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

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

Genres in the mix: Contemporary

Age target: YA

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

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

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

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

Reasons to read:

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

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

Hearthfire rating: 9/10 A scorcher!

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

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

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

Fantasy Genre – to really get away from reality

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

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

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

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

adult fantasy revision reads

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

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

crime recs for revision

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

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

Dystopian and Post-Apocalyptic

dystopian revision recs

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

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

UKYA Review: Red Witch by Anna McKerrow

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

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

Red WitchGenres in the mix: Fantasy,  Dystopian

Age target: YA

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

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

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

Hot buttons: Paganism, magic, environmentalism, responsibility

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

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

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

Hearthfire rating: 10/10 Smoking hot!

Literary Lonely Hearts: This Is Not a Love Story

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

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

Goodreads summary:

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

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

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

My reaction:

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

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

YA Review: Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton

Rebel of the Sands, Alwyn Hamilton, (Faber & Faber, February 2016)

Genres in thRebel of the Sandse mix: Fantasy, Western Adventure

Age target: YA

Goodreads summary: “Tell me that and we’ll go. Right now. Save ourselves and leave this place to burn. Tell me that’s how you want your story to go and we’ll write it straight across the sand.”

Dustwalk is Amani’s home. The desert sand is in her bones. But she wants to escape. More than a want. A need.

Then a foreigner with no name turns up to save her life, and with him the chance to run. But to where? The desert plains are full of danger. Sand and blood are swirling, and the Sultan’s enemies are on the rise.

Review-in-a-tweet: Heady, beautifully written adventure combining romanticism of the 1001 Nights with Western genre’s witticisms and wisecracks. Recommended.

Hot buttons/classroom opportunities: Diverse representations aplenty, good underlying message about ethnicity and ‘blood purity’. Plenty of opportunities for moral dilemma-type discussions and a definite sub-theme about truth and deception that could be exploited in a school/college reading group situation.

Narrative style: Strong first-person voice with plenty of wit. Past tense.

Plotting and pacing: Lots of tension and action. Although I said it was beautifully written, please don’t read that as ‘slow’ – this is no ‘nothing happens’ novel! The story is pacey and gripping, but well-balanced with descriptions of exotic (and sometimes terrifying) desert landscapes.

Main character: I loved Amani. A cross-dressing girl to escape her fate is always going to attract my attention, and that level of ‘go-getting’ is apparent throughout, even though this is clearly a world in which her gender is a limitation (at least in others’ eyes). Her sass is also part of her charm, and it’s great that she has this skill in shooting. That said, she does also have weaknesses, which makes her a more realistic character. It’s very easy to root for her!

Supporting cast: There are some great supporting roles in this novel. I don’t want to give too much away, so I’m not going into specifics, but it is worth pointing out that Alwyn Hamilton has created some fantastic secondary characters with depth, who I’m hoping to see a lot more of in the second and third books in the series.

Hearthfire rating: 10/10 Smoking hot!

Recommendations Round-Up: #HappyYA

In response to a terrible article complaining about the ‘doom and gloom’ of YA lately, the hashtag #HappyYA was born. One of the reasons said article rankled the YA community so much is its seeming inability to recognise that books in which characters have issues can be anything other than ‘issues books’.

Of course, those of us who actually read YA beyond the cover blurbs know that many of the books which tackle issues facing today’s teens are uplifting and not miserable. And we also know that precisely what the writer was seeking, books for kids who like ‘Friends’, are absolutely live and well and available in a bookstore near you. But in case you aren’t aware, here are a few that I would recommend, and some links to others’ recommendations too.

RemixRemix, Non Pratt (Walker, 2015)

Hilarious, friend-focused (rather than solely romance), full of embarrassing messes and mix-ups and OMG-she-didn’ts. Definitely funny and heartwarming. Loved the music festival setting, too – unusual and a good opportunity to get teens out of their usual places.

art of being normalThe Art of Being Normal, Lisa Williamson (David Fickling, 2015)

This was chosen for criticism in the article mentioned above, but it’s quite obvious the writer hadn’t read it. Yes, it’s about a transgender teen, but it’s no fictional ‘misery memoir’ as the article writer seems to imply. At its heart, this is a sweet story about friendship, with many funny moments, which is being read and enjoyed by thousands upon thousands of teens (and adults) of all gender identities.

waiting for gonzoWaiting for Gonzo, Dave Cousins (OUP, 2013)

Hilarious tale of social disaster after disaster for poor Oz in a new school. And yes, his family are also going through some things, but there isn’t a sentence of wallowing in this witty and warm novel.

Other authors worth looking at for cheery YA reads include: Keris Stainton, Tom Easton, Holly Smale and Sarra Manning.

