Here’s to the New School Year!

I always feel much more ‘new year-ish’ in September than in January. I think it’s true for a lot of teachers, but also for many whose home or work lives revolve around the school calendar. This one is feeling particularly good for me. Having been in quite a negative place a couple of years ago, I find myself feeling cheered by looking back over the past year, and forward to the rest of this new one.

Last year was full of hustle and bustle for me, and I occasionally felt quite stressed with all that I had to do. Looking back, though, I’m pleased with what I accomplished. Look at all these lovely books that I worked on, published over the last academic year. I feel a bit less guilty now that fiction and blog writing took something of a back seat last year, given that I was also in school full time.Jpeg

Anyway, I’m working in a lovely school for the second year in a row, now on a part-time timetable which is going to make things a lot easier for me. At this point, I’ve met all my classes at least twice and can confirm that I have lovely students. I also love that the majority of my classes are sixth form, and I’m getting to teach the new AS in Creative Writing this year. Being part-time means that I can return to my own more creative writing endeavours as well as continuing to work on interesting educational projects. So, it’s all looking good for the moment!

How is your new academic year looking?

Review: Banished by Liz de Jager

Initial reaction:

I enjoyed every minute of this (and am desperate to read the rest of the series now – if only it were out already). A very well-constructed urban fantasy in the quest tradition which draws on a ton of faery lore and mythology. Highly recommended.

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This is UKYA faery-focused fantasy at its best. Particular strengths of this book (for me) are: the structure and world-building, the central character of Kit and the adaptation of folklore.banished

Opening in the middle of a mission allows us to see Kit’s work as a Blackhart, and to get caught up in some action immediately. We quickly learn that her family’s destined role is to keep order and banish any fae who step out of line by harming humans/causing trouble in our world. Kit’s relationship to that calling (she wasn’t raised with it from birth) is something that is revealed further through the course of the novel.

I hope it doesn’t sound too stupid to say this, but I particularly enjoyed the realistic way that her developing abilities, and her feelings about her calling, are presented. Obviously the use of magic is a fantasy element in the novel, but it is presented realistically, I feel. It rings true to me that it would be a physically difficult thing, especially at first. This, and many other details which root the story in concrete reality, raise this novel in my opinion to make it not just another ‘destiny girl’ book. Details are not taken for granted, but are deftly woven into the story to create a convincing whole.

Written in the present tense, the prose has an immediacy and vibrancy that demands attention. This lively storytelling is interspersed with extracts from documents such as Blackhart family papers which offer further insight into the family’s role and the world they inhabit. This adds a further dimension to the novel and prevents information from clogging up the pacey narrative.

I love Kit (as, I think, do most of her readers). Her voice is compelling and she is easy to empathise with. She faces some difficult decisions in the story, but approaches everything in a matter-of-fact way. I hope we see more of her family in the remaining two books, as they are an intriguing bunch.

The author’s knowledge and love of folklore and the fae tradition really shine out, and this is above all a great re-imagining of some classic folklore tropes, dragged into our 21st century reality. The clash between worlds is a joy to observe and, again, I feel there is realism in the way the interaction between the fae realm and contemporary Britain is presented.

vowedOverall, I am highly recommending this book. If you enjoy urban fantasy, the odd spark of romance and a generous sprinkling of fae lore, you must read this.

The sequel, Vowed, has an equally beautiful cover and is due out in November, so you won’t have long to wait.

Banished is out now from Tor. See Goodreads for more info.

Diversity in YA and Children’s Books

I currently teach English in a 14-19 school in Leicester, with a good proportion of BAME students. One thing that my colleagues and I always notice is that the vast majority of students, regardless of their own heritage, when writing stories give their characters names that sound white British and clearly code them as white in their physical descriptions. It’s an odd thing to do and seems to support the idea that they see white characters as the norm in fiction. This is a great pity, and clearly supports the need for books (and TV and film, of course) to represent a wider range of humanity. We also rarely see gay characters, although a student who identifies as gay is quite likely to write about gay characters, while our Asian and Black students remain likely to write about characters called Dan or Emma.

