UKYA Review: Orangeboy by Patrice Lawrence

orangeboyOrangeboy, Patrice Lawrence, (Hodder, June 2016)

Genres in the mix: Contemporary realism

Age target: YA

Blurb saysNot cool enough, not clever enough, not street enough for anyone to notice me. I was the kid people looked straight through.

NOT ANY MORE. NOT SINCE MR ORANGE.

Sixteen-year-old Marlon has made his mum a promise – he’ll never follow his big brother, Andre, down the wrong path. So far, it’s been easy, but when a date ends in tragedy, Marlon finds himself hunted. They’re after the mysterious Mr Orange, and they’re going to use Marlon to get to him. Marlon’s out of choices – can he become the person he never wanted to be, to protect everyone he loves?

Review-in-a-tweet: Gripping, chilling and yet warm and gently told – this is a tale full of the poor (if somewhat inevitable) choices of a boy against whom the odds seem stacked from the first.

The emotional ride: edge-of-your-seat stuff. It’s easy to feel for Marlon from the beginning. I think having the first scene be what is so clearly a first date makes him so vulnerable that we readers easily identify with him and see what a fish out of water he is when everything starts getting serious.

Hot buttons/classroom opportunities: I’ll be recommending this for Black History month. Yes, I know it’s contemporary and very current and not at all historical, but there’s so much here about how young black people, boys especially, are treated and the expectations people have of them, that it seems really apt to me as a book about Black experience. I think that’s part of what Black History Month is about, so this goes firmly on my list.

Narrative style: The first person narration really helps to ‘get inside’ Marlon’s way of thinking, so it’s easy to understand why he does things, even when you can see (as an outsider) that he’s making the wrong choice.

Plotting and pacing: This is a strong aspect of the novel. It’s a pacey read, with plenty going on in poor Marlon’s life. There’s the whole ‘Mr Orange’ mystery, but there’s also plenty of conflict and mess in his family life too. I enjoyed the thread about his Dad, and the way this was linked in through music – I think that’s a key way a lot of people relate through the generations, which isn’t always noted, so it was nice to see it brought out here.

Hearthfire rating: 9/10 A scorcher!

Thank you to Hodder for allowing me a review copy via Netgalley. For more info on the book see Goodreads, Patrice Lawrence’s blog or Twitter or the publisher’s site.

UKYACX Blog Tour Post: Killing Books from Dan Smith

It’s almost time for this year’s UKYACX event (formerly known as the UKYA/UKMG Extravaganza). This year, it’s headed north to Newcastle. I’ve been to the last two and they have been brilliant experiences.  A day celebrating reading and writing for young people: what could be better?

UKYACX

Dan SmithTo celebrate this fantastic event, two blog tours are running simultaneously, with YA and MG authors discussing books, writing and libraries. Here at the hearthfire, we’re fortunate to have Dan Smith, author of Big Game, My Brother’s Secret, My Friend The Enemy and latest book: Boy X, about a boy who wakes up to find himself kidnapped on a tropical island – and he’s been injected with a mysterious chemical. Anyway, without further ado, here is what Dan wanted to share with us today on the theme of creating readers.


As she moved around the room passing out the new class reader, my English teacher told us that we were about to read a classic novel. It was brilliant, she told us, and we would love it. I was twelve-years-old, an avid reader of adventure stories and thrillers, and I looked down at the cover with excitement. This new book, with its jungle scene and roughly drawn, spear-carrying boys, held so much promise. Where was this story going to take me? A jungle island? A survival adventure?

Well, as it turned out, it took me through weeks and weeks of dull English lessons as my classmates and I took turns to read a few lines or pages. From time to time we would stop to discuss the themes and messages and . . . blah, blah, blah. And when the weakest readers took their turn, stuttering and stumbling, every word saw my eyelids grow heavier. The pages dragged through autumn term and into spring term. It took a LONG time to read that novel and I thought it was The Most Boring Book. Ever.

School killed that book for me, as it killed many others following it, and it could have killed the very idea of reading for pleasure. If those lessons had been my only contact with books, then I would always have associated books with the boredom of sitting in class. But I was lucky enough to have parents who read a lot. My background was one in which reading had become a major source of entertainment, so I was able to walk away from that classroom and pick up another book which I could read for myself. For pleasure.

I was also lucky that my school ran a monthly book club. Mr Johnson would sit at the back of the school ‘library’ beside a table laden with books of all kinds, and I would look through them and choose which ones I might like. Mr Johnson would smoke his pipe (we’re going back a few years) and talk with enthusiasm about the books. He would make recommendations, and helped me to be excited about books and about stories.

