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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, 28 June 2013

Time for a little break. But first: See the Dogs Run

No, I've not come over all Peter and Jane. I have, in fact, got this marvellous gif to show you of our dogs running. I recently changed phone and, helpfully, Google+ automatically uploads any photos I take. Naturally, as it's a New Phone, I have been messing around with the settings and tested the 'burst shot' mode on the dogs running.

Back at home on the laptop after a walk, Google+ emailed to say my photos were available and, naturally, I checked them out (y'know - bigger screen to see them on and everything). Imagine my excitement when I saw that G+ had spotted the burst shots and animated them into gifs for me! So, to offset my guilt about not having a proper post for you today (and about needing to take a bit of a break), I thought I'd share this awesomeness with you :)

In case anyone's wondering why the lurcher suddenly appears part way through, this represents two separate burst shots (they were running laps). I don't know how to separate them :)

Anyway, hopefully this will make someone smile. As mentioned above, I'm going to be taking a little blogging break - all part of the looking after myself and getting my priorities right thing - and I'll be back on the 15th July with more reviews and other stuff. It'll be a bit of a relaunch with some changes. Nothing drastic, and (hopefully!) all for the better. See you then! I'll just leave you with some more doggish loveliness...
Jessie, the Patterdale(ish) terrier loves water
This is Hunter's preferred daytime position. What I'd give for that flexibility!

Monday, 24 June 2013

Review: About Zooming Time, Opal Moonbaby by Maudie Smith

Another fantastic outing for the zany alien!

Opal Moonbaby remains delightfully wacky in this brilliant sequel. I greatly enjoyed this and know that all existing Opal fans will just lap it up.

If you haven't already read the first book, I'd suggest you do that rather than reading this review, which may contain spoilers for the first book :) My review of book 1 is here. You might also enjoy this fab and non-spoilery guest post from Maudie Smith about Opal going to school. 

Martha and Robbie are again at the centre of the story, with Opal zooming in to upend their world. This time, Opal must fit in as an earth girl, including going to school - and there is also the threat of other aliens, Mercurials, on the horizon. As in the first book, Opal is hilarious in her misunderstandings and enormous enthusiasm for everything earthly, while Martha at times despairs at her lack of awareness of how much she stands out.

As with the first novel, this is genuinely funny (without resorting to poo/pants jokes) and sweet at the same time. Opal's determination to fit in and her blithe lack of understanding - while being absolutely convinced she's doing everything right - make for a hilariously entertaining story. I would have liked to see more of Garnet, Opal's Mingle (I'm sure all readers must have fallen in love with him in the first book), but he is here and still just as wonderful.

There is a lovely story about friendship in here, as Opal and Martha cope with more people being introduced into Opal's circle and Robbie has his own subplot on a friendship theme. The book also includes an exciting build up to a climax with the potential threats to Opal's safety and the success of her mission.

Overall, a highly recommended 9-12 read for boys and girls.

From the book description:

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?

Published 7 Feb 2013 by Orion Children's Books
More info on the publisher's website
My grateful thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy

Friday, 21 June 2013

Review: The Night She Disappeared by April Henry

Gripping YA Crime Thriller - Recommended!

This novel absolutely had me from the first page to the very end. If sharply written and keenly observed YA thrillers appeal to you at all, you should read this. Presented using a range of different viewpoints and even different text types, this novel keeps you guessing right to the last sentence.

I really enjoyed the writing style. Featuring chapters in different voices (helpfully headed with the character name to avoid confusion) and occasional different texts interspersed between chapters - newspaper clips, police transcripts, notes and even a fortune cookie fortune - the novel circles around the fact of Kayla's abduction, tantalising and teasing us.

The book tells the story of the effects of a teenage girl's abduction on her colleagues and friends from Pete's Pizza. After she fails to return from a delivery, her colleague Drew reports her missing and the hunt begins.
Drew is a great character and I enjoyed seeing his development through the novel. He was the one who took the abductor's order - naturally assuming it was a normal order - and is wracked with guilt trying to remember useful details to help the police. At the same time, his colleague Gabie is also tortured by the knowledge that the abductor asked for her - the girl in the Mini - on a night she'd switched shifts with Kayla.