I’ve been thinking about this today, having read that over the last couple of days, the marvellous Malorie Blackman has been receiving a lot of racist and critical comments online. In this Sky News piece she calls for greater racial diversity in YA and kids’ books, arguing that this is an issue of representation, that BAME children  and teens can struggle to find themselves or characters like themselves in books. This certainly fits with my experience in teaching, with BAME students assuming that stories are usually only about white characters. Malorie’s piece concludes that this state of affairs gives this group of children/teens an additional and unnecessary reason to lose interest in books. My favourite line from her is:

“But I think there is a very significant message that goes out when you cannot see yourself at all in the books you are reading.

“I think it is saying ‘well, you may be here, but do you really belong?'”

The Sky News text originally appeared to quote her as saying there are “too many white faces” in kids’ books, even using this line as its headline. Watching the video interview, it is clear that she said nothing so inflammatory, and the headline has since been amended. Nevertheless, the comments under the article, and the vitriol directed at Malorie online reveal that diverse representation is clearly needed, as many people seem to feel that ‘people like her’ are messing with ‘our culture’ and ‘our books’. Horrific, and also clear evidence that representations of British society as white are dangerous.

For more on this issue more broadly, I’d like to recommend a couple of US sites. The brilliant Diversity in YA has a blog and tumblr, which feature books that offer more diversity, along with statistics on representation and clear discussion of the issues. There is also a campaign called We Need Diverse Books which promotes lots of bookish diversity.

Review:Heir of Fire by Sarah J Maas

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My initial comments on closing the book:

heir of fireBrilliant continuation of Celaena’s story, plus some fantastic new characters. Loved it! If you liked the first two, it’s definitely worth grabbing this one too.

Warning: it’s another shocker of an ending, not that it’s half a story or anything: threads are tied, but more are shaken loose in the process. Book 4 should be amazing!

After Crown of Midnight, I couldn’t wait to see what Celaena would do and face next. If, like me, you thought that Sarah Maas couldn’t possibly torment her further, you’d better brace yourself for this one. And if you’re a YA high fantasy fan who hasn’t yet dived into this series, this is a mistake that you must correct.

Part of the joy of a great fantasy series is the gradual discovery of the world, so carefully and lovingly constructed by the author. This series delivers that pleasure in spades as we follow Celaena and other characters positioned around the world and learn about their histories and experiences, and their struggles in the book’s timeframe. The series as a whole so far has shown considerable richness and complexity together with deft writing that keeps all the plot threads, locations and characters under tight control.

There are a few new characters in this instalment, each of which adds to the developing story of the Adarlan King’s cruel empire. I dare you to read this without Rowan or Manon getting under your skin. Sarah Maas’ characterisation is as much a strength as her world building: no flat stereotypes populate her lands.

Overall, this is a must-read if you’ve read the others in the series. And if you haven’t and you have any interest in well-crafted high fantasy: get started now with Throne of Glass, but don’t read the blurb below.

Goodreads summary:

Lost and broken, Celaena Sardothien’s only thought is to avenge the savage death of her dearest friend; as the King of Adarlan’s Assassin, she is bound to serve this tyrant, but he will pay for what he did. Any hope Celaena has of destroying the king lies in answers to be found in Wendlyn. Sacrificing his future, Chaol, the Captain of the King’s Guard, has sent Celaena there to protect her, but her darkest demons lay in that same place. If she can overcome them, she will be Adarlan’s biggest threat – and his own toughest enemy. 

While Celaena learns of her true destiny, and the eyes of Erilea are on Wendlyn, a brutal and beastly force is preparing to take to the skies. Will Celaena find the strength not only to win her own battles, but to fight a war that could pit her loyalties to her own people against those she has grown to love?

Heir of Fire is published by Bloomsbury on Sept 2nd. My grateful thanks to the publisher for granting me access to an e-proof via NetGalley.

Things I learnt in a yurt

As both a teacher and a writer, I am pretty much destined to be ‘always on’ and not switch off and relax. Last week, however, I found the secret to relaxing and recharging in a lovely yurt in Northumberland with my family. I thought I’d share a little piece of my experience here, so here’s what I (re)discovered, in no particular order:

The joy of disconnection

No phone signal, no electricity (although we could charge our phones etc in the central kitchen block) gave us all a much needed digital detox that allowed us to reconnect to each other. The stash of board games and the handily-supplied Dummies Guide to Card Games wouldn’t have had as much use if we’d been able to tweet, facebook and bbm as normal. And that would definitely have been a shame, as even the resident teen agrees.

