rolling book recommendations: best film tie-in, best vampire book, best book if you like James Bond, best factual or fiction books about football. There are short films and podcasts in which members of the school community discuss the hot reads of the week. There are book trailers downloaded from You Tube.

Carry on into the heart of the school and there is the library, properly staffed, bright and airy. This is a place with a good book stock. It is a place where digital and physical reading material co-exists in a managed symbiosis. A class is browsing the stock and making their choice. Later in the week, they will have a performance poet in. They still remember the novelist who ran writing workshops last term. Some of them are taking place in the Carnegie Shadowing Group. At lunchtime the library buzzes with reading groups, Warhammer groups, casual browsing and work on computers. Every class has a time when they come in for sustained, silent reading.

Throughout the school there are mystery reader photo competitions, pictures of the students, teachers and members of the local community photographed against the backdrop of their favourite reading landscape. There are regular assemblies around the subject of reading. Students, teachers and members of the local community talk about their favourite books. The books are laid out on tables at the back of the hall for the students to borrow.

In other words, reading is not a worthy exhortation or an optional extra, a matter of didactic instruction or something we would do if we had the time. It is organic to the life of the school, something everyone is expected to do and it is something done for pleasure. Well, you wouldn’t invent a school that doesn’t read, would you? I mean, that would be stupid.

Alan Gibbons is a full time writer and organiser of the Campaign for the Book.
Raining Fire by Alan Gibbons is published by Indigo on 7 March 2013
trade paperback £8.99, eBook £4.99

The gun is power.
The gun can make a weak man strong. The gun is the coward's fist
Opening lines from Raining Fire

“The two great cities of the North West, Manchester and Liverpool, provide the background for most of my writing. This is where I have lived and worked most of my adult life. This is where my wife and I raised our family. The North West is, as Gerry Marsden sang in Ferry ‘Cross the Mersey ‘the place I love’…

As a teacher and author I have spoken to a number of youngsters for whom school and academic success held little attraction. Growing up on bleak, jobless estates, they saw sport or crime as the only pathways out of poverty and boredom. Some spoke of the buzz they got from hanging round gangs. I wanted to explore this world, neither to make judgements, nor to glamorise, but to understand.” 
Author’s Note from Raining Fire

In this tense, gripping and absorbing thriller, Alan Gibbons explores the complex issue of gun crime, and the far-reaching consequences it can have. Head over to the Indigo website for more information.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Review: Hidden Among Us by Katy Moran

Brilliantly creepy YA urban fantasy with old-school fairies 

I loved this action-packed clash between our contemporary world and the old stories of the Fair Folk (here known as The Hidden). Deliciously menacing and utterly uncanny, there is no shirking from the fae's famed cruelty and absolute lack of humanity here. Yes, they are seductive, in that people can be dangerously beguiled by them, but there is no pretence at compassion or any kind of emotion from them. This is back-to-basics fairy lore.

The story is shared between three main narrators in alternating chapters (clearly headed with names). Rafe's is the first voice we encounter, describing the disappearance of his baby sister, Lissy. Most of the novel takes place fourteen years later, by which time Rafe has matured into a fascinating character, focused on his private mission to find out more about what happened to Lissy, which isolates him from other characters. The second chapter is narrated by Miriam, Rafe and Lissy's mother, whose voice we then hear only occasionally. Her viewpoint always reveals something tantalising though!

Lissy's own fourteen-year-old voice plants us firmly in the real world, with her normal teenage worries about her overprotective mother and how to gain more freedom. The third main narrator is Joe, the son of Miriam's boyfriend. I loved Joe. His mix of feelings as his family changes shape and he finds himself mixed up in Lissy and Miriam's drama is endearing and entirely convincing.

The plot is fast moving and in many ways thriller-like and yet Katy Moran still manages to find time to create atmosphere. The novel is eerie and chilling, just like The Hidden it centres on. The setting: the house of Hopesay Reach, built on sacred ground and with a complex history, has as much presence in the story as other famous settings such as the two houses in Wuthering Heights. The mystery element of the novel was another plus point for me. The writer does a great job of weaving clues and information about The Hidden throughout the story, maintaining tension and keeping our attention on the potential danger the human characters face.

