Author: Beth Kemp

Teacher of English, writer, blogger, reader, mother, feminist

Wordy Wednesday: Writing and Ritual (beware of mythologising)

Writing is fraught with danger, mostly related to myth and ritual. Obviously, as a writer I love myth and mythmaking – the lure of the woods, the charm of the chosen one – but that’s not the kind of myth I mean. In this case, I mean the dangerous myths about writing itself:

  • I can only write if my desk is arranged a certain way,
  • I need complete silence/the perfect playlist aligned to my project in order to write.
  • I must start writing by 7.30 or the day is lost.
  • I wear my lucky ring to write.
  • I have a talisman on my desk which I must never lose or I’d forget how to write.
  • I can only start writing  a novel once I’ve made x amount of notes and can hear the characters talking in my head.

All of these things may help, but they are not what makes it possible for you to write – that’s you. Really, just you. Many, many writers write on trains, in chaotic cafes, at kitchen tables, in lunch breaks at day jobs – none of which allow easy access to most of these extras or props.

For a long time, I thought that I couldn’t try my hand at fiction because I’d never had the experience of a character ‘talking’ to me in my head. You read all the time of authors saying they got the idea for a story when a character made themselves known, and I believed that was the way it was supposed to be. Eventually, I saw another author I admired saying that wasn’t how they worked and I realised that it was just one possibility. I can never visualise either – can never get actual pictures into my head, so I suppose my mind just doesn’t work that way.

Coffee and notes – always useful…

The reason these stories are reported so much more in the press is because they fit with our romanticised idea of the writer as somehow special – characters pop along and talk to them as they recline on their chaise longue. The press is less keen on the ‘just get on with it’ model of writing! Obviously, writers are special – but in that, like all artists, we dedicate time to the work. There are literally hundreds of different ways of approaching that work and while it is important to identify the tricks that will make it easier for you, it’s also crucial to recognise that they are tricks and that all is not lost if you break the ornament that symbolises your current project/delete your white noise app by mistake/drop your favourite coffee mug/have to travel for work for a week.

Fab Fiction Friday: 3 Great Recent UKYA Reads

For this Fab Fiction Friday post, I’m micro-reviewing three books by fab UKYA authors that I’ve read relatively recently, all of which are gripping stories with great diverse representation. The first two of these have ‘incidental’ representation – the stories are not ‘about’ the character’s identity as such (although it may add complications to their situation). It is important that these stories exist in order that readers can see a range of characters experiencing adventures – otherwise we can find ourselves left with the situation in which I found myself in the classroom a few years ago:

We were covering ‘narrative writing’ for the GCSE and, frustrated by the weirdness of my 70% Asian class naming all their characters ‘Bob’ and ‘Susan’ (and equally ‘old white person’ names), I asked them why they weren’t writing about ‘Mohammed’ or ‘Sufiya’. They were stunned into silence. Eventually, one boy answered, ‘But Miss, we’re supposed to write real stories. Stories aren’t about us. They’re about you.’

That’s when I knew we had a problem. A problem that books like these are addressing. It’s not just race, though – when I was growing up, as a working-class kid, there weren’t many books about me, either.

My Box-Shaped Heart by Rachael Lucas

(from Goodreads): My Box-Shaped Heart is a powerful story of an unlikely friendship from Rachael Lucas, author of The State of Grace.

Holly’s mum is a hoarder, and she is fed up with being picked on at school for being weird . . . and having the wrong clothes . . . and sticking out. All she wants is to be invisible. She loves swimming, because in the water everyone is the same.

Ed goes to the swimming pool to escape the horrible house he and his mum have been assigned by the women’s refuge. In his old life he had money; was on the swim team; knew who he was and what he wanted. In his old life his dad hit his mum.