The multiple narration is a clear strength of the book, allowing us to see the effects of the crime on a range of characters, and to be constantly shifted around. Reading this novel is a bit like peering into the story through different doors and windows, catching various angles of the action. Drew and Gabie's voices are the dominant ones, but we do also get chapters from the abductor's viewpoint and from Kayla's as well as the other texts, providing plenty of variety in terms of voice.

All in all, I'd say that this is a very successful thriller and would absolutely recommend it. My resident teen has made off with my copy pretty sharpish - usually a good sign.

From the back cover

Gabie delivers pizzas part-time.

She also drives a Mini Cooper.

One night, Kayla, another delivery girl at Pete's Pizza, goes out with an order and never comes back. Gabie learns that the man who called in the fake pizza order had asked for the girl in the Mini Cooper.

Was Kayla's fate really meant for Gabie?

Published in April 2013 by Walker Books
For more info, visit the publisher's site
My grateful thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy

Monday, 17 June 2013

Review: Any Other Name by Emma Newman

Second brilliant instalment in the Split Worlds series 

Having loved the first title in this series, I was keen to read the second - and I was not disappointed! If English urban fantasy featuring Fae lore is your thing, I would urge you to pick up this series. Emma Newman definitely knows what she is doing. I was captivated from start to finish and I am growing to love her cast of bizarre and mismatched characters. This novel follows on directly from the first, so if you haven't read Between Two Thorns, I'd suggest you head over to my review of that title rather than reading on: I cannot guarantee to keep this spoiler-free for book one.

The central characters from the first book all feature strongly again here. I was happy to see Sam, Cathy, William, Max and the Gargoyle above all. I love Sam's dogged persistence, even though he's very much out of his depth and kept in the dark. I'm also pleased by the structural symmetry that both books so far open with Sam and intrusions into his world care of the Fae. Cathy's struggles to balance her Nether upbringing and her feminist education care of her governess continue in this novel, even as the odds continue stacking against her - how could anyone do other than love her spirit? William's character grows and develops (or is revealed more) in this second instalment and I found myself alternately admiring and being suspicious of him, while Max and the Gargoyle keep stealing the scenes they appear in. That's easily one of the best things about reading a series - characters come to be like old friends that you welcome back into your life over and over, and these are great characters. I can't wait to see what they'll do next, and thankfully we're not having to wait a year between books - the third in the series is due in October.

I don't want to say too much about plot, except that: it all works perfectly; I didn't predict the twists; and this novels develops and runs away with the themes and ideas from the first book. The narrative style is again third person, with scenes following different sets of characters in turn. This style ensures that we view story events from different angles, which often increases the tension and makes it a pacey read. It was definitely an edge-of-the-seat experience at times and for the entire last quarter or so. I'm also pleased to report that once again, the book has a clear ending, even though it is a series and sets us up for more action to follow. I hate unnecessary cliffhangers!

In short, this is pretty much a perfect series - great characters, fabulous settings, complex plots, resolved threads within each book with plenty to arc across titles as well. I wholeheartedly recommend it!

The blurb says:

Cat has been forced into an arranged marriage with William - a situation that comes with far more strings than even she could have anticipated, especially when she learns of his family's intentions for them both.

Meanwhile, Max and the gargoyle investigate The Agency - a mysterious organisation that appears to play by its own rules - and none of them favourable to Society.

Over in Mundanus, Sam has discovered something very peculiar about his wife's employer - something that could herald a change for everyone in both sides of the Split Worlds.

Published 6 June by Angry Robot
For more info, visit the author's website
My grateful thanks go to the publisher for allowing me a review copy via Netgalley :)

Friday, 14 June 2013

Interview with Michelle Lovric, author of The Fate in the Box

Today I'm really excited to welcome Michelle Lovric to the Hearthfire to tell us about her love of Italy (and Venice in particular) and her latest book, The Fate in the Box which I recently read and loved.

