URTS blog tour: Where I Write by Louise Gornall, author of Under Rose-Tainted Skies

Rose3I am so excited to have the fabulous Louise Gornall, author of the equally fabulous Under Rose-Tainted Skies here today (and it’s the first day of my summer holiday today – how symbolically freedom-celebrating is that?). If you haven’t heard of this book, (where have you been?) there is some info at the end of the post but it is high on my recommended list for this summer and has been out about a week now so – you know what to do. Anyway, here is the lovely Louise herself, to tell you a bit about her writing – specifically, where she writes:


Louise GornallGood morning, guys! Thanks for having me over. Of all the questions I’m asked about writing, ‘where do you write?’ has to be my favourite, simply because the answer is always changing.

Right now, as I write this, I’m sat on a deck, surrounded by hills, bordered by trees and endless green fields. I’m in the Lake District, a short walk away from the Beatrix Potter museum, with five of my best friends — they’re squeeing and splashing around in a hot tub. I’m going to join them in a second, but I just wanted to jot down some ideas about my new book that I had last night, and I really wanted to cross a couple of things off my to-do list before we leave tomorrow and my bank holiday is snatched away by family fun times. That’s not sarcasm. In my village there is a parade and a fair and, beside Christmas, it’s probably the best day of the year here.

Where will I write tomorrow? I think maybe out in the garden. We’re having some uncharacteristically warm weather in the North West, and you guys know how it is over here, you gotta catch it before it disappears and you start seeing Christmas in September. But if it is too cold, I’ll sit on scatter cushions, on the floor, in a small space between my bed and bookshelf. I do have a desk, but I can never seem to get comfy at it, and if I’m not comfy, I will forever be distracted and write nothing.

I guess I can pretty much write anywhere, too. I don’t really need a computer as I draft on my phone with Google Docs. Ooh! And in bed. I like writing in bed. You know when it goes super quiet and dark, and your mind starts thinking of all the story things? I love it when that happens — and I have my phone right beside me, so I can tap out a few lines of thought before I go to sleep.


Under Rose-Tainted Skies

Thanks, Louise, it’s always so interesting to hear people’s actual writing practices. So you don’t need just the right chair in just the right place? I love the idea of you writing outside, surrounded by friends – sounds great (if a little noisy/distracting for me… I’m not tied to place either, but Must Have Quiet – via headphones and white noise/instrumental music if necessary).

Here’s how Goodreads summarises the novel:

Norah has agoraphobia and OCD. When groceries are left on the porch, she can’t step out to get them. Struggling to snag the bags with a stick, she meets Luke. He’s sweet and funny, and he just caught her fishing for groceries. Because of course he did.

Norah can’t leave the house, but can she let someone in? As their friendship grows deeper, Norah realizes Luke deserves a normal girl. One who can lie on the front lawn and look up at the stars. One who isn’t so screwed up.

I’ll be reviewing this one properly soon, but here are my initial thoughts on finishing:

Fabulous account of agoraphobic teen with OCD – don’t think I’ve ever seen anxious thoughts so perfectly delineated. Everyone with an anxiety disorder will want their friends to read this to help them understand. But of course, this is no ‘handbook on OCD’ – it’s a story first and foremost, and above all, I enjoyed following Norah’s tale as she deals with the boy next door and his intrusion into her (extremely limited) world. I’ll be recommending this one a lot.


URTS blog tourThank you so much to Louise for visiting. Tomorrow, she’ll be at Escapism From Reality. She can be found online on Twitter and at her website.

Thanks also to Chicken House for providing a review copy and the fabulous Nina Douglas for tour organisation.

 

The Reading Teacher: Summer Recommendations

Screenshot 2016-07-10 23.31.26I’m sharing the summer recommendations that I’ve been working on for my classes this year below as a pdf. I thought it would help if I based them on students’ likes and dislikes in terms of TV/film, hobbies and issues of interest. I’ve included a few ‘easy reads’ and also a few ‘challenge reads’ (CR) to make it suitable for the full ability (and motivation!) range, and have also included advice on where to look for reviews and further recommendations, with some of my favourite blogs.

Bear in mind that this is primarily intended as a reading for pleasure list and is all about enjoyment of books. It’s 4 pages and includes 170 different titles (although some do appear more than once), organised in clusters of 3-7. I have not personally read all of these, but if I haven’t read it myself, I know someone who has enjoyed and recommended it.

Feel free to adapt/share with your classes.

Summer Reading Recommendations

Release Day Blitz: Random Acts of Unkindness by Jacqueline Ward

Today I’m shining the spotlight on a new release that sounds intriguing. It’s the first in a new crime series.

Random acts of unkindnessRandom Acts of Unkindness

How far would you go to find your child?

DS Jan Pearce has a big problem. Her fifteen year old son, Aiden, is missing. Jan draws together the threads of missing person cases spanning fifty years and finds tragic connections and unsolved questions.

Bessy Swain, an elderly woman that Jan finds dead on her search for Aiden, and whose own son, Thomas, was also missing, may have the answers.