Fire is not just for warmth

Toasting marshmallows around the fire pit :)

Obviously, as curator of the hearthfire here, I was already familiar with fire’s magical and restorative properties, but it never hurts to be reminded.

Balancing comfort and wildness is crucial in this kind of break

and we were lucky to find a place that achieves exactly that. Glorious decor and the most comfortable bed I’ve ever slept in on holiday beautifully countered the illusion of rugged isolation (we were alone in a field, but 5 mins from the centre of the site and underfloor-heated toilet/shower block), and empowered us to tackle the terrain.

Hareshaw Linn, in nearby Bellingham. A beautiful, if occasionally challenging, walk in the rain.

My camera is not good enough!

I really wanted to capture the beauty of the candlelit yurt at night, the wood-burning stove, the stars in the pitch-black skies, but apparently I’m not equipped for that :(.  My wildlife photography skills are also lacking, unfortunately, so you don’t get to see the toads, bat or many many finches that we did, although this little fella who snuck in out of the rain was quite obliging, bless him.

 

Real relaxation is invaluable

Of course, I ‘know’ this, but I do find it hard to properly relax and not feel I should be doing something productive – something that I think is common to many. But with no laptop and no goals, no guilt was possible for this week and it was definitely the right thing for me. I’ve returned refreshed and reinvigorated and with my creativity topped right up. Bring it on!

For anyone curious, we stayed in Merle Yurt at Wild Northumbrian Tipis and Yurts and I would absolutely recommend them for family holidays or quiet getaways.

Review: Trouble by Non Pratt

trouble raagI really enjoyed this ultra-realistic portrayal of teen pregnancy, which manages to avoid either being ‘gritty’ and ‘grim’ or (heaven forbid) glamorising the idea. Non Pratt’s sense of humour and pace ensure a fully enjoyable read.

Goodreads summary

troubleIn this dazzling debut novel, a pregnant teen learns the meaning of friendship—from the boy who pretends to be her baby’s father.

When the entire high school finds out that Hannah Shepard is pregnant via her ex-best friend, she has a full-on meltdown in her backyard. The one witness (besides the rest of the world): Aaron Tyler, a transfer student and the only boy who doesn’t seem to want to get into Hannah’s pants. Confused and scared, Hannah needs someone to be on her side. Wishing to make up for his own past mistakes, Aaron does the unthinkable and offers to pretend to be the father of Hannah’s unborn baby. Even more unbelievable, Hannah hears herself saying “yes.”

Told in alternating perspectives between Hannah and Aaron, Trouble is the story of two teenagers helping each other to move forward in the wake of tragedy and devastating choices. As you read about their year of loss, regret, and hope, you’ll remember your first, real best friend—and how they were like a first love. 

As an English Language teacher, I delight in UKYA novels that capture a teen voice effectively, and Trouble certainly does. A large part of the joy in reading this is the spot-on narration, shared between the two main characters. These strongly British voices also allow for considerable humour through tone and timing.

It is relatively unusual to see teen pregnancy presented with warmth and humour and this, coupled with a realistic depiction of sex, make Trouble an important book (but please don’t think I’m sticking the dreaded ‘issues book’ label on it). First and foremost, this is a great read, but as a teacher and parent, I’m also grateful that it presents this aspect of life in a lively and practical way, free of moralising or doom-prophesising :)

So, in conclusion, read this book for its fresh contemporary tone, its depiction of friendship and its excruciating portrayal of the complexity of the high school social circle.

 

Review: The Bone Dragon by Alexia Casale

Stunning genre-bending debut; one of those books that hangs around and haunts your thoughts after reading. A lovely piece of work.

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Goodreads summary:

Evie’s shattered ribs have been a secret for the last four years. Now she has found the strength to tell her adoptive parents, and the physical traces of her past are fixed – the only remaining signs a scar on her side and a fragment of bone taken home from the hospital, which her uncle Ben helps her to carve into a dragon as a sign of her strength.

The Bone DragonSoon this ivory talisman begins to come to life at night, offering wisdom and encouragement in roaming dreams of smoke and moonlight that come to feel ever more real.