Firstly, how did you come to be interested in all things Italian? My introduction to Italy was somewhat coincidental: my A-Level French teacher was an Italian (Lorenzo Chiarotti), who offered Italian GCSE in a year as an optional extra to those of us in his French class. I probably wouldn't have become aware of the language and culture in the same way if it hadn't been for him. Funny how life can be a series of fortunate coincidences!

How lucky that an Italian teacher came into your life at such a formative age. But you must have had some inclination in that direction to have chosen to do his optional extra? Or was he just as incredibly dashing as ‘Lorenzo Chiarotti’ sounds?

I loved languages and was good at them. I'd have opted for any language that was offered, I think!

My background is Serbian Irish Australian. I was never given a chance to study Italian at school, though I loved Latin. I was like Byron in that Italy, and particularly Venice, was ‘the greenest island in my imagination’ even before seeing the place. (In no other way am I like Byron, however. In fact, I intensely dislike his poetry, though his letters are fun – if you like cruelty and exaggeration). When I was able to travel, Venice was the first place I went, and I immediately signed an invisible contract for life.

I learned Italian ‘per la strada’, as they say. I did start to have private lessons with Ornella Tarantola from the Italian Bookshop in London, but after six weeks I had enough vocabulary to chat about life, Venice, men, clothes and food. The lessons promptly stopped and we became close friends instead. We still are. I began to read in Italian, and to speak it regularly. I learned a great deal more Italian dealing with plumbers, librarians and books in the Marciana library. Then I had to give a couple of lectures in Italian when I was trying to save the column of infamy of Bajamonte Tiepolo, the villain of my first two children’s novels, from the dusty room in the Palazzo Ducale where it still lies … sadly. And when The Undrowned Child was published in Italian, I had to present it to a conference of booksellers. I’m still learning all the time, and speaking it every day.

I really enjoyed reading The Fate in the Box (as did my eldest daughter - 14 - who fancied it after seeing me with it!). One of the things I found most intriguing was all the automata. I love the idea that automating everything made people lazy and unable to do things for themselves any more - a great form of social control! But I really wanted to ask where that initial spark of an idea came from. Were you consciously thinking of a way to mirror our computerised world without using computers as such? Was it a steampunky thing?

I am so glad you enjoyed The Fate and thank you for the lovely review.

I’m a little unsure about Steampunk, and had to get my god-daughter to explain it to me, at least in fashion terms. As far as I understand it, I am proto-Steampunking in the book.

So it was not a race to join a genre that inspired The Fate. I was thinking about how little we use our bodies these days, except in order to beautify and display them, and about how idleness has become prized as something in which the spoilt and rich can indulge. Some people pamper themselves in passive ways – massages, facials, spas. Most of all, the rich have the luxury of time, as well as financial wealth.

But all that idleness always costs someone ... whether it is a child working in a dangerous factory in Pakistan to create a designer spa dressing gown or a subsistence farmer in Morocco grinding Argan nuts for oil. And somehow all the pleasure seems to accumulate at the top of the pyramid, with very little down below, where the work is done.

I wanted to remind young readers that luxury always costs more than money and frequently costs human misery. So I personified that issue in my child characters: Amneris, Tockle and Biri are respectively poor, very poor and starving. Meanwhile Latenia and her brother Maffeo are rich. Yet all their privileges and treats only partially hide the fact that their father does not care about them except as pawns in his ambitious games. Meanwhile Latenia and Maffeo are indulged with revolving cake stands and mechanical toys.

The automata of The Fate in the Box are meant to be both a little menacing and a little ridiculous. The need to wind them up creates a slave race of Winder Uppers. And my young characters soon realize that they must liberate the slaves in order to make Venice a decent place again.

I've read and enjoyed others of your books (must read your adult novels!) and always appreciate the historical notes you include in the children's books. I think they add a lot to our enjoyment of the book, and it's natural to be curious about the reality behind the story after reading. But which comes first for you: the history you want to include, or the plot? 

I am so glad you like the historical notes. I do them in all my novels and I’ve only ever had one person sneer about it in a review; mostly people are happy and interested. I know that schools make use of them too.

