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 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.

UKYA review: Under Rose-Tainted Skies by Louise Gornall

Rose3Under Rose-Tainted Skies, Louise Gornall, (out now from Chicken House)

Genres in the mix: contemporary

Age target: YA

Story basics: Norah has agoraphobia and OCD and only leaves her house for therapy. She only experiences the outside world through her windows with pink panes (the rose glass alluded to in the fantastic title – love the pun on ‘tinted’ with its implications of staining -) and longs for normality. The arrival of new neighbours, especially Luke, who is her age and interacts with her, intensifies this longing.

Review-in-a-tweet: Fantastic portrayal of mental ill health with well-rounded and easy-to-care about characters on all sides.

The emotional ride: Not exactly smooth! But then, that is as it should be with a book with such themes. At the same time, I at no times felt annoyingly/clumsily manipulated as I have done when reading some other mental health-themed teen books. There is no glorification/romanticisation of Norah’s condition and, however the summary/blurb may lead you to think so, it’s no straightforward ‘romance saves the day’ plot, either – that would be an unjust simplification and Louise Gornall is too smart and honest for that.

Hot buttons/classroom opportunities: mental health issues – how they are handled in society, how they are/can be written about/presented in art/culture/media, why we shouldn’t equate OCD with liking tidiness etc (perfect opportunity to discuss/show the crippling nature of the actual condition).

Plotting and pacing: the beautifully lyrical style may be a little slow for impatient readers/those who prefer action-packed books, but I loved it and feel Gornall should be applauded for pulling off a novel set almost entirely in one house. There is a great attention to detail, which naturally fits with Norah’s narrative style and personality.


Hearthfire rating: 10/10 Smoking hot!

Under Rose-Tainted Skies is out now in the UK from Chicken House, 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.

The Reading Teacher: 3 Ways to Sneak ‘Reading for Pleasure’ Recommendations into GCSE English Classes

I think (hope?) many of us can agree that GCSE set text lists do not inherently encourage students to become readers. By exposing young teenagers to  books deemed ‘classics’ or ‘great’ and requiring detailed analysis, we often in fact risk putting them off reading. This is, unfortunately, especially true for those not from a reading background whose only exposure to books is in school and who are left with the impression that the set texts they are given is what all books are like.

It is important, therefore, to try to share with pupils good examples of recently-published, engaging fiction for Young Adults (YA novels or Teen Fiction – although these are not interchangeable labels; teen is generally a little ‘younger’ and less likely to feature romance or tackle gritty issues). Here are some suggestions for ways that this can be achieved without going too far off-piste – especially if your school doesn’t have a school-wide initiative like Drop Everything And Read time.

  1. Use YA novel extracts when teaching writing skills. I know we often reach for the classics here, but especially now that this skill is tested in an exam and not as a CA, the boards are no longer looking for pre-1950s-style (and currently unpublishable) purple prose. More modern exemplars are likely to be useful to students.
  2. Offer extracts from YA novels as early practice texts for reading skills before moving on to the more demanding types of texts set by the boards (e.g. the 20th century lit set by AQA).
  3. Share recommendations, possibly supported by extracts, or simply blurbs and covers on slides for topical reads or good reads linked to students’ interests (including the canny use of TV shows and films as genre guides – here‘s my sizable list from the summer). This makes a nice plenary as a ‘how do these link to the lesson?’ or an end of half term task: choose one or two to look out for and read over half term (it’s always worth promoting libraries – kids don’t have to BUY books to read them…)

As of today, over on Twitter I’ll be sharing  daily #ReadingTeacher recommendations, which I’m hoping will be of use and interest to other secondary teachers. I’ll be using recently published YA and occasionally MG novels, and will link them to: curriculum possibilities such as teaching particular writing/analysis skills; broader curriculum issues such as SMSC/the four ‘R’s of Learning Power; themed months/days such as Black History Month or World Mental Health Day; students’ interests/TV/film to allow easy recommendations. I intend to use books I’ve personally read (although I may occasionally rec something based on reliable intel 🙂 ), but they won’t always have already been reviewed on here.

If you don’t yet follow me on Twitter, I’m @BethKemp (and I talk mostly books, but also dogs, so be warned!)

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.


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?


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.