Tag Archives: BBC 2017

UK Crime Review: Sweetpea by CJ Skuse

Sweetpea, C J Skuse, (HQ, Apr 20 2017)

Genres in the mix: crime, black humour

Age target: adult

Story basics: (from Goodreads):

‘This isn’t a book for the squeamish or the faint-hearted … think Bridget Jones meets American Psycho’ – Red

The last person who called me ‘Sweetpea’ ended up dead…

I haven’t killed anyone for three years and I thought that when it happened again I’d feel bad. Like an alcholic taking a sip of whisky. But no. Nothing. I had a blissful night’s sleep. Didn’t wake up at all. And for once, no bad dream either. This morning I feel balanced. Almost sane, for once.

Rhiannon is your average girl next door, settled with her boyfriend and little dog…but she’s got a killer secret.

Although her childhood was haunted by a famous crime, Rhinannon’s life is normal now that her celebrity has dwindled. By day her job as an editorial assistant is demeaning and unsatisfying. By evening she dutifully listens to her friend’s plans for marriage and babies whilst secretly making a list.

A kill list.

From the man on the Lidl checkout who always mishandles her apples, to the driver who cuts her off on her way to work, to the people who have got it coming, Rhiannon’s ready to get her revenge.

Because the girl everyone overlooks might be able to get away with murder…

Review-in-a-tweet: gloriously no-holds-barred, hilarious and disturbing peek into serial killer Rhiannon’s diary. Loved her kill lists!

The emotional ride: almost as crazy as Rhiannon herself! One minute you’re nodding along with her observations about the world, thinking ‘yeah, that’s it exactly’ and the next, recoiling in horror as she reminds you in full technicolour that she’s an actual serial killer.

Narrative style: I loved the diary mode of this, with Rhiannon’s daily thoughts and annoyances. It’s really up close and personal, so you’re never in any doubt why Rhiannon’s doing what she’s doing (or at least, why she thinks she’s doing what she’s doing, I suppose – but that could be a whole other book!)

Main character: fabulous and detailed in all her psychotic glory. I loved her ‘hit list’ approach to daily journalling – each daily entry begins with a numbered list of the people who’ve annoyed her/she’d love to kill. I also loved her dry wit and straight-talking. These were things that helped to make her behaviour seem reasonable, despite everything.

Supporting cast: others in the novel are also really well drawn, even though we see them all through Rhiannon’s obviously quite limited viewpoint. I enjoyed reading them through all her snark, although it is clear that she is surrounded by largely unlikeable people…

I definitely need to reiterate that this is an adult title. It may be the most inappropriate for a YA audience title that I have reviewed here. The humour is very black indeed and there is graphic sex and violence. I would not recommend this book to students as a teacher, although there are some sixth formers who I might mention it to discreetly in an unofficial capacity as I also know that almost all my students will definitely be seeing worse on TV than they would read here (but couldn’t have it said that ‘school’ in any way suggested reading this…!!). Having said all that, it was hilarious and I did have some embarrassment as I read on the bus to work – laughing is generally frowned on in that context…

Hearthfire rating: 10/10 Smoking hot!

Sweetpea is out now in the UK from HQ, who provided me with a review copy via NetGalley.

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.

I’m counting this review towards the British Books Challenge. It is my fifth.

UKYA Review: The Scarecrow Queen by Melinda Salisbury

The Scarecrow Queen, Melinda Salisbury, (Scholastic, March 2017)

Genres in the mix: Fantasy (high)

Age target: YA

Be warned: this reviews the conclusion to a trilogy, so there may be spoilers for the first two books. If you haven’t read the first two, my advice is simple – do that. It’s a cracking fantasy series and I am even more convinced of that now I’ve read the whole thing. I would especially recommend it if you tend to notice shades of anti-feminism or poor female representation creeping into books and media that claim to have ‘strong female characters’ or to be ‘for girls’. These books will not let you down. Mel’s ethics shine through in her realistically-portrayed-and-therefore-flawed characters (sidenote: strong female character does not equal robotically tough) and her commitment to offering her female characters in particular genuine choices, great relationships (and by that I mean friendships with each other as well as romance possibilities) and real growth. If you’re new to the series, now’s the time to leave…

Story basics (from Goodreads): The final battle is coming . . .

