UK Crime Review: Burned and Broken by Mark Hardie

Today I am part of the review tour for a new UK crime novel, out in e-book this week.

Burned and Broken, Mark Hardie, (Sphere, e-book out Jan 2017, paperback May 2017).

Genres in the mix: crime, police procedural

Age target: adult

Story basics: (from the back cover) A vulnerable young woman, fresh out of the care system, is trying to discover the truth behind the sudden death of her best friend.

The charred body of a policeman – currently the subject of an internal investigation – is found in the burnt-out shell of his car on the Southend seafront.

To DS Frank Pearson and DC Catherine Russell of the Essex Police Major Investigation Team, the two events seem unconnected. But as they dig deeper into their colleague’s murder, dark secrets begin to emerge.

Can Pearson and Russell solve both cases, before more lives are destroyed?

Mark Hardie was born in 1960 in Bow, East London. He began writing fulltime after completely losing his eyesight in 2002. He has completed a creative writing course and an advanced creative writing course at the Open University, both with distinction.

Review-in-a-tweet: An intriguing, if not always easy read, which certainly keeps you on your toes. No by-the-book crime thriller!

Narrative style: This is one of the things that makes this book different and, at times, difficult. The perspective/point of view shifts every chapter, and sometimes more frequently, not always with a clear anchor to indicate whose viewpoint we’re in within the first sentence or so. This said, the range of perspectives and ‘insider views’ offered as a result of this is useful and certainly adds to the intrigue, but I do feel it could be handled more tightly at times.

The material at the end of the book says that the author is a fan of both crime and literary fiction, and I think that shows in what he’s doing with the book. This is a relatively unusual crime novel in some ways, in that it is trying to avoid some of the conventions (which it perhaps sees as cliches). At times, however, it felt a bit too much like hard work, as I found myself lost as to whose ‘head’ I was in or even a little unsure as to what had just happened. Not one for late night reading when you’re dozy…

Main characters: I grew to admire DS Pearson, although I wasn’t enamoured of him at first. He doesn’t fit established crime series ‘types’ for the main character, which is nice – in a few key ways, this book does ignore/avoid conventions – and he isn’t always likeable, but not in a maverick cop/tough guy way. I really liked DC Russell though, and she had my sympathy from the start. I thought Hardie did a good job of painting a conflicted female character in a tough spot without resorting to the kinds of cliches male crime writers often have. Donna (the ‘vulnerable young woman’) also avoided some obvious cliches in her presentation I think and although her sections were often tough reading, I feel they were done well.

Hearthfire rating: 7/10 A book to cosy up with

Burned and Broken is out now in e-book format in the UK from Sphere (Little, Brown Books), 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.

I’m counting this review towards the British Books Challenge 2017.

The blog tour continues tomorrow with these blogs taking part.

The Reading Teacher: Recommendations to Share

Welcome to a new blog feature. I’ve been making recommendations over on Twitter for a while, with a particular eye on teachers’ needs, using the hashtag #ReadingTeacher and I thought I’d share a few here with a bit more detail (and some resources to share with students!). I’ve already blogged about this idea in general terms, so I’ll just cut straight to recommending some books, if that’s ok 🙂 Here are some I’ll be recommending to my classes over the next couple of weeks:

Download Lemony Snicket slide    Download Narrative Voice slide

I don’t know about you, but my resident teens and I have become big fans of the Netflix version of ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’, so I thought that making some recommendations based on that might be prudent. I’ve gone for a gothic vibe largely, general weirdness and a dark comic tone as you can see from the info on the slide. I first read Good Omens in sixth form and it was certainly accessible (although I think there were references I only understood on re-reading as an adult), so I’m hopeful some bright yr11s might like it. Incidentally, there will be a Good Omens series (penned by Gaiman) on Amazon and the BBC in 2018.

As for my ‘narrative voice’ collection, I thought it would be nice to cluster books by literary feature sometimes rather than theme, as it allows for a broader spread of content and gives me more chance to offer something to catch the interest of more students in a class.

As with all my recommendations, I’ve personally read most of these, or can vouch for their quality based on the word of others (confession: I haven’t read Miss Peregrine – yet – but many of my go-to trusted bloggers have). The main aim of my recommendations is to encourage reading for pleasure, but I am doing so through well-written texts which are worthy of students’ time. If they read these, they will be exposed to decent vocabulary used appositely, well-balanced sentences, maybe some use of literary features such as metaphor, all while being able to access and enjoying a good story.