Jan uses Bessy’s information and her own skills and instinct to track down the missing boys. But is it too late for Aiden?

Set in the North West of England, with the notorious Saddleworth Moor as a backdrop, Random Acts of Unkindness is a story about motherhood, love and loss and how families of missing people suffer the consequences of major crimes involving their loved ones.

Random Acts of Unkindness is the first in the DS Jan Pearce series of novels.

Add it on Goodreads        Buy it at Amazon UK


Jacqueline Ward

Jacqueline WardJacqueline Ward writes short stories, novels and screenplays. She has been writing seriously since 2007 and has had short stories published in anthologies and magazines. Jacqueline won Kindle Scout in 2016 and her crime novel, Random Acts of Unkindness, will be published by Amazon Publishing imprint Kindle Press. Her novel SmartYellowTM was published by Elsewhen Press in 2015 and was nominated for the Arthur C Clarke Award in 2016. Jacqueline is a Chartered psychologist who specializes in narrative psychology, gaining a PhD in narrative and storytelling in 2007. She lives in Oldham, near Manchester, with her partner and their dog.

Website      Twitter      Facebook


Read Chapter One…

I look a little closer and instinctively back away.
Her eyes are hollow holes where the birds have pecked away at her skull and she’s covered in tiny soft feathers and greying bird shit. Fragments of silvered hair lie on her shoulders, pulled out at the roots and exposing pinprick follicles made bigger by beaks. Her mouth is set in a wry smile showing yellow teeth, as if somehow, despite the torn skin and the deeply painful twist of her body, she’s having the last laugh.
The shock is so deep that it hurts more than it should, and tears threaten as I gaze at her. A human life ending in such a terrible, lonely way. It hits me with sadness so intense that I take a moment to sit with her, to tell her broken shell of a body that someone cares. Then fear oozes through the sadness, pushing it under and reminding me of why I’m here. Where are you, Aiden? Where is my son?
I slump onto a brown box sealed with Sellotape that’s sitting next to a small blue suitcase. It looks like this old woman was going somewhere. Somewhere she never got to.
Bessy Swain, by the looks of post on the doormat. A couple of bills and some takeaway menus. A letter from social services that arrived too late to make any difference.
As well as the boxes there are piles of newspapers and scrapbooks stacked up against ancient peeling sepia wallpaper. From the state of the house this woman has been suffering for a while. Poor Bessy.
Outside, starlings perch on the windowsill, quietly watching, judging me as I put off the inevitable phone call. Through the open kitchen door I can see a couple of blackbirds standing on the shed roof, and I can hear their song of accusation. I know I need to call this in and get Bessy some dignity, but I also need to finish what I came here to do.
The day job kicks in and I pull my scarf around my nose and mouth to protect my senses from the rancid fumes I hadn’t even noticed until now. My phone starts to ring, forcing me into the here and now.
I look at Bessy’s body and then at the flashing screen. Shit. It’s Mike. My partner in crime. Crime solving, that is. Like me, he’s a Detective Sergeant working on Special Operations.
‘Jan. Where the hell are you?’
I pause. How am I going to explain this? I take a big breath and then pull down my scarf.
‘Right, yeah. I was just . . .’
‘Looking for Aiden. Come on, you’re going to get us both sacked. You’re supposed to be in Lytham Road, attending the Operation Prophesy briefing.’
On the worn kitchen worktop that separates the lounge from the kitchen a dead starling stares at me, its dried eyes condemning me from the pits of death.
A small metal toaster holds the remains of two slices of bread, which have been pecked right down to the toaster elements. The dead bird is lying close to the toaster, its feathers puffed from electrocution.
How many birds are there in here?
In my hurry to get inside I hadn’t registered anything apart from needing to know if Aiden was here. But now, sitting here with my mobile hot against my cheek, I realise I am sitting in a house covered in bird feathers and faeces.
The back door slams shut in a gust of wind. A few stray starlings are flying about in the kitchen, but most of the birds are now outside, my entrance breaking open their jail. What I can’t understand is why the windowsills are covered in them, their wings and curled up feet scratching at the dirty glass.
Then I realise they want to get back in.
‘Jan? Jan? Are you there?’
I nod at my mobile phone.
‘Yep. Look, I’ll just finish off here. I got a tip off about there being a funny smell coming from a house and I thought . . .’
Mike sighs deeply.
‘I know exactly what you thought. But this has to stop. Or you have to do it in your own time. It’s not just your own life you’re fucking up here. I’m your partner and I’ll back you up, but there’s a line. There’s a fucking line. Where are you anyway?’
The secure safety net I have in Mike has started to fracture recently and it shatters a little more now with the pain in his voice. I desperately want to put it right, but I can’t. Not yet. I have to deal with this.
‘57 Ney Street, Ashton.’
‘Connelly’s rented houses, aren’t they? I’m telling you, you’re heading for trouble.’
I end the call there. He’s right. I’m heading for trouble. But put any parent in my position and try telling me they’d do differently. I have a good reason. Mike knows that, but he also knows that everyone else’s lives are moving on and he’s trying to drag me on with him.
I push the phone into my bag and I pull my scarf back up against the smell. It’s invaded my hair, clothes and skin, but the action gives me a bit of comfort and control.