Holly is swimming in one direction and Ed’s swimming in the other. As their worlds collide they find a window into each other’s lives – and learn how to meet in the middle.

genre(s): contemporary

representation notes: British working-class (specifically Scottish), blended family with complex relationships, mentally ill parent, domestic abuse

read it for: a touching but not sentimentalised story of first love and growing up; a vividly-drawn emotional journey with pace and real action; gentle (rather than ‘gritty’) treatment of issues but never sanitised

This would be appropriate as an ‘eye-opening’ read for young readers, or potentially as a comfort for those in similar circumstances. I’d also recommend it for swimming lovers.

Out of the Blue by Sophie Cameron

(from Goodreads): When angels start falling from the sky, it seems like the world is ending. Smashing down to earth at extraordinary speeds, wings bent, faces contorted, not a single one has survived.

As the world goes wild for angels, Jaya’s father uproots the family to Edinburgh intent on catching one alive. But Jaya can’t stand this obsession and, still reeling from her mother’s recent death and the sudden disappearance of her ex-girlfriend, she’s determined to stay out of it.

Then something incredible happens: an angel lands right at Jaya’s feet – and it’s alive …

genre(s): fantasy (angels), contemporary

representation notes: MC is biracial lesbian with Sri Lankan heritage, chronic illness/disability

read it for: a beautiful story about dealing with grief and loss – and love; a character-led, very ‘literary’ feeling novel with fantasy elements with a solid focus throughout on relationships and emotions; an original premise that is explored in an interesting and very human way

This is a book with wide appeal, I think: there are almost post-apocalyptic elements with the angels seeming to herald the end of days, as well as the strong relationship and character focus that contemporary fans crave.

We Are Young by Cat Clarke

(from Goodreads): On the same night Evan’s mother marries local radio DJ ‘Breakfast Tim’, Evan’s brand-new step-brother Lewis is found unconscious and terribly injured, the only survivor of a horrific car crash.

A media furore erupts, with the finger of blame pointed firmly at stoner, loner Lewis. Everyone else seems to think the crash was drugs-related, but Evan isn’t buying it. With the help of her journalist father, Harry, she decides to find out what really happened that night.

As Evan delves deeper into the lives of the three teenagers who died in the crash, she uncovers some disturbing truths and a secret that threatens to tear her family – and the community – apart for ever…

genre(s): contemporary

representation notes: bisexuality, mental health

read it for: thriller-like pacing and gritty but never sensationalist treatment of some difficult issues (if you want specific trigger warnings which are too spoilery for me to share, check Goodreads first)

As with all Cat Clarke titles, this handles complex and disturbing issues well, treating young adults with the respect they deserve. There are a few low ratings on Goodreads because people have bought into the ‘snowflake’ rhetoric, but a book like this may be just what a young person struggling with serious problems (or having come out the other side) needs – to know they’re not alone.

Wordy Wednesday: But how do you read so much?

I’m often asked how I read so much – or people say ‘oh I wish I had time to read’ (often in that passive aggressive way that implies that they’re just doing much more important things, actually – but that’s a different issue).

Firstly: I don’t read that much. I average about 50-60 books a year – for a book blogger, that’s seriously small fry. I’ve seen some whose Goodreads counts are 250+ per year!

Secondly, I’m not reading War and Peace on a weekly basis. Mostly, I’m reading YA novels, some children’s (Middle Grade/9-12), with an occasional adult title thrown in.  It’s rare for me to pick up a massive tome, but it can happen.

Most importantly, though: I want to read, so I read. To that ‘oh I wish…’ person – you clearly don’t, actually. And, incidentally, it’s the same with writing. If you want to do it, you make/find the time for it. For me, that means reading on the bus, sometimes while cooking dinner, as a five-minute break between heavy-thinking tasks to clear my mind (nothing spirits me away like a good book!), as well as the standard reading in bed.

Starting this beauty on my bus journey today. I’d read a lot less if I could drive! #diverseYA

— Beth Kemp (@BethKemp) August 20, 2018

A final point: having discovered podcasts, bus time started to get a little crowded, so I now try to limit podcasts to walking to and between buses – commuter life is complex! What uses for otherwise ‘dead’ time like travelling have you come up with? When/how do you fit reading in?