UKYA Review: Wing Jones by Katherine Webber

Wing Jones, Katherine Webber, (Walker, Jan 5th 2017)

Genres in the mix: contemporary, magic realism, romance

Age target: YA

Story basicsFor fans of David Levithan, Jandy Nelson and Rainbow Rowell: a sweeping story about love and family from an exceptional new voice in YA. With a grandmother from China and another from Ghana, fifteen-year-old Wing Jones is often caught between worlds. But when tragedy strikes, Wing discovers a talent for running she never knew she had. Wing’s speed could bring her family everything it needs. It could also stop Wing getting the one thing she wants.

I’ve been looking forward to this one for months. The cover was revealed at YALC last July and there had been chatter about it before then. All this hype made me slightly apprehensive about reading it, as it can be hard for books to live up to it (especially, for me, for contemporaries which so often rely heavily on romance – personal taste, but that’s not my favourite thing and a book which offers only/solely that is not going to satisfy). Anyway, Wing Jones does NOT disappoint – it’s a fabulous, diverse family drama told with a light touch which offers plenty of warmth and even some humour.

The emotional ride: dramatic and, at times, unrelenting. This is not a ‘quiet’ book, but one full of passion and emotion. It drags you through a range of emotions with poor Wing as she deals with tragedy, family, school and trying to just be fifteen. However at no point does it feel manipulative or gratuitous and there is often humour in amongst the drama.

Narrative style: Wing’s first person narrative is lyrical and beautiful, and we are easily drawn into her imaginative and metaphorical thought process.

Supporting cast: I feel that characterisation is a strength of this book, but I particularly loved Wing’s two grannies, LaoLao and Granny Dee. They often brought warmth and humour to the story.

Hot buttons/classroom opportunities: the diverse make-up of the book’s cast is fantastic for addressing the narrow range of representation offered by the set GCSE curriculum. I’d love to offer this as part of KS3 or on a ‘reading for pleasure’ list to KS4 to offset the set texts. There are also plenty of SMSC opportunities: bullying, poverty, culture (especially biracial heritage) and Wing herself is a great example of resilience and could therefore be discussed in relation to learning power/four Rs and growth mindset. The writing itself is also beautiful and descriptive, often using metaphor.

Hearthfire rating: 10/10 Smoking hot!

Wing Jones is out now in the UK from Walker Books.

This is my first British Books Challenge review for 2017 – and what a brilliant choice of book! I’m also counting this for the Diverse Reads Challenge, as Wing’s dual heritage is important in the story.

Three Recommendations for Transgender Rep: Non-Fic, YA and MG

Non-Fic Recommendation: Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out, Susan Kuklin

Recommended for: parents, teachers, youth workers, teens and tweens of all gender identities (and sexualities) – transgender, cisgender (non-trans), non-binary, agender.

The style of this book is very journalistic, but incredibly hands-off. Put together by photographer-author Susan Kuklin, it is clear that she allowed her teen subjects a lot of freedom in expressing themselves. It is also clear that she is a cis author seeking information from that perspective and for that reason, this book is perhaps slightly more useful for a cis audience. That said, there are clear efforts for the book to be representative in that there are two each male-to-female, female-to-male and non-binary teens presented in the book, so it would be very difficult to leave it with the impression that there is one transgender experience, which is great.

At times, probably because of their young age, some of the books’ subjects are a little dogmatic in their opinions and it might have been nice to balance this with the perspective of older, more settled, transgender narratives, but there is also much value in sharing teens’ voices. If a key purpose of the book is to help transgender teens see others in the same position, then the book certainly achieves that. Another would be to help cis teens understand, and I think that purpose is also well met. There are comprehensive lists of resources for support (US and UK) at the end of the book.

Hearthfire rating: 8/10 Sizzling

Beyond Magenta is out now in the UK from Walker Books, who provided me with a review copy. It was a 2015 Stonewall Honor Book in the US.

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 Recommendation: If I Was Your Girl, Meredith Russo

 

Recommended for: YA contemporary fans of all ages and gender identities. There are separate notes for both trans and cis readers at the end of the novel (which are brilliant and generous but should only be read after the story because of spoilers).