There’s a sudden noise from upstairs and my heart skips. The memory of Aiden calls me back and overpowers the sensible part of my brain urgently screaming that maybe poor Bessy wasn’t alone after all. Maybe someone killed her. Maybe I shouldn’t be here on my own. Maybe I shouldn’t be here at all. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
I tread the worn stair carpet and creep up, nudging open the first door on the right. It’s a boy’s bedroom, all red and white, Manchester United. So she has children. Or grandchildren? But no one is in here now.
Slowly I move on to the next door and there’s a flash of feathers. Two starlings fly past and circle the landing. Another flies at me as I step inside, hitting the side of my head. It’s a dull thud on the temple that causes a slight flash, then turns into a sickening stinging sensation. The shock bursts the tears that have been waiting to be shed since I found Bessy and not Aiden. I slump on an old double bed and touch my forehead, feeling for the dampness of blood, but luckily there is none. I shift my weight onto a pretty pink quilt and pillows for respite.
Suddenly, sitting alone in the empty house, I feel so very small and wish someone would tell me what to do next. Tell me how to find my son.
The thought that he could be captive, suffering, or dead suffocates me, and I feel my body begin to panic. Large hands squeezing my lungs. And then there’s another bird flapping, this time in a large wooden wardrobe. Sounds loosen the squeeze and I can breathe again. I need to finish this.
I open the double wardrobe door and duck out of the way this time as the bird escapes onto the landing, joining the others.
‘How did you get in there, little guy?’
They fly round and round, looking for a way out, some kind of escape, and I know how that feels. This release calms me somehow and I take an enormous breath and find raw comfort from the material of my scarf as it sucks into the crevices of my mouth.
There’s a chest lodged at the bottom of the wardrobe, like a forgotten treasure. It’s against regulations, it’s against everything I thought I stood for, but I open it anyway. I need to find out more about Bessy.
Inside, there’s another box and some papers, on top of a rolled-up baby shawl. Pink. She must have a son and a daughter.
I’m not sure what I’m searching for. A way to avoid it happening to me? What not to do. How to not die alone.
I open the inner box and there are bundles of twenty-pound notes. My fingers trace the smooth paper and lines of thick rubber bands. It isn’t often you see money like this, all rolled up and waiting for something important. My thoughts switch back to Aiden.
I remember his dark hair and angry teenage skin. I remember that I will do anything to get him home. And somehow, at this moment, the realisation of something happening to my son makes me stoop down and contemplate the unknown territory of stealing.
I’ve worked in the police force for almost two decades; I know how criminal minds work. I know that whoever has Aiden could come knocking any second, minute, hour, day now demanding money. I’m surprised they haven’t already. Time I have, but money I don’t and, as I realise the weight of a potential ransom, an intense panic prickles in my fingers. Before I can refuse this primal urge, I push the notes into my deep shoulder bag, along with the papers.
I know it’s wrong, of course; even as I’m doing it I sense my own desperation. I’m a member of the police force. I’m the most honest person I know, committed to catching the scum who do this sort of thing. Yet I can’t help myself. This is different. This is for Aiden. This could be the only way I will ever see my son again.
I’ve been involved in missing person cases before and I’ve looked at the mother, desperate and determined, and wondered how far you would go to find your child. Now I know. All the way Aiden, I’ll go all the way to find you, son.
I unravel the pink shawl, hoping I will, for a moment, lose myself inside someone else’s memories or pain instead of my own. No such luck. My hand touches fragile bone, and a tiny skeletal hand falls into mine.
I almost scream, but aren’t I Detective Sergeant Janet Pearce, Surveillance Specialist? Aren’t I hard? Tough? Impenetrable? I close the lid with shaking fingers and replace the box, hurrying now, fighting back tears. This is all wrong. It’s all too much and I rush downstairs.
My phone rings just as I’m standing in front of poor Bessy. Mike. Again.
‘Jan? Have you left there yet? You need to be here. We’re starting the briefing in half an hour and if you don’t make this one . . .’
The bag is heavy on my shoulder and pinching at the skin under my cotton T-shirt. I need to get it to my car before I ring this in, but now I have no choice. If I don’t say anything to Mike someone will suspect further down the line. I check my watch. I’ve been here ten minutes.
‘OK. I’ll be there. But I need to ring in a suspicious death.’
There’s a silence for a moment. I can hear him breathing. Mike knows what I’m going through. He gets it. He’s probably my best friend in the whole world right now. He speaks again.
‘Not . . . ?’
‘No. An old woman. Looks like natural causes, but a bit gruesome. Anyway. That’s what I found when I got here. I’ll wait until someone arrives, then I’ll be right with you.’
I sound composed, professional, but I’m still shaking. I hang up. He’ll be pleased, because I’ve got a legitimate excuse to miss the briefing. I hurry through the kitchen, out the door, and through the yard. The birds scatter then regroup on the telephone wires above.
My car’s in the back alleyway. I take the money and push it under the front seat. I push the letters into the elasticated pocket on the side of the door and pull my bag back onto my shoulder. Oh my God. What am I doing? I know this is so fucking wrong and I try to tell myself again that it’s necessary. But away from the drama of the house sense creeps in. If there was going to be a ransom from Connelly wouldn’t it have come weeks ago?
