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

Monday, 29 April 2013

Review: The Night Rainbow by Claire King

Charming literary debut with themes of loss, grief and the resilience of children 

Pea, Claire King's five-year-old narrator is our window into her quiet and, at times, sad little world.

During a hot summer in the south of France, Pea's mother is struggling to drag herself through the days, just months after losing her husband in an accident. Worse, all this follows a miscarriage that she doesn't seem to have recovered from. Heavily pregnant and isolated due to being English and locked in her grief, Pea and her little sister Margot are often left to themselves. In the course of the novel, they meet and befriend a man called Claude, but some of their neighbours seem not to approve of his interest in the girls.

The power of this novel lies in the voice. Beautifully rendered, Pea's account of her summer and her mother's depression are often all the more poignant for the lack of understanding Pea demonstrates. I found this to be an atmospheric and emotional (but never sentimental) read, which I greatly enjoyed. There are some real heart-in-the-mouth moments and at times real danger seems to be stalking the girls, while poor Maman just fails to cope. It is a real testament to the strength of the writing that our sympathies are stretched between Maman and the girls without ever feeling impatient or less than kindly towards Maman.

Overall I would definitely recommend this, and will be looking out for more from Claire King.

From Goodreads:

The Night Rainbow is the story of a little girl named Pea, the world she creates to win back her mother's love, and the stranger she trusts to save them both. 

It is summer in the south of France, and Pea and her little sister Margot spend their days running free and inventing games in the meadow behind their house. But Pea is burdened with worries beyond her five and a half years. Her father has died in an accident, and her mother has just lost a baby. Maman is English, isolated in this small, foreign village, and in her sadness has retreated even further. Pea tries her best to help, makes Margot behave, brings home yellow flowers, but she can't make Maman happy again. When Pea meets Claude, a man with a dog who seems to love the meadow as she does, she believes that she and Margot have found a friend, and maybe even a new Papa. But why do the villagers view Claude with suspicion and what secret is he keeping in his strange, empty house? 

Beautifully written, haunting and full of surprises, The Night Rainbow is a novel about innocence and experience, grief and compassion, and the blessings and perils of imagination and truth.

***********
Published 9 April by Bloomsbury
Find more info and reviews at Goodreads

Friday, 26 April 2013

Review: Emilie and the Hollow World by Martha Wells

Great fun steampunk adventure for the younger YA bracket

Mysterious contraptions, rival scientists and fascinating new lands make this steampunk romp a great fun read. I enjoyed this particularly for the characters and world building.

Emilie makes a great main character for this age bracket. At the start of the novel, she's running away from home, so she is showing initiative and drive, but as we're seeing her out of her comfort zone, she quickly comes up against challenges that really test her. I've seen some reviews on Goodreads criticising her passivity, and yes, there are some situations in which she lacks a little oomph or allows herself to be lead, but I found that entirely believable for her age (16) and for how far from her ordinary world she finds herself. I feel that these touches of realistic characterisation make for an effective novel, and allow us to easily and readily sympathise with Emilie as an 'everygirl' type character.

The world building is deftly managed, with some really nice touches of description. The different races that Martha Wells has created struck me as unique and intriguing, and seeing everything from Emilie's perspective (although in third person narration), as a curious and relatively naive outsider, brings a freshness and gentleness.

As a steampunk novel (albeit with magical aether-powered devices rather than actual steam), there is a lot of broadly Victorian (or perhaps Victorian-inspired is more accurate) detail in clothing, technology and attitudes. There is a clear feminist slant (note: this is a Good Thing), with Emilie finding an excellent role model in lady adventurer Lady Marlende.

Overall, I really enjoyed this and would definitely recommend it.

From the Back Cover:

While running away from home for reasons that are eminently defensible, Emilie’s plans to stow away on the steamship Merry Bell and reach her cousin in the big city go awry, landing her on the wrong ship and at the beginning of a fantastic adventure.

Taken under the protection of Lady Marlende, Emilie learns that the crew hopes to use the aether currents and an experimental engine, and with the assistance of Lord Engal, journey to the interior of the planet in search of Marlende’s missing father.