History is a starting point for me, but more of a springboard than anything as I write historical fantasy. I usually find an idea that intrigues me, and it always comes from real history. Just now, for example, I have discovered that there several eminent and talented parrots living on the Grand Canal in the late nineteenth century, and I do see the beginnings of a possible story in that. The children’s book I am currently writing was partly inspired by the Treasures of Heaven exhibition of saintly relics at the British Museum a few years ago.

But an idea is not enough. Then I have to hear a voice in my head. A little personality starts reaching into the historical setting, burrowing around and finding a place for itself. Then it finds a problem – for without problems there would be no drama and without drama, nothing more than pageantry. And that personality that acquires accoutrements that mean it belongs to the only person who can possibly disentangle the knotted network of catastrophe I have carefully constructed to entrap all the characters.

Place is also hugely important in my writing. Venice is always a character in my books. Venice is special for me. Well, she’s special for everyone, but my whole writing life is invested in her. I always write about her, and my entire lifetime will be too short to explore all the stories she offers me. And of course I have spent many years restoring a gothic building there, so I am invested in all sorts of other ways too.  I’ve always had a thing about living in a house with a name rather than a number, and Venice offers lots of joy in that department too. My forthcoming adult novel is set in a palazzo that rejoices in the name Ca’ Coccina Tiepolo Papadopoli. When I went there to write it, it was the week before the builders moved in. Two years later, it has now been restored as a luxury hotel, with my character’s bedroom heavily featured on the website, which feels odd.

Rather horribly, I tend to judge people by their sensitivity to Venice. There are people who truly are Venice-blind, who don’t see anything special in the place, who say that she isn’t very different to Manchester. Or they complain that the Venetians are not very friendly, or that their city has a strange smell. If you were part of a population of 59000 and shrinking, and you were invaded by 22 million tourists annually, some of them bellowing at you in their language – might you not be a little withdrawn? And of course Venice smells. She is an urban seaside, an antique port. She smells of the past, of salt, of seaweed, of crabs, of wet stone. She smells delicious!

As my blog readers may know, I write educational textbooks and teaching resources as well as working on some fiction projects. So for me, it's quite obvious how my career as a teacher has led me into writing (or at least publishing - writing's always there). What about you? How do the various pieces of your career(s) slot together? I know you worked in publishing before (I loved your blog post on window displays for your books), but what led you to pool all your interests and specialisms into writing?

Yes, I know several teachers who have found their way into writing and publishing. The urge to share information is common to writers and teachers, and when one speaks of children, then there must also be the urge infuse joy and fun into that process.

It is only in the last three years that I have learned that I like teaching! At least I love teaching one-to-one. I have been teaching writing skills to art history students at the Courtauld, as one of the Royal Literary Fund Fellows. Until then, I had no idea that I would enjoy it so much.

From childhood, I was always in a hurry to write, edit, arrange and generally deal with the written word. I wrote and illustrated my first picture book at twelve.

I first trained as a journalist. Then I worked in publishing. I have done just about everything in publishing except sell an actual book: editorial, design, production, foreign rights. Finally, I became a packager, which means coming up with ideas for books, selling them to publishers and then researching, writing, designing and producing them. But all along I wanted to write fiction. I wrote poetry, and made endless notes for the novel I would one day find the time to write. My packaging business was a seven day a week commitment, with many late nights too, so the novel never seemed about to happen. But finally one of my packaged books became a New York Times bestseller. I was in New York, doing publicity for Love Letters an Anthology of Passion, when my publisher dropped the newspaper in my lap. As soon as I saw my listing, I knew my life could change, and I decided that it would change in the way in which I wanted … so I took two months off work and wrote my first novel, Carnevale. I’m now writing my tenth novel, another one for children …

Thank you so much for your time in answering my questions.

Thank you so much for asking me! 

Monday, 10 June 2013

Review: Tiger Wars by Steve Backshall

Gripping adventure with bonus learning for 9+ 

I would have loved this as a child! (I loved it as an adult reader, in fact). Packed with thrilling adventure and danger, cleverly underscored with lots of information on wildlife, geography and culture.