This #ownvoices contemporary YA romance about Amanda with flashes to when she was Andrew is nicely put together and offers a satisfying story with some fantastic characterisation. I thought Amanda’s parents were well drawn, especially her Dad’s struggles with his daughter’s identity. That would be easy to present as black/white, but he is a fully-realised character with plenty of grey and I really enjoyed seeing that. Complex parents are not always something you get in YA.

The ways in which this does fulfil YA tropes are that Amanda is beautiful and desirable and, sometimes, things seem easier for her than they will be for many trans teens who read this. At first, this worried me reading it, but then I realised that it is intended to offer hope and, in fact, the more negative aspects of transition are discussed, they just might be in Amanda’s past or happen to others rather than being centre stage. This is also discussed in the author’s notes.

Overall, the charming story will easily carry readers through, while the author’s notes at the end serve nicely to emphasise the relevant points about trans experience. There are also adverts for UK-specific support services at the end.

Hearthfire rating: 9/10 A scorcher!

If I Was Your Girl is out now in the UK from Usborne. It was selected as a ‘Zoella book club’ title for W H Smith.


MG Recommendation: George, Alex Gino

Recommended for: readers 9+ (including teachers and parents)

This book really blew me away. I’d read other trans rep before this one, but I couldn’t say I’d had the experience shown to me so definitively before. It’s all in the pronouns and voice.

George is presented using female pronouns (she/her) and, when the book starts, she’s at home by herself. When you then see her interacting with others who refer to her as a boy, it’s jarring. And then you get it – that’s how clearly and viscerally Alex Gino presents the reader with George’s experience. They never describe George as ‘wanting to be’ a girl or ‘feeling like she is’ a girl, she just is a girl, but everyone inexplicably treats her as a boy. And there it is. For this cis reader, that was the clearest presentation I’d come across. I don’t consider myself stupid and I would say I had (intellectually) understood the concept before, but no-one had made me feel it before. I was right there with George, though.

For a book geek, another delight of this book is the way Charlotte’s Web is used. George’s class is studying the book and they’re going to do a performance of it and George wants to be Charlotte. Of course, her teacher won’t let her be Charlotte because, to her, George is a boy and boys should be Wilbur or Templeton. In all, it’s a lovely story, warmly told, pitched perfectly for the MG audience (I also appreciated that we don’t get into discussing transition or the big questions of how George will be in the future – there’s plenty of time for that). This is the perfect, reassuring and warm introduction to the idea for MG readers who may or may not have questions about gender at this point in time.

Hearthfire rating: 10/10 Smoking hot!

George is out now in the UK from Scholastic.

I hope this round-up has been helpful and I really hope to see more books exploring the range of human identity coming out in the future. Some of these books have been out for a while in the States but are fairly new to the UK. I know that in schools we’re starting to see more kids expressing different gender identities and it would be good for teachers and support workers to have resources available to support them and other kids around them.

UKMG Review: A Girl Called Owl by Amy Wilson

28168228A Girl Called Owl, Amy Wilson, (Macmillan Children’s Books, 26 Jan 2017)

Genres in the mix: fantasy, contemporary, school setting, folklore

Age target: MG

Story basics: (blurb) It’s bad enough having a mum dippy enough to name you Owl, but when you’ve got a dad you’ve never met, a best friend who needs you more than ever, and a new boy at school giving you weird looks, there’s not a lot of room for much else.

So when Owl starts seeing strange frost patterns on her skin, she’s tempted to just burrow down under the duvet and forget all about it. Could her strange new powers be linked to her mysterious father?And what will happen when she enters the magical world of winter for the first time?

A glittering story of frost and friendship, with writing full of magic and heart, A Girl Called Owl is a stunning debut about family, responsibility and the beauty of the natural world.

Review-in-a-tweet: Classic-toned story in today’s world. Great on big themes of family, friendship and fitting in, woven through a fantasy landscape using folklore.

 

Plotting and pacing: I felt this was managed perfectly for its tween audience. There’s quite a bit of complexity to it, portioned out slowly enough for young readers who are unfamiliar with the folklore to handle.