No. I can’t do it. I can’t. I pull out the money and push it back into my bag and hurry back to the house. What was I thinking? This isn’t me. The birds just sit there, their heads turning as they watch me rushing around. I try to shoo them away, because they are witnesses to my uncharacteristic misdemeanour, but they won’t go.
I move past Bessy, running now, and toward the narrow stairs, silently apologising for disturbing her secret.
But it’s too late. I see a blue flashing light against the darkness of the room and hear the back door open. Two uniformed police officers appear and someone is banging on the door.
Hugging my bag and shame to my chest, I fumble with the lock and open it. DS Jack Newsome, one of my opposite numbers in the regional police, pushes past me, followed by two uniformed officers.
‘Jesus Christ. That’s awful. How long’s it been here?’
I don’t like Jack. He hasn’t got a compassionate bone in his body. I find myself moving protectively between him and Bessy.
‘She, Jack, she. This is a person. A woman. She deserves a little respect.’
The word sticks on my tongue, heavy with mockery. Respectful, unlike me, who has just stolen her life savings. I’ve never felt guilt like this before, and I wonder how people can live with it. He smirks.
‘Right, Jan. She. How long has she been here?’
I see Bessy with fresh eyes. As Jack does, as any policeman would. Her faded dress is sagging in odd shapes against the decomposition of her body, and brown lace-up shoes sit the wrong way round, her ankles ballooning awkwardly in the crossed position they must have rested in as she died.
‘I don’t know, Jack. But I arrived fifteen minutes ago. Had a tip off about a bad smell and was just passing.’
He’s nodding and grinning. Yet underneath I can see his annoyance as he sighs and wipes his hand through his dark hair, then wipes tiny beads of perspiration away from his forehead. And, of course, the giveaway twitch at the corner of his eye that always tells me when Jack thinks he’s onto something.
‘Just passing, were you? A little bit out of town, isn’t it? Away from your usual place of work? So who was the tip off from?’
I smile now and wonder if it covers up my devastation.
‘Member of the public. In a public place. Just on my way to Ashton Market buying some bacon for the weekend when I heard two women talking about this property and the smell. Simple as that.’
He’s shaking his head.
‘OK, Jan, if that’s how you want it. I suppose all’s well that ends well.’
We look at Bessy. She’s someone’s mother. Like me.
‘Not for her, though. Which is why we’re here, not to find out the ins and outs of my shopping habits. No?’
Jack turns away now. He’s looking toward the kitchen. As he approaches the door, I hear a flutter of wings and beaks tapping on glass.
‘What the bloody hell? Get those birds out of here. And search the house. Get forensics down here, and we need a coroner’s wagon for the old bird here. Cover her up, John. She’s giving me the creeps.’
So the police machine swings into action. I stand there for a moment, wondering if there is a way for me to put the money back, but the two uniformed officers are upstairs now, battling with angry starlings.
I don’t mention that they will need two coroner’s vehicles, one for poor Bessy and one for the tiny baby. God only knows why she’s got a dead baby in her wardrobe. That poor woman must have had a terrible life if the state of this place is anything to go by. Without a word I leave by the front door and walk around to the back alley.
The houses are well maintained and I feel a little easier now the neighbours are out and I have a reason for being here. I get in my car and, with the bag still over my shoulder, drive off. In my rearview mirror the birds still watch, their heads cocking.
Two streets away, I pull up outside an old peoples’ home. I know this is a safe spot away from CCTV. My phone hasn’t even got a signal here. I’m a surveillance expert, latterly of the Communications Department, more lately promoted to DS in Special Operations. It’s my job to know these things.
Even so, guilt overwhelms me, and I remember when I first became a police detective; so full of goodwill and always on the side of the person who had been harmed. I spent hours poring over mind maps and evidence boards, midnight sessions in the operation room and endless visits to witnesses.
Sometimes when I lie awake at night thinking about Aiden, I wonder if I would have shuffled events in a different way this wouldn’t have happened. That always leads to me swearing that from now on I’ll do the right thing, be good, anything, as long as I get him back. Holding myself bolt upright, smiling, being polite, saying thank you; are they all little combinations to finding out what has happened?
In the clarity of daylight it all seems different. No hippy thinking will get me through the day. Action is needed. And, after all, in this game it’s almost impossible to be good all the time. The deeper you get into something, the more complex the relationships, the situations. Everyone’s got something on someone, and they’re going to use it at some point. Until now I’d kept my fingers out of the till, been good as gold. But this is different. This is personal.
I count the money. There’s forty-four thousand pounds. Jesus. I automatically scan the horizon for the signs I know are there, at the root of my suspicions of where my son is. Connelly. I see the scarves and shoes hanging from the telephone wires, silent messages in an unspoken world and my heart turns back to stone.
I push the money under the seat, still distraught that I took it, more distraught that I couldn’t put it back, and seeing no way to return it now. I decide that, in return for it, I’ll do what I can to see Bessy Swain’s case resolved. I’ll do what I can to find out why she had to hide a baby. Someone owes her that, at least.