With the ship damaged on arrival, they attempt to traverse the strange lands on their quest. But when evidence points to sabotage and they encounter the treacherous Lord Ivers, along with the strange race of the sea-lands, Emilie has to make some challenging decisions and take daring action if they are ever to reach the surface world again.

**********************
Published April 2nd by Strange Chemistry
Find more information at Goodreads
My grateful thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy via Netgalley

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Procrastination

"Never leave your homework til the last minute." I don't know how many times in the last ten years I've given that particular piece of sage advice, but apparently not enough for it to sink into my own head. Or maybe that's unfair. It's not that I don't start things until the deadline, it's just that - what? I've landed myself with too many things to do? I set myself unreasonable and unrealistic targets? I'm inherently lazy and want to watch tv and not work in the evenings or at weekends?

Procrastination is a curse. We (that's we teachers, we writers, or we busy people, by the way) know this only too well. And yet.

According to Flylady (life coach par excellence for those struggling with domestic pressures, whether as full time employment or in combination with paid work), procrastination is a form of perfectionism. It's a crippling kind of perfectionism that whispers "you'll never do it well enough, so why bother?" I definitely see a grain of truth in this, and recognise the fear that paralyses and prevents any kind of progress.

I'm kind of regretting starting this blog post now, because I don't have an answer. What I do have is a terrifying to-do list and the certain knowledge that I'm not good enough.

How do you get past that rabbit-in-the-headlights stage of looking at your workload?

Monday, 22 April 2013

Review: The Retribution by Val McDermid

New Tony Hill/Carol Jordan novel - excruciatingly tense as ever! 


If you haven't read any of the Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series before, and you're a crime fan, I'd strongly recommend that you do - and also that you don't go on reading this review, as this is book seven in the series. I won't be spoiling this book here, but I can't promise to be spoiler-free for earlier novels.

I've always enjoyed the complexity of the relationships in these novels, and this instalment goes further than ever before in making life impossible for Tony and Carol. There are two major plotlines here: Jacko Vance, villain of The Wire in the Blood, escapes from prison and is hellbent on revenge, and an unknown killer is murdering prostitutes and tattooing them "mine". As always with McDermid's writing, this is not a book for the faint hearted; she does not shy away from the gruesome and the grisly, even when this means tormenting much-loved characters. But of course, it's not just Carol and Tony: Carol's Major Incident Team are under new pressure as they are being disbanded, they want to solve the prostitute killer case to prove themselves and, as the team who put him away, they are all in danger from Vance as well.

As ever, we see the story from various angles, and are often privy to what a killer will do next. There is an incredible amount of tension in this novel, which is heightened by this additional information. This is a skilful piece of writing which controls reader expectation perfectly, managing pace and tension to an exquisite degree.

Overall, this is an essential part of the Tony Hill/Carol Jordan story and I would urge lovers of earlier instalments to read it.

From the Book Description:

There is one serial killer who has shaped and defined police profiler Tony Hill's life. One serial killer whose evil surpasses all others. One serial killer who has the power to chill him to the bone: Jacko Vance.

And now Jacko is back in Tony's life. Even more twisted and cunning than ever before, he is focused on wreaking revenge on Tony - and DCI Carol Jordan - for the years he has spent in prison.

Tony doesn't know when Jacko will strike, or where. All he knows is that Jacko will cause him to feel fear like he has never known before - and devastate his life in ways he cannot imagine...

***********
Published Feb 2012 by Sphere
Find it at Goodreads

Friday, 19 April 2013

Review: Hysteria by Megan Miranda

Fabulously tense YA thriller: a compelling tale of extreme emotions. 


I really enjoyed this suspenseful read, whipping through the pages to find out what was happening, only to find more uncertainties and twists as the book went on (but don't worry, all is resolved and clear by the end).

Mallory goes away to a fancy prep school to get away from her home town, where everyone knows she stabbed her boyfriend and - although she is not in trouble legally - she is plagued by threats and gossip. What her parents don't know is that she is literally haunted by that night's events, hearing noises and feeling a presence every night as she tries to sleep, and of course, you can't dodge ghosts as easily as you can real people. The stakes are raised when there is a death at her new school and, naturally, everyone has by then found out enough of Mallory's secret for her name to be the subject of gossip once more.