Adult review: In Bloom by C J Skuse

Genre: is serial killer black comedy a genre? If so: this is it!

Age range: definitely 18+ – graphic language, violence and sexual content are key features of this series.

I loved Sweet Pea and was very excited to read this sequel, which picks up the minute Sweet Pea leaves off. Consequently, it is very difficult to talk about without making spoilers for the first book. I will therefore assume you know the basics: Rhiannon is a serial killer, the novel is narrated in her highly engaging voice, including notes from her diary (I particularly love her lists of people she wants to get rid of). The tone is darkly comic and like the best comedians, Rhiannon often pulls you along noting things that you can easily agree with but, as she is a psychopath, she will then take a turn into grotesquesly violent territory where you or I would not have gone – which is a nice reassurance of our normality, perhaps.

If you haven’t read Sweet Pea, you should toddle off and do that now, and I’ll move on to In Bloom-specific points…

For much of this instalment, Rhiannon has the complication of being pregnant, living with her in-laws and being the girlfriend of a convicted killer to deal with, all of which make killing difficult in different ways. But don’t worry, her irreverent voice and her drives are still very much in evidence. If, like me, you found Sweet Pea hilarious and were weirdly rooting for Rhiannon, you will definitely enjoy In Bloom. (and PS, I saw C J Skuse say on Twitter that there is a third book to comes, as well as a TV series!!) So much Sweet Pea goodness to look forward to!

I very much enjoyed seeing Rhiannon negotiate and wriggle around the further limitations imposed by her chatty fetus, her nosey and well-meaning in-laws and the pressures of being recognised as the girlfriend of killer Craig. The idea of her trying to fit into a pre-natal group is, by turns, hilarious and heartbreaking (serial killers have feelings too – and the ‘cliquiness’ of those groups was perfectly captured).

Overall, I obviously very much recommend this. The combination of genres is highly original and I think the use of humour will appeal to a lot of readers.  The pacing of the plot and control of tension in this second novel is well-judged and had me turning pages, but the novel’s real strength is in its characterisation and voice.

Thank you to HQ and to C J Skuse for providing a copy of In Bloom via NetGalley for review. Note that accepting a review copy never influences my expressed views and I only opt to review books I enjoy.

Reading Recommendations Slide 27: Revision Season Escapism 3 – Historical

This half term, all my recommendations will focus on reading for pleasure, relaxation and escapism during revision season. This week I’m offering four historical titles allowing students to get lost in rich evocations of the past.

I pop these recommendation slides up while I take KS4 and 5 registers (if I had yr9 classes, I’d use them there too) and allow students to read the info and decide whether they want to find any of these books. It’s a key one of my attempts to widen their reading and help them find books they might enjoy as there are certainly plenty of those out there, and the curriculum doesn’t always make it easy for us to present students with a pleasurable reading experience.

Download the slide here: 4 – Revision Season Escapism – Historical

The last theme posted was escape into fantasy for revision season. I make some links thematic, some topical, some more English-y. Please do let me know if you have ideas/suggestions/requests for future possible links.

Reading Recommendations Slide 26: Revision Season Escapism 2 – Fantasy

This half term, all my recommendations will focus on reading for pleasure, relaxation and escapism during revision season. This week I’m offering three titles featuring fantasy worlds, all of which have at least one sequel to get stuck into (and the one that is ‘only’ a duology are classic fantasy big fat books, so plenty of reading there!

I pop these recommendation slides up while I take KS4 and 5 registers (if I had yr9 classes, I’d use them there too) and allow students to read the info and decide whether they want to find any of these books. It’s a key one of my attempts to widen their reading and help them find books they might enjoy as there are certainly plenty of those out there, and the curriculum doesn’t always make it easy for us to present students with a pleasurable reading experience.