As the Sleeping Prince tightens his hold on Lormere and Tregellan, the net closes in on the ragged band of rebels trying desperately to defeat him. Twylla and Errin are separated, isolated, and running out of time. The final battle is coming, and Aurek will stop at nothing to keep the throne forever . . .

Explosive, rich and darkly addictive, this is the stunning conclusion to Mel Salisbury’s internationally best-selling trilogy that began with The Sin Eater’s Daughter.

The emotional ride: Tricky and intense. There were moments in both Twylla’s and Errin’s sections when I thought I might cry (this is not a common thing for me), as well as moments of genuine joy. Brilliantly handled pace.

Narrative style: I loved the switching between Twylla’s and Errin’s points of view and felt it really increased the tension as well as clearly showing different parts of the story. It gave it a very filmic feel, like we were switching scenes: ‘meanwhile, at the castle…’

Plotting and pacing: A real strength of the book, heightened by the narrative style, I feel. Shifting the focus between the two viewpoint characters from the first two books really helped to keep the pace shifting. I also really liked that this was in large chunks, rather than chapter by chapter as it’s often done – this worked great for this particular story.

Main character: Obviously, there were two main characters here, and I loved them both. Twylla has grown so much from the naive young woman we first met in Sin Eater’s Daughter – poor thing, she’s had to! I do like that both she and Errin defy a lot of the ‘strong heroine’ stereotypes and yet really grow into their roles as leader-types in this book. It feels very organic and realistic here.

Supporting cast: These are also really well drawn. I think Merek comes into his own here and I enjoyed his development. I appreciated the arc of Lief’s character, difficult though it is and the Sleeping Prince is a marvellous full-on moustache-twirling baddie. However, it’s the supporting cast of women that I loved and who I feel make the series. The Sisters really are the heart of it all.

One final note: I loved the ending. I commented at the beginning that I see this as a strong series in terms of representation of women and I think that the ending is a crucial part of that. I don’t want to give spoilers, but I feel the ending is perfect in that it is true to the novel’s own spirit. It gives the characters the ending they deserve, on their own terms, and that is the most satisfying ending possible.

Hearthfire rating: 10/10 Smoking hot!

The Scarecrow Queen is out now in the UK from Scholastic.

I am counting this review towards the British Books Challenge 2017.

UKMG Review: Who Let the Gods Out? by Maz Evans

Who Let the Gods Out?, Maz Evans, (Chicken House, Feb 2017)

Genres in the mix: fantasy, humour, mythology

Age target: MG

Story basics: Elliot’s mum is ill and his home is under threat, but a shooting star crashes to earth and changes his life forever. The star is Virgo – a young Zodiac goddess on a mission. But the pair accidentally release Thanatos, a wicked death daemon imprisoned beneath Stonehenge, and must then turn to the old Olympian gods for help. After centuries of cushy retirement on earth, are Zeus and his crew up to the task of saving the world – and solving Elliot’s problems too?

Review-in-a-tweet: Sharply witty, a brilliant twist on the Greek myths, plus keenly-observed social commentary. Everyone will love Elliot and root for him!

The emotional ride: Elliot’s home life story is deeply sad, but delivered with warmth and gentle humour so it never becomes too much, or treated with sentimentality rather than genuine emotion (a pet hate of mine – I hate feeling manipulated for cheap emotional impact). The humour of the Gods’ less-than-perfect understanding and abilities to function in the modern world also balances this beautifully.

Hot buttons/classroom opportunities: obvious opportunities to follow up and learn more about the characters, places etc referenced from Greek mythology (and readers are likely to be keen to do that), but child carers as an SMSC/PSHE topic could also be explored from here.