The story here revolves around two young main characters: Saker, a boy on the run from a mysterious group known as The Clan, and Sinter, an Indian girl fleeing from an arranged marriage to an older man. Their paths collide and they find themselves as quite unlikely partners working together to save the tigers that Saker was supposed to capture.

The real skill is this book is in its efficient combination of excitement and information. I learnt loads from reading this book - always a gift - and at no point did I feel that the story had stalled to share information with the reader. I was also impressed at the breadth of that knowledge and information - not just on wildlife and conservation (although there is of course plenty of that), but also the kind of geographical and cultural knowledge that only comes from extensive travel with an open attitude.

It promises to be a very boy-friendly series, but that's absolutely not to say that girls won't love them too. I know plenty of 8-10 yr old girls who are big Deadly 60 fans, and Sinter sharing the lead role with Saker will definitely increase the appeal to girls as well. The plot may be a little far-fetched, but good stories (especially for children, who can have so few adventures these days) often are and its rootedness in reality certainly helps to counteract this, as do its well-drawn and emotionally realistic characters.

Overall, I am definitely recommending this, and watch out for the second title in the series - Ghosts of the Forests (on Orang Utans! Yay!) - out next month.

From the Back Cover:

Deadly Adversaries. An Impossible Mission. Tiger Wars.

Saker is on the run from the only life he knows. From India to the Himalayas and China he'll be pursued by hunting dogs, mercenaries, spies, thieves and assassins in his quest to set free the most majestic, lethal and valuable of all the predators - the tiger.

"Saker's story comes from my imagination, but is set in the very real wild world I know from my expeditions. I've tried to fill Tiger Wards with intrigue, danger, adventure, exotic wildlife and dramatic locations. I hope I've made these things come to life, and that you enjoy reading the book as much as I've enjoyed writing it."

Paperback version published May 9 2013 by Orion Children's Books
For more information and more Steve Backshall's books see the publisher's website
My grateful thanks to the publisher for providing me with a review copy

Friday, 7 June 2013

Revisited Family Friday: Kindles and Kids

This post was originally published in November 2011, and I am pleased to say that it still holds true.

When I got a Kindle in the summer, our youngest was intrigued and shortly began announcing that a Kindle was what she wanted for her 8th birthday at the end of September. We were uncertain whether she would really use it and not miss paper books, but we let her test it out (by putting a copy of The Wombles on for her to read) and she remained firm in her plans. We both have the wi-fi only keyboard version which is no longer available (the new one came out just after her birthday).

I have to say that nearly two months on, it was definitely a good idea: she's used it every day. She asked for Amazon vouchers and cash from other people and put loads of Horrid Henry (Horrid Henry and the Zombie Vampire is a current favourite), Roald Dahl and various other things on there, which she's been working her way through. Since I attached her kindle to my account (and she keeps the wi-fi turned off), we can share books when I have suitable things for her (e.g. I put Lob and The Wombles on it for her straight away). We have even, on occasion, read together with her reading aloud to me and me following on my own screen - how cool are we? :-)

She has returned to some of her print books since getting the Kindle, but she is still reading on it, mostly in bed. It's also brilliant for bringing with us if we're going to be waiting anywhere, and for overnight visits she can have a choice of books. Our current shared bedtime Kindle read is Julia Donaldson's The Giants and the Joneses, which is very exciting, and she's looking forward to Francesca Simon's The Sleeping Army next. She's very excited about that one as the main character is named Freya like her, and she's hoping to learn about Norse myths, as she's always known that's where her name comes from but there aren't many younger kids books using them. [ETA: she LOVED The Sleeping Army, as did I - a great read!]

So, on the whole, I would recommend considering Kindles for younger kids. Obviously, we were concerned that it would just be a novelty thing, but it's a definite habit now and it's surprising how many books for this age group are being released on the Kindle. I don't have a worry (currently) about her merrily purchasing books on my account, so her device being linked to my account as well as mine is working for us, and I understand that it is pretty easy to change that later if need be. Also, of course I'm enjoying being able to read her books as well as my own - and if I choose to read Horrid Henry on the train, no-one will know!