Overall, I'd urge you to read this if you like a creepy tale and enjoy folklore. I would recommend it to those who don't usually choose 'fae' books, as these are not the watered-down fae you sometimes find and are always disappointed in: there are no doubts here about the danger they represent.

From the Back Cover:

When Lissy meets a mysterious and strangely beautiful boy on her way to Hopesay Edge, she is deeply unsettled by their encounter.

She discovers that the boy, Larkspur, is a member of the Hidden, an ancient group of elven people, whose secrets lie buried at Hopesay Reach. Before long, Lissy and her brother Rafe find themselves caught by a powerful magic and fighting to escape a bargain that can never be broken.

Published 7 March by Walker
Find more information at Goodreads
My grateful thanks to the publisher for sending a proof for review

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Words on Wednesday: Why I'm a Plotter

I could never be a pantser. For me, it's plotting all the way - and here's why:

I'm a control freak
I'm not the kind of person who can head out for a walk without knowing where they're going, and it's just the same in my writing. I know pantsers often say it's boring to write when you already know where you're going, but for me, it's too risky to head off without a road map.

I like the step-by-step approach
For me, plotting first breaks the writing into two stages: coming up with ideas, and expressing them as clearly as possible. I'm aware of using different skills at the different stages - and of course, the editing that follows is different again.

I'm the anxious type
Having a plan first allows me to check the idea works as a whole before starting, saving me from excess worry.

I'm used to working this way
It's how I've written essays and non-fiction for years, so feels quite natural to me. I'm really not saying this is the way to write - I wouldn't dare suggest there is a definitive way! The key is knowing what suits you, I think. I have done 'pantsing' in the past and just feel that, for me, it wastes too much time and the uncertainty - about the project as a whole, the destination and the route - is stressful rather than exciting to me.

I tend to spend longer plotting than writing the first draft, with character notes on index cards and different degrees of plot outlines. I also like to include word count targets for different sections to keep me on track. Again, that's something that came from essay and dissertation writing. I've always tended to find it hard to write enough words, so using interim word count targets is something I started doing to help me.

Do you plan? Or are you an adrenaline-fuelled pantser?

I wrote this post in September 2011 and am republishing it now as it still holds true. I've tried a NaNoWriMo in the meantime, with a bit of a plan but far less than usual and it didn't work at all. I tried to be more spontaneous and just focus on the messy first draft, I really did, but I'm just meant to be a plotter :) Original commenters: if you're still reading, do you still feel the same?

Monday, 4 March 2013

Review: Betrayal by Gregg Olsen

Fab YA supernaturally-enhanced crime thriller  

I greatly enjoyed Envy, the first in the Empty Coffin series, and found this to be a brilliant follow up. If you haven't read the first one, you may want to check my review of that one instead. I won't have spoilers for Betrayal here, but can't guarantee to avoid them for Envy.

Again, the novel opens with a crime: this time, the brutal stabbing of an exchange student at a Halloween party. We see all the details except the killer's identity, and are then party to the investigation carried out by the Ryan twins, Hayley and Taylor, who share secret psychic/intuitive skills. The writing is detached and very cinematic in feel, as it's descriptive and moves seamlessly between scenes and different characters' perspectives. There are traces of an omniscient narrator, commenting on the personalities of the characters, but this feels interesting and relevant rather than intrusive.

I particularly appreciated the additional insights into the twins' abilities and their history. In Envy, we had learnt about the weird feelings the girls have, and the information they can get access to. We also learnt (along with them) that there were others who knew about their gifts, and this novel develops their backstory further. This information is drip-fed in a natural way through the story and provides an interesting sub-plot which I hope will be taken further with future instalments in the series.