Sounds intriguing, doesn’t it?

Random Acts of Unkindness is out today on Amazon UK
There will be a review tour in mid-July: watch this space for more details! Thanks to the lovely Faye (daydreaming star) of Daydreamer’s Thoughts for sharing the info with me.

 

 

YA Review: Worlds of Ink and Shadow by Lena Coakley

worlds of ink and shadowWorlds of Ink and Shadow, Lena Coakley (Abrams & Chronicle, 2016)

Genres in the mix: historical, fantasy, supernatural, gothic

Age target: YA

Goodreads summary: Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne. The Brontë siblings have always been close. After all, nothing can unite four siblings quite like life in an isolated parsonage on the moors. Their vivid imaginations lend them escape from their strict, spartan upbringing, actually transporting them into their created worlds: the glittering Verdopolis and the romantic and melancholy Gondal. But at what price? As Branwell begins to slip into madness and the sisters feel their real lives slipping away, they must weigh the cost of their powerful imaginations, even as their characters—the brooding Rogue and dashing Duke of Zamorna—refuse to let them go.

What sucked me in? Well, I am an English teacher with a lot of love for Wuthering Heights, who did drag a poor unsuspecting bf to their bront charlotte bront c11390 01childhood home, the Brontë Parsonage, aged 17 …

For those of you who are less Brontë-nerdy than me, the siblings really did invent worlds, Gondal and Angria – Verdopolis is a city in Angria – and write stories of adventure taking place there. These are all recorded in miniscule handwriting in tiny books that can mostly still be seen in Haworth at the Brontë Parsonage museum. At the same time, I was aware that the book combined Brontë knowledge with a fantasy element and I do love a good YA fantasy so I was sold on the idea!

So, how did the book live up to my Brontë-nerdly expectations? It did so well! It’s clear that Lena Coakley knows her stuff when it comes to the core research – the key characters, the Yorkshire moors, society of the time etc. I just felt that she was probably a lot like me and we’d get on really well. I think she had a lot of fun with the material. There were clear echoes of various Brontë novels (probably more than I picked up – I don’t know Anne’s work particularly), but I also really enjoyed the fantasy element that she introduced to explain how Gondal and Verdopolis worked and to create the story’s plot and conflict. Overall, I thought it was great and really enjoyed it. I think it’s probably a lot more fun if you do already know the background, but I’m sure it also stands on its own.

 

Classroom opportunities: In terms of teaching, I would recommend it to Lit A Level students who’ve enjoyed the Brontës as fun reading, particularly if they’re also taking/are into creative writing, as I think it’s a great example of playing with existing stories and ideas. I’m sure it wouldn’t be approved of as official ‘wider reading’, but for students who read widely, it would be an interesting choice.

Hearthfire rating: 8/10 Sizzling

Worlds of Ink and Shadow is out now in from Abrams & Chronicle, who provided me with a review copy.

Accepting a review copy does not affect my view of a book and I only finish and review books that I feel able to recommend.

YA Review: Highly Illogical Behaviour by John Corey Whaley

29231988Highly Illogical Behaviour, John Corey Whaley, (Faber & Faber, May 2016)

Genre: Contemporary

Age target: YA

Summary from GoodreadsSixteen-year-old Solomon is agoraphobic. He hasn’t left the house in three years, which is fine by him.
Ambitious Lisa desperately wants to get into the second-best psychology program for college (she’s being realistic). But is ambition alone enough to get her in?

Enter Solomon.

Determined to “fix” Sol, Lisa steps into his world, along with her charming boyfriend, Clark, and soon the three form an unexpected bond. But, as Lisa learns more about Sol and he and Clark grow closer and closer, the walls they’ve built around themselves start to collapse and their friendships threaten to do the same.

Review-in-a-tweet: Spot-on mental health representation in great contemporary tale of connection and relationships. Fab characters, great pacing. Highly recommended.

Narrative style: Alternate points of view in third person allow us access to both Sol and Lisa’s perspectives, enough to understand and have at least some sympathy with Lisa, despite her terrible and manipulative plan.

Hot buttons/classroom opportunities: mental health, families, friendships and manipulation, ambition and its limits, identity and being true to oneself.

The emotional ride: a key strength here. This is a book with real emotional depth and fabulous characters. Although I began the story annoyed with Lisa’s self-interest and arrogance, I was soon absorbed in the developing relationship between her, Clark and Sol and keen for it to be safe.