As Evie grows stronger there remains one problem her new parents can’t fix for her: a revenge that must be taken. And it seems that the Dragon is the one to take it.

This subtly unsettling novel is told from the viewpoint of a fourteen-year-old girl damaged by a past she can’t talk about, in a hypnotic narrative that, while giving increasing insight, also becomes increasingly unreliable.

A blend of psychological thriller and fairytale, The Bone Dragon explores the fragile boundaries between real life and fantasy, and the darkest corners of the human mind.

This will be a short review to avoid spoilers – the GR info above gives all the detail you can really have before reading. You’ll see in the review-at-a-glance graphic above that I avoided declaring a genre for this one. If pushed, I’d have to go for magic realist thriller (which I realise isn’t an official genre, but it’s the closest fit I can come up with). It’s more magic realist than full-on fantasy, dragon notwithstanding, as it clearly takes place in our world and the dragon is the only fantasy element. The thriller aspect is achieved by means of very close first-person narration by Evie, who is clearly hiding many things. The reader is left to tease out the fragments of information and decide where the half-truths and omissions lie.

This is a gorgeous treat of a read – which is an odd thing to say about such a trauma-filled book – due to its dark beauty and the lyricism of its prose. If the premise intrigues you at all, you should absolutely give it a go.

This is my initial comment on closing the book:

Beautiful, startling and tense. A real struggle to classify by genre, with magic realism elements within a coming-of-age narrative which, at times, feels like a psychological thriller. Evie’s anxieties, fears and development are conveyed perfectly; I have rarely felt I’ve known a character so thoroughly (especially given all the gaps in her narrative).

Review: Say Her Name by James Dawson

My immediate reaction on finishing:

Deliciously creepy, a masterpiece of tension. Couldn’t read it in bed, and definitely was more nervous of unexplained-but-quite-normal sounds and (of course) reflections during and since reading. There will be a fuller review soon, but in the meantime, if you’re considering this, stop thinking and read it!

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say her name

Goodreads summary:

Roberta ‘Bobbie’ Rowe is not the kind of person who believes in ghosts. A Halloween dare at her ridiculously spooky boarding school is no big deal, especially when her best friend Naya and cute local boy Caine agree to join in too. They are ordered to summon the legendary ghost of ‘Bloody Mary': say her name five times in front of a candlelit mirror, and she shall appear… But, surprise surprise, nothing happens. Or does it?

Next morning, Bobbie finds a message on her bathroom mirror… five days… but what does it mean? And who left it there? Things get increasingly weird and more terrifying for Bobbie and Naya, until it becomes all too clear that Bloody Mary was indeed called from the afterlife that night, and she is definitely not a friendly ghost. Bobbie, Naya and Caine are now in a race against time before their five days are up and Mary comes for them, as she has come for countless others before… A truly spine-chilling yet witty horror from shortlisted ‘Queen of Teen’ author James Dawson

Having enjoyed James Dawson’s previous books, Hollow Pike and Cruel Summer, I was certain I would like this but I was a little more nervous, as this title is billed as more definitely ‘horror’ than his previous books. I’m not really a horror reader, or a fan of the genre in film, but I do like a good urban legend, including the Bloody Mary story on which this is based.

The novel is firmly focused on a small group of teens, most of whom attend boarding school together, which lends the setting a nicely claustrophobic air. I really liked Bobbie and loved that this didn’t fall into the horror genre trap of having idiotic characters put themselves in danger in a really obvious way. I thought that the main group, and Bobbie especially, were sympathetic and realistic, and even Mary was fleshed-out enough as a character (if that’s not too much of an oxymoron for a ghost…) to avoid being cliched.

The way the story is told really ratchets up the tension. We open with a flashback to an older appearance of Mary, and the contemporary story is divided into five days, as Mary gets closer and closer. Of course, having read the cover and the blurb, we know that five days is the rule, but the poor characters do not initially have this information and have to waste time figuring out that the legend is real and they are in danger. This is just one of many details that helps boost tension and make sure we’re rooting for the characters (especially Bobbie and the smuggled-in-boy, Caine).