As well as learning more about the supernatural angle, this novel also gives us more insight into the twins' characters, their relationship and other characters in the town of Port Gamble, aka Empty Coffin. I was happy to see more of the girls' friend Beth Lee, and to gain more insight into the twins' family. It's great to read a series book that feels like revisiting a set of friends, and this definitely achieves that for me.

This is still a crime thriller first and foremost and the plotting doesn't disappoint. There are plenty of red herrings and clues to pick through and it wasn't clear to me exactly what had happened and why until the big reveal. As with Envy, I also appreciated the 'true crime' info at the end (some aspects of the story came from the Amanda Knox case).

Overall, this is another hit for YA crime readers, and for those who enjoy stories with a supernatural flavour.

From the Back Cover:

It happened so fast, the way awful things almost always do. The mattress sagged under the weight of another person kneeling on the bed. The first cut wasn't the deepest. It was tentative, a slight jab.

Her manicured fingertips found her abdomen. She barely had time to process the fact that her hand was wet.

The blade of a knife flew at her, burying itself in her throat. It came with speed and fury. Only her killer knew the irony of her last words. That bloody hurts.

Published September 2012 by Splinter
Find more info at Goodreads
My grateful thanks go to the publisher for sending a review copy

Friday, 1 March 2013

Review: Waiting for Gonzo by Dave Cousins

Teen realism with humour and heart: strongly recommended for teen boys and girls

Dave Cousins has done it again! I was so impressed by his 15 Days Without a Head, in which he manages to portray life for a teen forced to take on responsibilities for his alcoholic mum in an entertaining and emotionally warm way. Here again we have a teen boy centre stage as his family 'goes through some stuff'.

Oz is a great narrator and main character. He tells us his story in the format of a letter to 'Gonzo', whose identity becomes clearer as the book progresses, using the past tense as he's looking back at a string of events and evaluating their impact on his life as he goes. This structure allows the writer to invest relatively minor events with considerable importance with the benefit of hindsight. I particularly like how Oz manages to see all the things that have happened to his family as essentially his fault: a chain of events instigated by a fairly minor act of vandalism. His sense of responsibility and ability to admit to his mistakes are endearing, and also show how much he's matured through the events described in the book: the Oz looking back and contextualising everything that's happened is much more self-aware and thoughtful than the Oz drawing a moustache in an inappropriate place at the start of the book.

It's easy to see that Oz is a good guy deep down, if a bit hapless and - at least initially - rather selfish (what teen isn't at times?). He's in a new and very unfamiliar area - a city boy transplanted to the sticks, starting at a new school where he doesn't know the social rules and norms yet and desperately wants to make friends. Music is very important to Oz as he struggles to fit in in an unfamiliar environment, and some of the songs mentioned in the story have been created especially and can be listened to at the author's website. It's a brilliant idea, and really helps to get into Oz's world.

Dave Cousin's gift is the ability to inject humour into difficult and sad situations without reducing their emotional impact or showing any sign of not taking them seriously. I think he's a particularly strong writer for boys, who may (unfortunately, in our society) find it difficult to pick up books which emphasise relationships and emotions above all. Those are the very things his writing deals with, but wrapped up in a witty and lively package which makes the emotional angles are more subtle. At the same time, his writing isn't what I would call 'laddish' - it doesn't exclude girls and the humour isn't absurdly silly or overly bodily-function-focused like you see in more cynically-targeted 'boys books'. His characters are, above all, entirely believable and relatable, and that's the key to the warmth of his writing, I think.

Overall (as I think is fairly obvious!) I'd recommend this book very highly to 12 year olds and above. I'll certainly be recommending it in schools.

From the back cover:

Stranded in Nowheresville?
 - check

Stalked by Isobel, the school psycho?
 - check

Befriended by a kid who dresses up as a hobbit in his spare time?
 - check

Oz likes a laugh. It's not his fault some people have no sense of humour. But when a joke backfires, it triggers a chain of events that messes things up BIG TIME.

Publishing 7 March by Oxford University Press
Find more information at Goodreads
My grateful thanks to the publisher for sending me a proof copy for review
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