Main character: The characterisation of Sol is brilliant. John Corey Whaley has been quite up front that this grew out of his own experiences with anxiety, and it shows. There is no cheap glorification of mental illness here, just a full and touching portrayal of an individual who has panic attacks which have led to agoraphobia. I loved Sol’s for his nerdiness and his earnestness. He really is a great character.

Supporting cast: As well as Lisa and Clark being rounded and easy to love characters, I also have to mention Sol’s family, especially his grandmother, who often made me smile with her careful way around Sol and her humour.

Hearthfire rating: 10/10 Smoking hot!

Highly Illogical Behaviour is out now in the UK from Faber & Faber, who provided me with a review copy.

Accepting a review copy does not affect my view of a book and I only finish and review books that I feel able to recommend.

Hearthfire HayDays: our trip to Hay

My beautiful picture

During this half term week, my younger daughter and I went to the Hay festival for a couple of days. It was our first time at Hay and we had a great time. Please forgive my amateurish photos…

2016-06-02 07.29.37We were very excited, despite the very early start (although breakfast on the train was a small compensation) – this is us on our first train, one bus ride down, about 7.30am.

The first event we attended was the YA Book Prize announcement. I had read several of the shortlist and was not envious of the judges’ task in choosing between them. I do think it’s great that the shortlist is so varied, though and truly representative of a great range of current YA possibilities. It would make a fab 2016-06-02 14.20.17starting point for anyone unsure of what to read. I was also cheered to see several of the shortlist in the top sellers for the Hay bookshop for that day, so the readings and the introductions to the books clearly whetted audience appetites. Hooray for YA!

We also attended three panel events to learn about the various books and gain writing tips from the experts. My daughter arrived back home with her new Hay notebook thoroughly christened with enthusiastic diagrams and plans for a new story, so this was very successful indeed. Here are some key tips and titbits:

DSCF0777Writing Mysteries (Lyn Gardner, Frances Hardinge, Katherine Woodfine, chaired by Emma Carroll)

Key ingredients include a high body count (according to Lyn), great characters (Katherine) and secrets and lies (Frances). Setting children’s mysteries in the past (as all books discussed in this session are) may be more effective because modern children have far less physical freedom from parents and easy access to mobile phones and google. It’s also easier in the past to have amateur detectives that can compete with the police as the police now have forensics, helicopters etc which puts them at an enormous advantage compared to the curious and observant child. I was also really interested in Katherine’s comment that using an historical setting provides distance which perhaps allows them to write about crime for children more freely than if they were writing contemporary-set stories.

My beautiful picture

Writing about Danger (Abi Elphinstone and Emma Carroll)

Emma and Abi agreed that danger was a necessary ingredient to avoid a ‘saggy’ plot (who wants a boring story?), and also – interestingly – agreed that it isn’t always necessary for characters to overcome all dangers. Perhaps it would also be boring if they solved everything every time? Emma pointed out that both of them write about ordinary children, not superheroes or characters with powers, so they need to fail sometimes or not quite achieveDSCF0798 what they’re trying to, and Abi stressed that it’s what they learn in the attempt that counts and she drew links to real-life examples of heroic deeds. In this session, Emma and Abi talked about authors’ fears: DSCF0805whether they might be reflected in some of the things characters face, but also the fears they have as authors – such as rejection and bad reviews. We got to hear about (and even see examples of) their planning methods – Abi showed us a map she drew of the Shadow Keeper plot and a graph of ‘danger spikes’ for the mysterious Book 3.

DSCF0810Writing about Families and Secrets (Jenny Valentine, Hayley Long, Annabel Pitcher, chaired by Daniel Hahn)

The big revelation here for me was that none of the three writers seemed to be ‘plotters’. Daniel’s first question was about knowing where things were going to go from the start and the consensus seemed to be that they didn’t. Jenny doesn’t always know where it’s going to go when she starts; Hayley usually doesn’t know what’s going to happen, but did with Sophie Someone, as she was inspired by a news story; Annabel’s Silence is Goldfish opens with the revelation, so she did know the big secret from the start, but she said the story spools out from there. Much of the discussion was then about how the specific secrets in these particular books are revealed/kept hidden as necessary and dealt with by the characters. I was interested in Hayley Long’s comments about the language/code invented by Sophie to deal with her inability to talk directly about what had happened to her, and how that linked to Annabel’s use of silence as a weapon/tool also.

As well as all this bookish loveliness, we went to the Spiegel Circus at the HowTheLightGetsIn festival, also in Hay, which was fabulous (but I have no shareable pictures, because the lighting was too dramatic for my poor little camera). It was a human-only circus, for those of us concerned about such things, and we saw aerial acts on ribbons and ropes, acrobats, jugglers, a unicyclist, dancers – it was really impressive.

pillow tent

My beautiful picture

 

 All in all, we had a great time at Hay and would highly recommend it if you have the chance to go. We stayed overnight in a fab pre-pitched tent with Pillow, which was a My beautiful picturerelatively easy option for arrival by public transport, but full-on camping is definitely a possibility if you can drive there/carry kit easily and need to stay.