Download the slide here: 3 – Revision Season Escapism – Fantasy

The last theme posted was contemps not set in school for revision season. I make some links thematic, some topical, some more English-y. Please do let me know if you have ideas/suggestions/requests for future possible links.

Reading Recommendations Slide 25: Revision Escapism 1 – Contemporaries

This half term, all my recommendations will focus on reading for pleasure, relaxation and escapism during revision season. This week I’m offering three contemporaries which, somewhat unusually, do not focus on school as a setting. (I wouldn’t want to read about high school politics when trying to escape from exam prep and thoughts of school!)

I pop these recommendation slides up while I take KS4 and 5 registers (if I had yr9 classes, I’d use them there too) and allow students to read the info and decide whether they want to find any of these books. It’s a key one of my attempts to widen their reading and help them find books they might enjoy as there are certainly plenty of those out there, and the curriculum doesn’t always make it easy for us to present students with a pleasurable reading experience.

Download the slide here: 2 – Revision Season Escapism – Contemps

The last theme posted was witches. I make some links thematic, some topical, some more English-y. Please do let me know if you have ideas/suggestions/requests for future possible links.

Reading Recommendations Slide 24: Witches

A nice set of different novels with witches: two contemporaries (one including mystery, supernatural and historical elements), one historical and one dystopian eco-thriller – something for everyone!

I pop these recommendation slides up while I take KS4 and 5 registers (if I had yr9 classes, I’d use them there too) and allow students to read the info and decide whether they want to find any of these books. It’s a key one of my attempts to widen their reading and help them find books they might enjoy as there are certainly plenty of those out there, and the curriculum doesn’t always make it easy for us to present students with a pleasurable reading experience.

Download the slide here: 5 – Witches

The last theme posted was for fans of the Big Bang Theory. I make some links thematic, some topical, some more English-y. Please do let me know if you have ideas/suggestions/requests for future possible links.

Reading Recommendations Slide 23: For Fans of The Big Bang Theory

I haven’t done a media-linked theme for a while, so I thought I’d offer these books for this week, which I think will all appeal to fans of The Big Bang Theory. Each has that geek chic vibe and humour (the top two are more laugh-out-loud than the lower two, but all have some), and has something to say about different types of people getting along.

I pop these recommendation slides up while I take KS4 and 5 registers (if I had yr9 classes, I’d use them there too) and allow students to read the info and decide whether they want to find any of these books. It’s a key one of my attempts to widen their reading and help them find books they might enjoy as there are certainly plenty of those out there, and the curriculum doesn’t always make it easy for us to present students with a pleasurable reading experience.

Download the slide here: 4 – For Fans of The Big Bang Theory

The last theme posted was International Women’s Day. I make some links thematic, some topical, some more English-y. Please do let me know if you have ideas/suggestions/requests for future possible links.

Reading Recommendations Slide 22: International Women’s Day

These books all offer something relevant for International Women’s Day this week (March 8th). Buffalo Soldier and Things a Bright Girl Can Do both provide historical perspective on the position of women, while Asking For It and What’s A Girl Gotta Do? are both focused on the contemporary situation. Asking For It is suitable for older students as its discussion of rape is fairly brutal at times (although as Emma doesn’t remember the incident, there isn’t a description of the event as such. I wouldn’t personally give this one to yr10 and below though as the ideas are mature).

I pop these recommendation slides up while I take KS4 and 5 registers (if I had yr9 classes, I’d use them there too) and allow students to read the info and decide whether they want to find any of these books. It’s a key one of my attempts to widen their reading and help them find books they might enjoy as there are certainly plenty of those out there, and the curriculum doesn’t always make it easy for us to present students with a pleasurable reading experience.

Download the slide here: 3 – International Women’s Day

The last theme posted was fairy tales. I make some links thematic, some topical, some more English-y. Please do let me know if you have ideas/suggestions/requests for future possible links.

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