For more, check out Jim at YAYeahYeah’s great set of recommendations.

The Reading Teacher: Fiction for Resilience

We’ve been hearing rather a lot about resilience lately. It’s one of those ideas that’s filtering through from business into education and, while I rankle at some of the ways the word is being used (like the recent suggestion that we train new teachers to improve their ‘mental toughness’), there is no doubt that being resilient is of direct personal benefit to young people as they grow up.

Unsurprisingly to anyone who’s ever been to my blog before, I think stories are a rather fabulous way to help foster resilience. There is no story without conflict, and it is in the (incremental) resolution of that conflict that the story works. ‘X wants Y. X gets Y’ is not a story anyone would publish and with good reason. Therefore, effectively, any story gives some kind of lesson in resilience, in determination, or persistence.

It all starts in the grand folk tale tradition. There must be three attempts to win the quest, pass the test, retrieve the treasure – two is unsatisfactory and four is a travesty. And after centuries of this, it is what we expect. So, any story is likely to offer a lesson in resilience if you look for this angle, but I thought I’d offer three I’ve read relatively recently which might be of interest to UK teens and also allow a suitable moral to be drawn.

Looking at the Stars, Jo Cotterill

looking at the starsThis marvellous novel about refugees from an oppressive regime offers hope through the determination of young Amina, who keeps her family focused through the stories she tells as they gaze at the stars at night. [NB: For anyone worried about sensitivity with a ‘refugee’ book, this is beautifully handled. It’s really powerful and is set in a fictional place, with a fictional regime, so it’s clearly about the experience and not ‘aimed at’ any political or religious group specifically.]

The Bone Dragon, Alexia Casale

The Bone DragonThis beautiful, lyrical novel is magic realism for teenagers. At the start of this novel, Evie (the narrator) does not seem very resilient: she has been hiding the pain of her past from her adoptive parents and is struggling to break this habit. She has a fragment of her own rib, left over from surgery to repair her old injuries, and she carves this into a dragon as a talisman. This is a beautiful, if somewhat unsettling, read that could be used to open up debates about resilience and recovery with older teens.

Bubble Wrap Boy, Phil Earle

bubble wrap boyOne for the slightly younger secondary students, this hilarious and warmhearted tale features Charlie Han, whose overprotective mother causes him considerable social problems. The novel follows him as he gains a new interest and uncovers a shocking secret about his mother. It’s brilliantly told and will definitely offer opportunities to discuss Charlie’s strategies for coping with school, his Mum and setbacks to his plans.

New Year’s Blog Resolutions

Jpeg Those of you who are, like me, blessed with lurchers, greyhounds and the like, will be familiar with their ‘zoomies’ habit: that is, their love for running in circles. They may chase each other, like our two are doing here, or they may perform solo just for the sheer love of it. Those of you who are, like me, cursed with an anxious brain, will also be familiar with the way the mind does exactly the same thing about the most ridiculous of things. I have a confession: I have allowed blogging to become a source of stress by getting bogged down in anxious and negative thoughts about how it’s ‘supposed’ to be.

This is ridiculous because I love blogging. Above all else I love the book blogging community. I have no idea, however, how some manage to blog so regularly. I’ve seen some people post a book review or discussion post a day – now that’s commitment. As is clear, I cannot boast that level of commitment to blogging, however much I’d like to.

Having had various plans over the last couple of years, which have mostly gone awry due to my complete inability to meet them, here are my new blogging resolutions (which, incidentally, fit in rather neatly with my general resolution to take a bit better care of myself):

  1. I will avoid the accusatory verb ‘should’ in thinking about how much/often I blog, especially compared to others.
  2. I will stop worrying about writing long and detailed reviews for every book I read and continue to find other ways to support and recommend the books I enjoy and value. Posts like ‘recommendations round-up’ and ‘literary lonely hearts’ features have worked well for this (I think), allowing sufficient description and discussion to give a good enough flavour of a book to show readers whether it might suit them.
  3. I will focus on more unusual posts like the ‘reading teacher’ ones. They have had a great response and I enjoyed writing them.
  4. I will be bolder about pointing publicists who have sent me books to these more unusual posts as they do still promote their titles (and will try not to worry that they want me to just write reviews and not these different posts).

 

The other lurcher gift – this level of chill – about it all is what I am aiming for: 2015-09-27 17.09.47

I hope you all have a brilliant 2016!