YA Review: This Song Is (Not) For You by Laura Nowlin

this song is not for youThis Song Is (Not) For you, Laura Nowlin, (Sourcebooks, Jan 2016)

Genres in the mix: Contemporary

Age target: YA

Summary from GoodreadsBandmate, best friend or boyfriend? For Ramona, one choice could mean losing them all.

Ramona and Sam are best friends. She fell for him the moment they met, but their friendship is just too important for her to mess up. Sam loves April, but he would never expect her to feel the same way–she’s too quirky and cool for someone like him. Together, they have a band, and put all of their feelings for each other into music.

Then Ramona and Sam meet Tom. He’s their band’s missing piece, and before Ramona knows it, she’s falling for him. But she hasn’t fallen out of love with Sam either.

How can she be true to her feelings without breaking up the band?

Reasons to read:

  • It’s a great presentation of how passionate and earnest musical teens can be.
  • The relationships are beautifully depicted.
  • It includes asexual representation, effectively done, without medicalising it like I’ve seen elsewhere (e.g. pairing it with anorexia or making it part of wider sensory issues in autism; it’s simply presented as a valid and existing sexuality, as it should be).

Narrative style: Three-way split narration, which allows clear access to the three main characters’ thoughts and feelings. Their voices are all distinct and clearly drawn. I loved them all and it was very easy to be sucked into their world and their dramas and ache for them.

Hearthfire rating: 9/10 A scorcher!

Recommendations Round-up: Revision Season Special – Escapism All Round

As GCSE and A Level students are starting to knuckle down to some serious study, I thought I’d offer you a selection of recommended reads that do not feature school and definitely do not include characters deciding their careers. I’m not promising no-one thinks about the future in any of these, but this is not the place for school-set contemporaries, ok?

These are reads to take you far away from classrooms and exams and the kinds of conversations about the future that you’ve been having or are having regularly at the moment. Just don’t get too carried away and neglect the study, alright? (My best advice – use a timer for both study and relaxation, so you’re fully doing both at different times, and not having to feel guilty about reading when you should be studying or, worse, only half studying because you’re resentful about having no time to yourself).

Fantasy Genre – to really get away from reality

I’ve got quite a lot of good recs here, including YA and adult titles.

Fantasy revision readsOne of the hottest new YA titles around is Alwyn Hamilton’s Rebel of the Sands, which swishes together aspects of the Arabian Nights stories with elements of a good Western for some sharp-shootin’ fun with a fab female lead (who, naturally goes undercover as a fella at first to enter a shooting competition). If a UK setting – however fantasy-enriched – is more your scene, I have two great (and completed) series for you: The Night Itself by Zoe Marriott is the first in her urban fantasy series using Japanese folklore for the fantasy elements. This one all kicks off with her heroine’s (ill-advised, of course) usage of her family’s treasured katana for a fancy dress party. The second UKYA possibility here is Liz de Jager’s fab fae-focused series which opens with Banished, in which Kit, her protagonist, works to protect people from magical and mystical creatures intruding into our world. Naturally, things blow up and Kit finds herself in the middle of epic battles. Another UKYA fantasy tip, a series with two books out and a third to follow next year is The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury. Said daughter was removed from her family to live as a pampered assassin, able to kill with just a touch – her bare skin is lethal to all except the royal family,

Grisha & Throne of GlassFinally on the YA front, if you enjoy high fantasy (stories fully set in another world like Game of Thrones) and you haven’t yet discovered them, two US YA series to immerse yourself in are Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha series, which opens with Shadow and Bone, and Sarah J Maas’s Throne of Glass. Both feature a kick-ass teen girl protagonist and offer complex characterisation and richly-imagined worlds. Bardugo’s series is complete as a trilogy, while Maas has 4 novels out and more to come.

For adult fantasy series, I have two quick recommendations for you (note: both have sexual content):

adult fantasy revision reads

  • The Jane True series by Nicole Peeler is a snarky urban fantasy in which Jane discovers that she is part selkie and meets other ‘supes’ (supernatural creatures) and ‘halflings’ like herself. Tempest Rising is the first instalment.
  • Undead and Unwed is the first in MaryJanice Dickinson’s very tongue in cheek series about a vampire. These are very light-hearted and funny books, somewhere between Sex in the City and Twilight.

Crime/Thriller genre – books set in our world but hopefully far from your reality…

crime recs for revision

For a great YA thriller, I recommend Tanya Byrne’s Heart-Shaped Bruise. Set in an institution, this tightly-narrated novel offers clear insight into a criminal’s journal. It’s a chilling and absorbing read.

Two recent adult-market crime thrillers that I recommend are In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware and Someone Else’s Skin by Sarah Hilary. They’re quite different, but both superb. In a Dark, Dark Wood is a standalone thriller focusing on a woman who has inexplicably been invited to the hen weekend of an old schoolfriend in a secluded cottage deep in the woods. The novel opens with the woman in hospital, unable to remember what has happened, with police outside her room. Someone Else’s Skin, however, is the first in a police series featuring DI Marnie Rome and DS Noah Jake. Books 2 and 3 are also now out and are equally good. I love this series because it’s gritty, UK-set and you get a good sense of the detective characters as well as a strong mystery/thriller.