Caine and Bobbie’s budding romance is also a touch that I feel improved the novel, helping to build their characters as sympathetic. I’ve seen some reviews criticise this aspect as unnecessary in a horror, but I disagree – having subplots that detract from the horror aspects is actually a way to increase tension, and I also felt that this was a realistically portrayed attraction, not the maligned ‘instalove’.

Another thing that I felt really enriched the book was the mystery angle, as Bobbie uses her five-day countdown to try to unravel who Mary is and see what she wants. The references to other renditions of Mary’s legend, specifically the Supernatural episode were also very welcome. Pop culture references that make me smile are something of a staple in James Dawson’s books by now.

Finally, I must address the scariness. The novel is wonderfully creepy, with the tension managed just right. I was definitely more aware of my surroundings for a good few days after finishing it, and I would not have wanted to read it in bed, or go to sleep immediately after reading. For me, in my relative wussiness, this was about the maximum amount of creepiness I could stand without wimping out, so if (like me) you avoid horror films, don’t assume that this book is too much.

Say Her Name is out now from Hot Key Books.

Review: Ruin and Rising by Leigh Bardugo

If you enjoyed Shadow and Bone and Siege and Storm, you will love this cracking wrap-up to a brilliant YA fantasy trilogy.

If you haven’t yet started the trilogy, don’t read this review – even the blurb has spoilers for the earlier books – instead, head over here to my review of book 1 (formerly known as The Gathering Dark in the UK, then changed to match the US title when the movie rights sold.)

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ruin and risingThe capital has fallen.

The Darkling rules Ravka from his shadow throne.

Now the nation’s fate rests with a broken Sun Summoner, a disgraced tracker, and the shattered remnants of a once-great magical army.

Deep in an ancient network of tunnels and caverns, a weakened Alina must submit to the dubious protection of the Apparat and the zealots who worship her as a Saint. Yet her plans lie elsewhere, with the hunt for the elusive firebird and the hope that an outlaw prince still survives.

Alina will have to forge new alliances and put aside old rivalries as she and Mal race to find the last of Morozova’s amplifiers. But as she begins to unravel the Darkling’s secrets, she reveals a past that will forever alter her understanding of the bond they share and the power she wields. The firebird is the one thing that stands between Ravka and destruction—and claiming it could cost Alina the very future she’s fighting for.

Here’s my initial ‘review’ on closing the book (fangirly gush more like..): What an amazing ride the Grisha series has been! Brilliant, classic high fantasy on one hand and yet unique and unpredictable on the other. So many twists that I did not in the slightest see coming, and which developed or resolved situations perfectly. Genius storytelling revealing complete mastery of poor defenceless reader emotions as well as fabulous world-building and skillful character development. Such a satisfying ending too – no mean feat to pull off, but she did it. If you’re hesitating to finish this trilogy for fear it could let you down, stop messing about right now and get on with it :)

I have little to add to this really (and am trying to allow myself to write shorter reviews these days anyway). I am quite picky abut endings; I like things to be completed (except in a few cases where the whole narrative has been about gaps and unreliability – that’s a different thing, but cheating and not telling me what happens, that I tend not to forgive). Although not an ending I could have predicted until I was right on top of it, Ruin and Rising closes the trilogy perfectly, leaving me (and, no doubt, many other Grisha fans) satisfied and grateful.

As with the earlier Grisha books, I enjoyed reading from Alina’s viewpoint and seeing her character development, as well as that of the other characters around her. I also think that it is a real gift to be able to enjoy a great, sweeping romance set against the backdrop of an epic fantasy without my feminist sensibilities being prickled. Yes, there is a (gorgeous) romance thread, but that is neither the point of the plot nor Alina’s priority. She struggles with her feelings, which are often conflicted, (and tested most cruelly) but this is ultimately a ‘chosen one’ type quest and her responsibilities as hero are far more important than her personal feelings. Love is not an end in itself but a part of the complexity of her life, which feels right. I said something similar about the start of this trilogy, and it is definitely an important aspect of the series for me which has been maintained throughout.

Clearly, I am absolutely recommending this series and was delighted to hear the news that Leigh Bardugo has signed with Indigo for more novels, which will also be set in the Grishaverse.

Personal blog: mostly bookish, plus some dogs, feminism and whatever else occurs.