Plotting and pacing: plenty of movement and twists to keep the target audience engaged. It’s clearly the first in a series, and there is more of the overall story to tell, but it’s not left with an unfinished feeling.  I definitely want to read the others when they come out.

Hearthfire rating: 9/10 A scorcher!

This is Waterstones’ Children’s Book of the Month for February, which shows how brilliant it is. As well as writing her own books, Maz Evans manages Story Stew, which runs creative writing workshops in schools. She was here on the blog earlier this month talking about writing.

Who Let the Gods Out? 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.

I’m counting this review for the British Books Challenge 2017, my fourth for the challenge (and this book is the featured debut for this month).

UKYA Review: Mind The Gap by Phil Earle

Mind The Gap, Phil Earle, (Barrington Stoke, Jan 2017)

Genres in the mix: contemporary

Age target: YA

Story basicsWhen Mikey’s dad died, something in Mikey died too. He loved his old man and he never stopped dreaming that one day his dad would land the role of a lifetime, prove them all wrong, and rock back up to the estate in the flashiest car anyone had ever seen. Now there’s just numbness, and not caring, and really, really stupid decisions. He says the worst of it is that he can’t even remember his dad’s voice any more. Eventually Mikey’s best mate can’t bear it any more, and so he sets out to give Mikey the memories – and his dad’s voice – back.

Review-in-a-tweet:  Gripping and emotive tale of mates and choices. ‘Super-readable’, sharply contemporary, realistic; will strike a chord with many teens.

The emotional ride: Obviously, at times this is tough. Mikey’s pain over losing his Dad is clear, but it is generally quite understated. It’s more about the immediate problems of Mikey acting stupidly because he doesn’t care about things any more, and about his mate’s quest to find a way to give Mikey his dad’s voice once more.

Hot buttons/classroom opportunities: The biggest opportunity this book (and others from Barrington Stoke) offers teachers is the chance to get students reading for pleasure. It’s a genuine gift in that department.

At Yr 11 Parents’ Evening last week, I had this along with The Liar’s Handbook and Unboxed from Barrington Stoke, (and some other YA titles of various kinds) on my desk ready for the ‘but I don’t know what to read’ moment, and it was brilliant to be able to show them the fantastic package that these little books are to make them super-readable:

  • clear sans-serif font
  • tinted pages (one mum said ‘I have dyslexia and I can see those words – I couldn’t on the sheet of exam dates you just showed me’)
  • short chapters and overall book length
  • stories by authors already successful for this age group, not teachers or ‘dyslexia experts’
  • topics and themes found in other YA novels, nothing simplified in content, only in readability

Several students took photos of the books, to be able to buy them later/find them in a library – yay!

Main character: I’d say it’s impossible to read this and not be behind Mikey 100%, even when he’s being an idiot (and he really is, at times). Phil Earle makes you understand why he’s being an idiot, so you just feel for him even more (that’s part of the ‘not simplified content’ thing about these books – they require an emotional maturity, but the reading age is only 8. No mean feat!)

Hearthfire rating: 9/10 A scorcher!

Mind the Gap is out now in the UK from Barrington Stoke, who kindly 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.

I’m counting this review towards the British Books Challenge 2017: my third for the challenge.

UKYA Review: Wing Jones by Katherine Webber

Wing Jones, Katherine Webber, (Walker, Jan 5th 2017)

Genres in the mix: contemporary, magic realism, romance

Age target: YA

Story basicsFor fans of David Levithan, Jandy Nelson and Rainbow Rowell: a sweeping story about love and family from an exceptional new voice in YA. With a grandmother from China and another from Ghana, fifteen-year-old Wing Jones is often caught between worlds. But when tragedy strikes, Wing discovers a talent for running she never knew she had. Wing’s speed could bring her family everything it needs. It could also stop Wing getting the one thing she wants.