Dystopian and Post-Apocalyptic

dystopian revision recs

Of course, another way to escape the here and now is to read about other societies, especially those with brutal regimes or those that are falling apart. Here are a few recs for those, all YA, and all UK. Do you fancy a creepy cult masquering as peace-loving earth-worshippers? Try Seed by Lisa Heathfield. Or a terrifying  post-apocalyptic world in which drugged-up supersoldiers have taken over? For that, read The Fearless by Emma Pass. Finally, you might enjoy a trilogy (2 books are out now) featuring a UK split into the pagan Greenworld (living in harmony with the environment) and the Redworld (exploiting the environment and being materialistic). Anna McKerrow’s Crow Moon starts with this premise and spins a magical battle there.

Whatever you choose, don’t forget: work AND rest!

UKYA Review: Red Witch by Anna McKerrow

Red Witch, Anna McKerrow, (Quercus, March 2016)

Sequel to Crow Moon (with a third in the series to come next year) – you might want to skip this review if you haven’t yet read Crow Moon, in order to avoid spoilers for the first book.

Red WitchGenres in the mix: Fantasy,  Dystopian

Age target: YA

Goodreads Summary: Seventeen, heartbroken, powerful; Melz has run away from home, run away from the safety of the Greenworld. In the cities of the Redworld, Melz discovers she’s special, desired. And not just for her magical talents.

When Melz meets the young but influential Bran, their attraction is instant and electric. In the Redworld, with Bran by her side, unrestrained by the customs of her former life, Melz knows she can reach her true potential. But the world Bran wants to give Melz is ravaged by war and violence. Oil is running out, and people will do anything to gain control of the remaining resources. Melz may be more powerful than ever, but even great power can be a curse when used against you.

Review-in-a-tweet: Sparkling, easy to engage with sequel to the fab Crow Moon. Magic, identity, power: a heady combination!

Hot buttons: Paganism, magic, environmentalism, responsibility

Narrative style: The first person present tense narration allows for close-up immediacy, plus we are treated to excerpts from Melz’s diary contextualising events with details such as moon phase and season. Each chapter is also headed with a quotation that also helps with the world-building.

The emotional ride: A real strength of this novel. After Crow Moon, told from Danny’s perspective, it was great to see Melz’s point of view as someone who’s always lived the Greenworld way more fully. As with the first in the series, there were plenty of ‘don’t do that!’ moments, so I was definitely gripped and rooting for Melz. It was a definite roller coaster of a novel, with plenty of emotional depth behind all the action.

Main character: Melz doesn’t get such a good press in Crow Moon and after her dramatic cursing at the end of that story, it’s great to see her perspective here. The close narration and opportunities to get a bit of her backstory made it easier to understand and ultimately sympathise with her, but it’s fair to say that she does a lot of growing and maturing across the two books. I personally prefer her as a character to Danny (not to say that I didn’t love Crow Moon, of course!) and have really enjoyed the first two instalments of their adventures. I can’t wait to read the third next year, with a different narrator again.

Hearthfire rating: 10/10 Smoking hot!

Literary Lonely Hearts: This Is Not a Love Story

this is not a love storySmart, social media-savvy contemporary with cosmopolitan settings seeks reader interested in identity and a range of human relationships – not just the romantic. Genuinely unusual representation in setting, ethnicity and sexuality offered for an intriguing reading experience exploring questions of identity and authenticity via a pacey mystery/thriller.

This Is Not a Love Story, Keren David (Atom)

Goodreads summary:

Kitty dreams of a beautiful life, but that’s impossible in suburban London where her family is haunted by her father’s unexpected death. So when her mum suggests moving to Amsterdam to try a new life, Kitty doesn’t take much persuading. Will this be her opportunity to make her life picture perfect?

In Amsterdam she meets moody, unpredictable Ethan, and clever, troubled Theo. Two enigmatic boys, who each harbour their own secrets. In a beautiful city and far from home, Kitty finds herself falling in love for the first time.

But will love be everything she expected? And will anyone’s heart survive?

My reaction:

Really enjoyed this. Great characters and very strong diversity – it’s unusual to see Jewish representation in a UKYA novel, so I enjoyed that. Also a very engaging depiction of Amsterdam (which I’ve never visited). Overall, it feels very ‘now’, perhaps due to Kitty’s Instagram obsession – and I loved the subtle exploration of identity in ‘Amsterkit’ versus the old ‘London’ version of Kitty.

The male characters, Theo and Ethan, weren’t always as clear-cut as Kitty and I liked that – and none of them were always sympathetic, in that they made choices that many of us wouldn’t/couldn’t support, but that’s realistic and helps to make them interesting as characters. The complicated relationships around them – families and friends – also add another level of interest as well as further diversifying the representation within the novel.