Main character: Owl is a lovely character – very easy to relate to and empathise with. Young readers will readily engage with her all-too-familiar worries about not fitting in if she reveals her secrets, even though her problems are magical in origin.

Supporting cast: I loved the relationships created in this book; they are very emotionally realistic. I’m sure many readers will also love Mallory (Owl’s best friend) and Alberic (mysterious new boy at school).

Hearthfire rating:  8/10 Sizzling

A Girl Called Owl  comes out on the 26th January in the UK from Macmillan Childrens, 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.

Diverse Reading Challenge 2017

I like to look out for diversity in my reading matter, and representation is always something I’m aware of, so this seems like a good challenge for me. It’s a simple one, with a straightforward aim: to try to include diverse representation in your reading.

The challenge is jointly hosted across two blogs: Read.Sleep.Repeat. and Chasing Faerytales, and they define diversity broadly, following We Need Diverse Books’ lead.

There is a theme per month, but this is optional, and diverse books not fitting that theme can also be counted towards the challenge. I do intend to use some of the themes and the suggested reading list/recommendations on Twitter to help me broaden out my reading, though. January’s theme is ‘stories based on/ inspired by diverse folktales/culture/mythology’, so that’s a bit of a challenge for me straightaway. I’ve read Zoe Marriott’s excellent The Night Itself trilogy (Japanese folklore-based, UK-set urban fantasy YA), which is on the list for that section, but I’ll need to get a move on if I’m going to find and read something new and review it this month – eek!

British Books Challenge 2017

As I’ve been in a bit of a blogging slump over the past few months, I’ve decided to sign up for a blogging challenge or two to give me a boost for 2017. I’ve participated in the British Books Challenge before, which is hosted this year by the very lovely Chelley of Tales of Yesterday. It’s a straightforward challenge – read and review at least 12 books by British authors during the year (since US titles often get a bigger publicity push), with prize packs sponsored by UK publishers for bloggers remembering to link up their reviews on the official site post each month. Chelley’s also added some extra incentives with an ‘author of the month’ and ‘debut of the month’ – anyone reviewing those will get a double entry in the draw, so we’ll see whether I can qualify for any of those.

My plans so far are to read and review some of the British titles I’ve already got, along with some new books that I’m eagerly awaiting. I’m sure more books will emerge as the year goes on too. If I review all of these, I’ll more than meet the challenge, but some of these are quite chunky tomes, so we’ll see…

New titles to look forward to are:

  • Wing Jones by Katherine Webber (out 5th Jan)
  • Unconventional by Maggie Harcourt (out 1st Feb)
  • The Night Spinner by Abi Ephinstone (out 23rd Feb)

Titles I already own:

  • The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry (on Kindle)
  • The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley (on Kindle)
  • How Not to Disappear by Claire Furness
  • Cuckoo by Keren David
  • My Brother is a Superhero by David Solomons and Laura Ellen Anderson
  • Who Let the Gods Out by Maz Evans
  • The Graces by Laure Eve
  • Jinks and O’Hare Funfair Repair by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre
  • Barefoot on the Wind by Zoe Marriott
  • Cogheart by Peter Bunzl
  • The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware
  • The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanne Cannon
  • Jolly Foul Play by Robin Stevens (unavailable for photographing… on my daughter’s shelf 😉)
  • Mistletoe and Murder by Robin Stevens (unavailable for photographing… on my daughter’s shelf 😉)

These are a mix of adult, YA and MG – thankfully, everything goes for this challenge: as long as the book was both read and reviewed in 2017, it counts.

Spotlight: Secrets and Ghosts by Dennis Zaslona

sg-book-coverToday I thought I’d share with you the details of a middle grade book which is out now by a member of my writing group. Here’s what the Amazon blurb has to say:

A boy who doesn’t believe in ghosts. A girl with a terrible secret. A very haunted hotel. 13 year old Dan confronts a deadly presence in the hotel to risk his life for Shafilea. But being friends with Dan has given away her secret and now it is the living as well as the dead who threaten the children. Can the new friendship between Dan and Shafi survive?

I found this an enjoyable read for the upper end of middle grade. There is considerable suspense and plenty of spooky goings-on. The friendship between Shafi and Dan introduces unexpected elements into the story – it is not ‘just’ a ghost story and raises some issues that children at the young end of middle grade would potentially not be ready for (but no spoilers here!)