Review: Essence of Arcadia Essential Oil Sets

I’ve been using essential oils for over 20 years, so was very pleased to be recently asked to review this new distributor of oils. Essence of Arcadia sent me a 6-oil and 14-oil set to review, both of which I am happy to recommend to anyone looking to start out with aromatherapy at home, or boost an existing oil collection. Either set would also make a lovely gift, as they are very smartly packaged. Replacement and additional individual oils are readily available from the company’s website or from Amazon.

2015-11-15 11.09.05
Tightly-packed bottles, all beautifully and clearly labelled.

The 6 oil set contains:

Cinnamon, Eucalyptus, Lavender, Tea Tree, Peppermint, Frankincense and a card with a weblink for the company’s VIP club to get recipes and usage information.

The 14 oil set also contains:

Bergamot, Clary Sage, Grapefruit, Rosemary, Lemongrass, Ylang Ylang, Orange and their own Healing Blend, as well as a recipe booklet.

2015-11-15 11.03.50
Smart packaging complements the luxury feel of the products.

Each set is packaged in a high quality heavy duty black cardboard box, which will clearly work well for long term storage. The oils are all clearly labelled and presented in dark brown glass bottles with dropper caps, so they are protected from light and easy to use. I like that each oil has its own different colour label – my teen daughter and I have quickly learned which colours to reach for.

2015-11-22 13.45.30
My trusty wise hermit diffuser, protecting us with the Healing Blend.

The oils are described as ‘therapeutic grade’ and they are clearly high quality. I have used them in a standard tealight-powered diffuser and in a carrier oil, and they could also be used in a warm bath or foot soak, or in toiletry making. Just be careful about quantities, as these are potent little products – don’t be fooled into thinking that as natural items, they’re always safe. Some shouldn’t be used with children or animals, or in early pregnancy, but some usage information is available on the Essence of Arcadia website.

We particularly appreciated the healing blend, which incorporates anti-infection and cold-fighting oils and was a very welcome arrival in November! (It also smells considerably nicer than many other more commercial preparations wafting through the house, thanks to the sensible inclusion of Cinnamon and Ginger.)

Both sets include sufficient variety to treat common conditions and create different moods within the home, including the multi-functional Lavender and Tea Tree and the cornerstone of infection-busting, Eucalyptus. I was also really pleased to see Frankincense in both sets, as it’s so useful as a base note in relaxing blends: it has a regulatory effect on the breathing, which is perhaps why it’s been associated with ritual for centuries. The addition of the brilliant mood-buster Bergamot and other citrus oils in the larger set were also a really welcome sight. In terms of oil selection, I would suggest that Roman Chamomile would have been a good addition, but that may just be a personal preference – I do use it in a lot of my blends.

Overall, I would definitely recommend these sets if you are considering starting out with aromatherapy or gifting someone else with some oils to get them started.

The 6-oil set is £19.99 from the Essence of Arcadia website and £16.99 from Amazon at the time of writing.

The 14-oil set is £39.99 from the Essence of Arcadia website and £29.99 from Amazon at the time of writing.

Please note that I received oil sets for an honest review; this did not affect the opinions expressed here.

The Reading Teacher: Two Extracts from Recent Teen Fiction to Teach Writing

I have written before about the tension between writing ‘rules’ taught in primary school and advice shared with those who seek publication. Today, I thought rather than rehash that rant, I’d offer something a bit more concrete. So, here are the openings of a couple of recent UKYA novels that classes could explore to discuss some ways in which good writing works.

With less time for ‘reading’ lessons in KS3 and none with older students, it’s a good way to be able to push books in front of them that they might be interested in reading. I’m always happy to make stealth UKYA recommendations to my classes, convinced that this is a much more likely way to gain an extra reader or two than only ever showing them the classics.

I’ve happily used these (and others) with classes from KS3 to A Level. The novels are marketed as Young Adult, but in practice will be read by about 12 to adult (I enjoy them, so I’m not putting an end age, OK?). I’ve chosen a contemporary story and an urban fantasy for today, as I would pair these together in a lesson in order to meet different tastes in reading (and to show that genre writing matters too).

Teaching Dialogue: Emma Hearts LA, Keris Stainton

Orchard Books, 2012

‘Most girls of your ageemma hearts la would jump at the chance to move to California,’ my mum says. She had been standing in front of the fireplace to make the big announcement, but, thanks to my reaction to it, she’s now sitting on the sagging sofa next to me.

I stare at her. ‘You are joking, right?’

‘No. No, I’m not joking,’ she says. ‘I’m sorry, Emma, but this is a great opportunity for me. And it’s a great opportunity for us as a family.’

I glance at my sister, who’s sunk deep in a beanbag in the corner of the room. She’s fiddling with her phone, a half-smile on her face.

‘Bex!’ I say. ‘You can’t be pleased about this! Tell me you’re not pleased about this!’