For me, that’s the importance of a school librarian. It’s the importance of an English teacher (or any other teacher) who knows the difference between reading for study and reading for pleasure; who understands that we need to encourage young people to read books they want to read. I appreciate the importance of studying novels, of teaching young people to be analytical and to ask questions. I understand the stress of targets and literacy levels, but we need those librarians and teachers who also haven’t forgotten what novels are really for; that there are no ‘right’ books or ‘wrong’ books and that, yes, novels develop our empathy, encourage creativity, help us to see a new world, and so many other things besides, but that their main function is to entertain us – to make us laugh and cry, to gasp in excitement, or tremble in fear.

Before anything, reading should be a pleasure.

Oh, and that book I read in class? I have since read it for myself, many times, and it’s now one of my favourite novels. If you think you know what it is . . . put your guesses in the comments below!


Thanks Dan (and I’m pretty sure I’m familiar with that book, having had a similar experience…).

If survival in the jungle type adventures are your thing, and you haven’t read Dan’s books, you should definitely add his titles to your wishlist. His website is here. He also writes thrillers for adults.ASh McCarthy

Check out the UKYACX MG BLOG TOUR POSTER and @UKYACX for more info on the blog tour or event.

 

Guest Post from Emma Carroll, author of Strange Star: Why Gothic Fiction Is Still Relevant Today

Today I’m very pleased to welcome Emma Carroll to the Hearthfire. She’s here for the last stop on her blog tour for the fabulously gothic middle grade novel Strange Star, inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and highly recommended.

It could be the blurb for a YA novel: a group of friends on holiday, a thunderstorm, a night in with drinks, ghost stories, the simmering tension of who fancies who.

It also describes one of the most famous gatherings in literary history. When Mary Shelley (then Godwin) stayed at the Villa Diodati with Lord Byron and Percy Shelley in June 1816, the idea for ‘Frankenstein’ was conceived- that’s one theory, anyway. There are many others- she was inspired by her mother’s death, the loss of her own daughter, a dream where she brought her dead baby back to life, the frustration of being fiercely intelligent in a male-dominated world, jealousy. Such a rich mix of ‘possibles’ only adds to her allure.

As part of the Stoke Newington Festival in June, I did a panel event to mark the 200-year anniversary of that portentous night in 1816. Though there wasn’t a thunderstorm, the venue- a beautiful Elizabethan church- was suitably gothic. Grass grew waist- deep in the graveyard outside. Inside, was all black beams and carved wood seats and walls pock-marked with age. There were no lights, only candles. It was perfect.

The panel -Sally Gardner (Tinder, The Door That Led To Where), Eleanor Wassenburg (Foxlowe), Karen Lee Street (Edgar Allan Poe and the London Monster), and I- were writers whose work is gothic-influenced.  Sarah Perry (The Essex Serpent) was also meant to join us, but sadly was sick. (cue: gothic ‘thwarted dreams’ moment as my fangirling hopes were dashed!) Chaired by journalist, critic and unabashed ‘Frankenstein’ fan Suzy Feay, we discussed Shelley’s inspirations and how the gothic still shapes writing today.

And is it still a relevant genre, we pondered? Was it not all red drapes and swooning ladies in nightgowns? Had the gothic not become pastiche?

No, in short.

Any genre that gives voice to a minority will always have a place. In many ways the gothic is a code, a language, a metaphor if you will, for what it is to be vulnerable. Writers like Angela Carter recognised its overtly feminist, post-modern narrative. Monsters aren’t always truly evil; victims aren’t always weak. There are challenges, desires, emotions- all of which feel, on first reading, to be familiar story tropes, yet on closer consideration speak of anguish in a way that might otherwise not be heard.

For me, Shelley’s masterpiece does exactly this. Who the true monster is, isn’t quite clear. Many critics say the disfigured creation rejected by its ‘father’ represents Shelley herself. Her appearance was the means by which others judged her, so much so that ‘Frankenstein’ was initially published under Percy Shelley’s name. She took inspiration from the growing Abolition movement. She was aware of the limitations imposed by race and gender. Her relationship with her father was strained, cool, her marriage troubled by jealousies. She craved acceptance and belonging, just as her monster does.

Shelley’s use of gothic allows her to speak at a time in history when society wasn’t listening. Two hundred years on, we still judge by colour and gender. In these post-Brexit times, we’re nervous of outsiders, people who don’t quite ‘fit’.

Gothic fiction gives dissenters a voice.

Emma is a former English teacher whose middle grade novels either fall into the historical genre or have a strong link to the past. She’s written about circuses, fairies and ghosts and all focus on children having a difficult time. She is published by Faber & Faber in the UK.

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!