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

No longer lurching from crisis to crisis: a commitment

Warning: this is a really personal post, which may be helpful to some with similar difficulties, but if you want to back away now and come back for bookishness on Friday, no hard feelings :)

OK, here's the thing: I've been pretty busy lately and have put lots of things on hold 'until I've done x' or 'until things calm down'. I've only just realised that I've been doing this now for at least a year (yeah, I know - and probably a year's a rather conservative estimate, if I'm honest). This behaviour is not good for my mental
health - depression and anxiety are generally not helped by lurching along from crisis state to crisis state.

So, here, for your benefit - although I'm sure you're more clued up than I am - are my liberating realisations:

  • I've been consistently busy, although with different and varied projects, for a long time now: I should see busy as normal
  • If busy is going to be my normal state, I need to see this as my actual life, not preparation (sorry for the dramatic, but I bet some of you know what I mean!)
  • Staring at a screen for ten hours is far less productive than doing, say, six or seven hours of screen time spread across the day
  • How could I have been neglecting this?
  • Not only can I therefore 'afford' the time to go on the dog walk with my husband, but I positively benefit from doing so (duh!)

Monday, 3 June 2013

Review: Tempest Reborn by Nicole Peeler

Stunning wrap-up to a fabulous urban fantasy series

I've loved Nicole Peeler's Jane True series from the start and this conclusion delighted, dazzled and drained me. Smart, sassy and kick-ass as ever, the voice of these books is now so familiar that settling into this last one is like visiting an old friend (you know, that old mate who can always say the right thing to make you laugh, not the touchy-feely one). It's not all fun and games though - there are some seriously tense sequences here and I would definitely avoid reading it in public if you don't like dabbing your eyes while reading in front of strangers.

Before reading on, I should warn you that this review may have spoilers for earlier books in the series (I'll try not to give too much away, but can't promise), but not for this final novel. If you haven't read the series and are interested to read more, my review of the start of the series is here.

The novel begins exactly after the events of the last novel (Tempest's Fury) - Jane and her fellow fighters are reeling, having not only failed to prevent The White from coming back, but having also lost Anyan in the process. Obviously, following that major catastrophe, the bulk of this novel is concerned with battling The Red and The White and avenging/trying to save Anyan. I don't want to say too much about plot, but I do want to stress that I found this an entirely satisfying end to the series, speaking as a reader who hates being left hanging above all else. Nicole Peeler knows how to gather up those loose threads, but she also knows how to put her characters (and her readers) through the wringer. I loved the book, but the process of reading wasn't all comfy-cosy, I can tell you!

I can see me re-reading this series in the future (not often the case), and have been merrily recommending it to all my friends who I think might enjoy it (it's surprising how many people will watch Urban Fantasy series on TV but haven't read it, even if they are readers - sometimes not even realising it is available as a book genre).

As ever, the characters are sharply written and are what make the book. Jane's voice cracks me up - I love her witticisms and pop culture references (Downton Abbey gets a mention in this one!). Both her 'supe' friends and her Rockabill buddies are fab and practically all appear in this instalment (although, as a battle-focused book, there is a lot less of the non-supernatural types, which makes sense). I love that Ryu reappears and that their relationship progresses and develops here, and his presence also serves to make clear just how far Jane has come through the series.

Overall, if you've enjoyed the rest of the series, I would absolutely urge you to read this. A very successful close to Jane's story.

From the Back Cover

Anyan may be trapped in an evil dragon and Blondie may be gone, but Jane knows one thing: she’s not about to give up. She’s ready to tear down heaven and earth to save her lover, despite those who believe he’s lost.

Luckily for Jane, those who’ve given up on Anyan do not include those closest to her. Defying The Powers That Be, Jane and Company form their own crack squad of misfits, in whose hands the fate of the world may well rest.

With a little help from her friends, the Universe, and lots of snacks, Jane embarks on her greatest adventure yet, confident that with great sacrifice comes great reward. The question is, who will be that sacrifice?

Published 28 May by Orbit
For more info about the series, visit Nicole Peeler's website
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