She glances up at me from under her floppy fringe. ‘I think it’ll be cool to live in Hollywood.’

‘Well, it won’t actually be Hollywood,’ Mum says.

‘Near enough,’ Bex says, grinning. She’s a drama dork, my sister. I bet she thinks she’ll be talent-spotted at the airport and have her own Disney XD show by the end of the year.

‘It’s a new start,’ Mum says.

This extract is brilliant for exploring pacing in dialogue and the technicalities of using dialogue in story writing. Here are a few of the things I’ve had different kinds of students do with this text:

  • Highlight/underline all the actual speech to look at how the author has spread it out, using commentary from the narrator to provide additional information and stretch out the tension.
  • Explore why authors rarely actually vary speech verbs (better to use said/says, which becomes invisible rather than ‘bogging down’ the text; speech can be attributed using other comments e.g. ‘I stare at her’, ‘She glances up…’ in this example).
  • Examine the tone and language of the speech to see how it has been made realistic, perhaps then asking students to rewrite or produce a dialogue-heavy piece of writing of their own.
  • Explore specific features of the dialogue and speech-like aspects of the narration:
    • grammatical: why contractions are mostly used but then not in ‘you are joking?’
    • grammatical: minor and incomplete sentences such as ‘near enough’ and
    • lexical: repetition, discourse markers and recycling/repetition.
  • Discuss the way dialogue and narration are used together to create a voice which speaks to the reader and firmly places us on Emma’s side (e.g. the suggestion of mum’s ‘staging’ of her announcement and the focus on Bex’s unrealistic expectations).

Teaching Atmospheric Writing: The Night Itself, Zoë Marriottthe night itself

Walker Books, 2013

Stealing the sword was a bad idea. I can’t pretend I didn’t realize that at the time. I wasn’t even supposed to know about the thing, let alone sneak up and snaffle it from the attic where it was carefully concealed in the dark, under layers of cobwebs and rotting Christmas decorations. I was fully aware that if my father found out about the sword or about me taking it, he’d pop a blood vessel from sheer fury and kill me. Or die. Maybe both.

If your family’s priceless heirloom is some ugly vase or painting, like on the Antiques Roadshow, the worst thing that can happen if you mess with it is that you’ll smash it or ruin the patina or something. My family’s antique is a different story. Sixty-two centimetres of curved, single-edged steel, designed with a single purpose: to kill. You’d probably call it a samurai sword. But its proper name is katana.

And I needed it for my Christmas party costume.

I’ve used this extract as an example of a strong opening, creating a sense of both character and of plot. Something exciting is clearly going to happen. Here are a few activities I’ve found useful with various student groups in exploring this text:
  • Highlight/underline the descriptive phrases to explore the balance of description and information. There are some effective descriptive details, but too much at this point would swamp the story and slow it down too much.
  • Printing the extract out with a space after every sentence for the students to write back. This could be a question to the narrator (what sword? why did you steal it?) or their own journal-type musings (hmm, I’m interested now). With some students, making it a live-tweeting-type activity has worked well, with a sentence at a time on a powerpoint and ‘tweets’ written on mini whiteboards to capture their reactions. This leads nicely into a discussion about how the author manages (manipulates is such a harsh word…) reader emotions and expectations, especially if you can save some of those ‘tweets’ for discussion at the end, once the whole has been seen.
  • Examining sentence and paragraph length. Students too often write very long sentences and very long paragraphs. I have made students count words, list the words in each sentence and paragraph and then edit a piece of their own work to these rules:
    • no single paragraph longer than the first paragraph here (in number of words)
    • no single sentence longer than the longest sentence here
    • only one ‘long’ sentences (calculated as mean of three longest sentences here) per paragraph
    • at least one very short sentence per paragraph
  • Discussing tone: highlight/underline parts that fall into these categories, in order to show how more impressive vocabulary is balanced with more colloquial language to avoid an overly distanced or alienating tone. The separation of the final sentence is also worth discussion in terms of its punchline-like effect. With older/more able students, I also discuss how the syntax creates a spoken feel, focusing on:
    • unusual high-register/’fancy’ words
    • unusual colloquial/’slangy’ words
    • sentences that ‘feel’ chatty/casual
  • Exploring how to set up a story without over-explaining. Students list what we learn from this extract about:
    • the narrator
    • her family
    • the plot
  • Examining how the motif of conflict is seeded in this opening, by pulling out all the contrasted ideas and words.

What do you think? If you enjoyed this/found it interesting/useful, please do let me know. I’d love to feature further ‘popular’ fiction extracts that I’ve used in class along with what I’ve done with them.