The narration is first person and past tense, giving us a very close-up view of Mallory under extreme stress and barely sleeping. It's great to see an unreliable narrator being used to great effect in a YA novel, and Mallory's inability to be certain about the truth of events is an effective way to add to the novel's tension. Information about 'that night' is drip fed as Mallory's memories return through her creepy nightly reliving of events, in which she gets closer and closer to the actual stabbing each time. The haunting element is genuinely scary. It isn't long before Mallory's physical sensations of being grabbed are resulting in bruises and we're left wondering whether her lack of sleep has supernatural, psychological or physical causes: is she haunted by a particularly dangerous ghost that can hurt her? is she losing her mind? is someone living doing this to her for some kind of revenge or punishment? The mystery element is delivered perfectly and I changed my mind several times about what I thought was 'really' happening: just as it should be.

Overall, I would definitely recommend this for YA readers looking for a thriller that keeps you guessing to the end.


From the blurb:

Mallory's life is falling apart.

Her boyfriend was stabbed. He bled to death in her kitchen. Mallory was the one who stabbed him. But she can't remember what happened that night. She only remembers the fear...

When Mallory's parents send her away to a boarding school, she thinks she can escape the gossip and the threats. But someone, or something, has followed her. There's the hand that touches her shoulder when she's drifting off to sleep. A voice whispering her name. And everyone knows what happened. So when a pupil is found dead, Mallory's name is on their lips.

Her past can be forgotten but it's never gone. Can Mallory live with that?

***************
Published 14 February by Bloomsbury Children's
Find out more at Goodreads
My grateful thanks to the publisher for providing me with a review copy

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

The reasons I know it's now Spring...

We are feeding goldfinches regularly at the moment, and we saw a swallow flying over the garden today, so it's official - Spring is finally here!

I haven't exactly been appreciating the long winter, so I'm certainly pleased to feel a change in the air. I feel like it's given my energy levels a little bit of a boost too (although that could just be recovery following a particularly nasty chest infection last week...).

What says 'It's Spring' to you?

Monday, 15 April 2013

Spring into Summer: A Few of the Books I'm Looking Forward To

There are so many brilliant books out all the time! Here is a small selection of books I'm personally looking forward to - one a month for the next six months.

April (25th): Acid, Emma Pass (Random House)


How kick-ass is that cover? And it sounds like a blistering dystopian. I've had my eye on this debut UKYA for quite a while.

May (23rd ): Boy Nobody, Allen Zadoff (Hodder)


Teen assassin, anyone? With a deliciously mysterious cover and an intriguing set up, this is going to be big. You can check out the first chapter here.

June (6th): Siege and Storm, Leigh Bardugo (Indigo)


I loved the first in this YA high fantasy series, The Gathering Dark (now renamed Shadow and Bone, to match the US release), and I can't wait to see what happens in the Shadowfold next. Note, this is the US cover, as the UK one doesn't seem to be around yet (or it's the same...)

July (4th): Witchfall, Victoria Lamb (Random House)


Again, this is a sequel to a book I already read and loved - Witchstruck, the first in the UKYA Tudor Witch Trilogy. Another gorgeous cover, too.

August (15th): Crown of Midnight, Sarah J Maas (Bloomsbury)


Throne of Glass was one of my big YA high fantasy reads last year, and this is book two in the series. Doesn't it look stunning?

September (17th): Fortunately The Milk, Neil Gaiman (Bloomsbury)


I always love a bit of Gaiman madness, and this - with dinosaurs, time travel and a groceries mission - sounds wonderfully mad.

Looks like we've got an exciting few months ahead!

Friday, 12 April 2013

Review: Flying High by Sara Grant

Second in the cute new witchy series for young readers 


I am loving this new series and will absolutely be looking out for more instalments in Trix's magical adventures. The first title, The Witching Hour, introduced us to Trix just at the point where she discovered her magical potential (my review here). In this story, Trix is going to start flying lessons. How exciting is that? It's hard to imagine a young reader not wishing they could also learn to fly on their very own besom.

