Spotlight: Secrets and Ghosts by Dennis Zaslona

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

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

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

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

UKYA Review: Haunt Me by Liz Kessler

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

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

Age target: YA

Story basics: (taken from Goodreads):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall, a definite recommendation from me. Quite lovely.

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

Hearthfire rating: 8/10 Sizzling

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

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

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

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

good-things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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