I’ve been looking forward to this one for months. The cover was revealed at YALC last July and there had been chatter about it before then. All this hype made me slightly apprehensive about reading it, as it can be hard for books to live up to it (especially, for me, for contemporaries which so often rely heavily on romance – personal taste, but that’s not my favourite thing and a book which offers only/solely that is not going to satisfy). Anyway, Wing Jones does NOT disappoint – it’s a fabulous, diverse family drama told with a light touch which offers plenty of warmth and even some humour.

The emotional ride: dramatic and, at times, unrelenting. This is not a ‘quiet’ book, but one full of passion and emotion. It drags you through a range of emotions with poor Wing as she deals with tragedy, family, school and trying to just be fifteen. However at no point does it feel manipulative or gratuitous and there is often humour in amongst the drama.

Narrative style: Wing’s first person narrative is lyrical and beautiful, and we are easily drawn into her imaginative and metaphorical thought process.

Supporting cast: I feel that characterisation is a strength of this book, but I particularly loved Wing’s two grannies, LaoLao and Granny Dee. They often brought warmth and humour to the story.

Hot buttons/classroom opportunities: the diverse make-up of the book’s cast is fantastic for addressing the narrow range of representation offered by the set GCSE curriculum. I’d love to offer this as part of KS3 or on a ‘reading for pleasure’ list to KS4 to offset the set texts. There are also plenty of SMSC opportunities: bullying, poverty, culture (especially biracial heritage) and Wing herself is a great example of resilience and could therefore be discussed in relation to learning power/four Rs and growth mindset. The writing itself is also beautiful and descriptive, often using metaphor.

Hearthfire rating: 10/10 Smoking hot!

Wing Jones is out now in the UK from Walker Books.

This is my first British Books Challenge review for 2017 – and what a brilliant choice of book! I’m also counting this for the Diverse Reads Challenge, as Wing’s dual heritage is important in the story.

British Books Challenge 2017

As I’ve been in a bit of a blogging slump over the past few months, I’ve decided to sign up for a blogging challenge or two to give me a boost for 2017. I’ve participated in the British Books Challenge before, which is hosted this year by the very lovely Chelley of Tales of Yesterday. It’s a straightforward challenge – read and review at least 12 books by British authors during the year (since US titles often get a bigger publicity push), with prize packs sponsored by UK publishers for bloggers remembering to link up their reviews on the official site post each month. Chelley’s also added some extra incentives with an ‘author of the month’ and ‘debut of the month’ – anyone reviewing those will get a double entry in the draw, so we’ll see whether I can qualify for any of those.

My plans so far are to read and review some of the British titles I’ve already got, along with some new books that I’m eagerly awaiting. I’m sure more books will emerge as the year goes on too. If I review all of these, I’ll more than meet the challenge, but some of these are quite chunky tomes, so we’ll see…

New titles to look forward to are:

  • Wing Jones by Katherine Webber (out 5th Jan)
  • Unconventional by Maggie Harcourt (out 1st Feb)
  • The Night Spinner by Abi Ephinstone (out 23rd Feb)

Titles I already own:

  • The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry (on Kindle)
  • The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley (on Kindle)
  • How Not to Disappear by Claire Furness
  • Cuckoo by Keren David
  • My Brother is a Superhero by David Solomons and Laura Ellen Anderson
  • Who Let the Gods Out by Maz Evans
  • The Graces by Laure Eve
  • Jinks and O’Hare Funfair Repair by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre
  • Barefoot on the Wind by Zoe Marriott
  • Cogheart by Peter Bunzl
  • The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware
  • The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanne Cannon
  • Jolly Foul Play by Robin Stevens (unavailable for photographing… on my daughter’s shelf 😉)
  • Mistletoe and Murder by Robin Stevens (unavailable for photographing… on my daughter’s shelf 😉)

These are a mix of adult, YA and MG – thankfully, everything goes for this challenge: as long as the book was both read and reviewed in 2017, it counts.