The book is self-published and is available in Kindle and paperback formats.

UKYA Review: Haunt Me by Liz Kessler

haunt-meHaunt Me, Liz Kessler, (Orion, Oct 2016)

Genres in the mix: paranormal/magical realism, some themes in common with contemporary genres

Age target: YA

Story basics: (taken from Goodreads):

Joe wakes up from a deep sleep to see his family leave in a removals van. Where they’ve gone, he has no idea. Erin moves house and instantly feels at home in her new room. Even if it appears she isn’t the only one living in it. Bit by bit, Erin and Joe discover that they have somehow found a way across the ultimate divide – life and death. Bound by their backgrounds, a love of poetry and their growing feelings for each other, they are determined to find a way to be together.

Joe’s brother, Olly, never cared much for poetry. He was always too busy being king of the school – but that all changed when Joe died. And when an encounter in the school corridor brings him face to face with Erin, he realises how different things really are – including the kind of girl he falls for.

Two brothers. Two choices. Will Erin’s decision destroy her completely, or can she save herself before she is lost forever?

Review-in-a-tweet: Gorgeous dual narrative tale exploring Erin and Joe’s developing relationship as Erin seeks to rebuild her reality after a crisis and Joe comes to terms with his own death.

The emotional ride: Complicated! Erin’s inner life is complex already, as she has plenty to handle without Joe’s appearance in her life. And Joe is no simple catalyst either, but a fully rounded character with a full set of problems of his own. This is a perfectly nuanced and emotionally satisfying read, which just happens to use the concept of one character being a ghost to further complicate matters.

Hot buttons/classroom opportunities: mental health issues, bullying, some key ‘what would you do’ moral discussion moments present themselves – this would be lovely for a school book group

Supporting cast: I’ve already indicated the characterisation is a strength of this book – that does not only go for the two leads. There are so many great characters here! I loved Erin’s mum and had a lot of sympathy for her (perhaps as a parent of teens myself), trying to do the right thing but not always quite managing that, as parents in stories must not. Olly and Erin’s classmates are also beautifully drawn to do more than just fill out the story.

Overall, a definite recommendation from me. Quite lovely.

For more on Liz, check out her website or see her Twitter feed.  Her last YA novel, Read Me Like a Book, is reviewed on my site here.

Hearthfire rating: 8/10 Sizzling

Haunt Me is out now in the UK from Orion, who provided me with a review copy.

Accepting a review copy does not affect my view of a book and please note that I only finish and review books that I feel able to recommend. (There is only so much time in the world and So Many Books!)

Review: Creative Writing Journal and Good Things Are Happening Gratitude Journal

creative-writingCreative Writing: A Journal with Art to Kickstart Your Writing, by Eva Glettner (Chronicle Books, Sept 2016)

good-things

Good Things Are Happening: A Journal for Tiny Moments of Joy, by Lauren Hom (Chronice Books, Sept 2016)

Both of these write-in books exhibit excellent design and are fabulously good-looking objects, but this is by no means all they have to offer.

The Creative Writing journal has a full-page image for each spread, with a lined page for writing for each prompt. It is a good sized book, at a little smaller than A4 size, with good quality paper that fineliners haven’t bled through. The designs are unusual and inspirational and the exercises all offer interesting food for thought, with genuine reference to the images.

The book as a whole works really well and is definitely adding to my practice. It is not just a few illustrated exercises, but is a striking use of artwork to inspire.

The gratitude journal  asks you to record three good things for each day you use it. It is undated, so there is no pressure to complete it every day, or guilt about starting at the wrong time. The book is a small hardback, with good quality multi-colour pages that don’t allow bleed-through.

Bold graphic designs appear every so often, either with helpful suggestions as to things with could be one of today’s ‘good things’ or occasionally with extra prompts for further cheering lists (as in the image on the left).

The book as a whole is another pleasure to use and makes a regular gratitude practice simple and even more pleasant.

It is an increasingly well-known fact that both gratitude practice and regular creative writing can have strong mental health benefits so I would definitely recommend these beautifully-produced books, either as a simple addition to a self-care routine, or a thoughtful gift.

Both titles are out now in the UK from Chronicle Books, who kindly provided me with review copies.

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

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