My 9 year old, in fact, was so inspired that she wrote her own incantation for flying, just like the trainee witches have do in the book. See how inspiring these sweet little books are:
Drift up,
Drift up,
Wait for me there.
As soon as we're ready
We'll fly through the air!
Isn't that cute?

Again, as in the first book, there are strong core values of being a good friend and acting selflessly - clearly essential for fairy godmothers, but pretty sound advice for anyone. This series is shaping up to be a lot of fun, with a valuable and gentle message at its heart.

I would definitely have loved these as a child, and I'm sure they'll be gaining many young fans. I strongly recommend them for young readers, and they would also make good bedtime reading for those not yet reading independently.

From the back cover

There's a big surprise in store for witch-in-training, Trix Morgan, but first she must learn to fly ehr very own broomstick - with a little help from her magic kitten, Jinx.

There are lots of thrills and spills - will Trix ever get the hang of flying? And can she help Pippa overcome mean-girl Stella's nasty tricks?

*********************
Published 7 March by Orion Children's Books

Find more information on the series homepage
My grateful thanks to the publishers for providing us with a review copy

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

April's A - Z Challenge


A couple of years ago, I completed the A-Z in April blogging challenge. You blog for 6 days a week (Sundays off!), draw your theme from a different letter a day, and work through the alphabet. I had a great time and met quite a lot of great bloggers doing it, many of whose blogs I still read. I haven't become someone who does it every year though, and at the moment I'm quite glad not to have that pressure of daily blogging. You also really have to commit to visiting others' blogs which is, of course, a pleasure and often a delight, but does take up time.

Some of the blogs that I read regularly are doing it though. Perhaps you'd like to go and visit them and give them a cheer?

Nettie at @nettiewriting is doing a fascinating A-Z of Glasgow and all things Weegie. It's building up into a brilliant series of vignettes of Glasgow over the years.

Writer DJ Kirkby's A-Z has so far included short fiction and information drawn from her writing and her day job as a midwife trainer.

Maria at First Draft Cafe is a writer taking writing as her A-Z theme. She's been sharing tips and advice, and the occasional nugget from her WIP.

Rosalind Adam is Writing in the Rain features a unique A-Z. She's doing a song title and lyrics from each of four decades: the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. It's such fun!

For more A-Z blogs (there's a massive list of all those signed up), visit the challenge's online home.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Review: The Witching Hour by Sara Grant

Great witchy fun for young and middle grade readers!

This is the first in the charming new 'Magic Trix' series aimed at the younger reader (shelved as 5-8, I believe). The main character, Trix, discovers on her tenth birthday that she is, in fact, a witch and can aspire to one day being a fairy godmother.

There are, of course, difficulties. This is a secret identity thing, so she can't share her newfound powers with friends and family, and some of the other new witches are not entirely nice. There are strong values of being unselfish running through the story - fitting with the ultimate 'fairy godmother' goal, and plenty of gentle danger and humorous magical mishaps to entertain a young (and not so young!) reader.

Something that I particularly appreciated was that, although it's clearly starting off a series, there was no sense of the story being incomplete or being left on a massive cliffhanger, which has made me annoyed with some  series for this age. It is a discrete story, with characters that you'll want to revisit. Just how a series should be!

I really enjoyed this sweet little book - and the second in the series, Flying High, which I'll be reviewing on Friday. My 9 yr old was very keen to read them too, and she absolutely loved them. She read them during the Easter holidays from school and they inspired no end of witch-related play. I can definitely say that this series captures a kid's imagination!

My daughter's verdict:
I find them very exciting and I particularly like the twist in the second one. I like that it's also a bit about friendship too. I thoroughly enjoyed them both! 
So there you have it! I'd say this is a lovely example of series fiction for this age group, and would absolutely recommend them.

From the publisher's website:

Magical mayhem as little witch, Trix, begins her journey towards becoming a real 'fairy' godmother!

Trix wasn't expecting to develop magical powers when she turned ten, but it was definitely her best, if most surprising, birthday present! Now she's taking witching lessons and has an invisible kitten of her very own - but how can she keep it all a secret from her best friend, Holly?

****************
Published 7 March by Orion Children's
Find more information on the series homepage
My grateful thanks to the publishers for providing us with a review copy
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