Sunday 23 December 2012

Sunday Spotlight: Through To You by Emily Hainsworth

My new Sunday Spotlight feature (which actually bears a striking similarity to my old Saturday Spotlight feature) will showcase some of my favourite recent books reviewed for the superb Bookbag site.

Camden Pike is devastated by the death of his girlfriend Viv in a car accident, and blames himself for it. Then he meets Nina, a girl from a parallel universe. In her world, Viv is still alive, and he realises he doesn't have to let her go and he can be with this other her forever. Will he choose to give up everything he's ever known to be with the person he thought he'd lost, or let go of his girlfriend for good and stay in his own world?

I have to be completely honest and say that I rarely read sci-fi and similar books as I quite often get confused by them. However, the premise for this one was so intriguing that I decided to give it a go, especially since it's a mixture of sci-fi and contemporary. I'm glad I did - it has some really strong points, and is seriously impressive for a first novel. If it's not too strange a comment to make about a sci-fi book, it feels very realistic. Like Michael Grant's superb Gone series, despite the strangeness of the premise, the characters are completely believable, particularly the central quartet. Cam himself is perhaps the unluckiest guy in teen fiction, having suffered the death of his girlfriend, an injury which ended a promising football career, and his parents' divorce, but is likeable despite being understandably depressed at the start of the book. Nina's little brother Owen is a real sweetie, and the two girls Nina and Viv are intriguing characters.

It's also refreshingly unpredictable - I honestly didn't have any idea how this one was going to end up, and the twists and turns kept me guessing right to the last few pages. In addition, it's very atmospheric, with the start of the story being fairly slowly paced but with just enough intrigue to draw the reader in, and the action rapidly picking up speed in the second half.

Highly recommended and I'm really looking forward to reading Emily Hainsworth's next book!

Friday 21 December 2012

Friday Feature: Erin Downing Interview And Giveaway

It was great to talk to Erin Downing, author of None Of The Regular Rules, about her book, writing, and publishing NOTRR as an e-book exclusive. Even better, she's been kind enough to give me an Amazon gift copy of None of the Regular Rules to use as a prize in a giveaway! If you'd like to enter the draw, just leave a comment on this post. Closing date Friday 28th December.

1. When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

It depends on the day

I always write my first drafts with a teen girl in mind—usually, a teenage version of myself. I longed for more books like the ones I write now when I was in high school…but YA wasn’t quite the same thing back then. There were some great novels, sure, but for the most part I stuck to classics or adult novels or (if I’m being honest) the stuff I was assigned to read for school.

When I’ve finished a draft, I picture my critique partners…and worry. There are a couple people who read drafts of all of my novels. First, I send each book to my mom. She reads everything and tells me she loves it and that gives me the confidence to send it to the people who won’t be quite as gentle. I also send my books to Jennifer Echols, who reads everything with her eye on the romance. Jenn’s great at telling me to make my boys hotter, or fix a kiss, or when to stretch out a moment. I also send all of my books to Robin Wasserman, whose main job is to help me with plot. She’s an expert plotter, and she tells me where the book drags (and often has great ideas for how to fix it!).

Once the book is out in the world, I picture different people every day. Adults, teens, my grandma. I know people of all ages—women and men—enjoy my books, so it’s fun to think about who might be reading it at any given point in time.

2. Out of Sophie, Ella and Grace, who is most like the teenage you?

Honestly, there’s a little bit of me in all of my girl characters. Certainly Sophie is most familiar to me, but there are bits of Ella and Grace in there, too. I tend to be fairly cautious, like Sophie, and understand her restlessness. I think Ella’s voice and way of saying things (bluntly) is a lot like me. There are bits of Grace that remind me of my high school self, but hers is probably the furthest from my personality. My favorite part of writing novels is creating characters, and I know a little piece of me slips into almost everyone I write.

3. Given that you're an established author who's written several books already, some people may have been surprised when you decided to publish None of the Regular Rules as an e-book only. Was it a difficult decision to make, and why did you choose to do it this way?

No one was more surprised than me. It’s been an interesting couple of years for me in publishing, and there were a number of factors that led me to publish this novel as an e-book. I really respect the traditional publishing process—in fact, I was an editor at Scholastic for several years. Also, I publish all of my middle grade and tween novels with traditional publishers (The Quirks with Bloomsbury and my tween stuff with S&S/Aladdin). But I had a bad YA experience a few years ago that really changed the way I thought about this business. It’s sort of a long story—one that I haven’t ever shared with anyone. Here goes:

I’d been publishing books with Simon Pulse for about five years, and I was very lucky to get to work with two brilliant and supportive editors there. But then, a couple years ago, I ended up leaving Simon Pulse to sell a YA novel to a different publisher (not naming names…). They offered me quite a lot of money for a two-book deal; enough that I was able to quit my day job and write while my twins were in preschool. It was really hard for me to leave my dedicated team at Simon & Schuster, but the money was enough to make up my mind. So I went. Shortly after I signed the contract, my new editor—the one who had been passionate about the project and acquired it—left my new publisher. Over the course of the next year, my novel got shuffled from one editor to another—and edited and rewritten again and again and again. Eventually, it wasn’t even a book I liked anymore. Turns out, I wasn’t the only one. My agent called me about a year and a half ago to tell me that my fancy new publisher had decided to cancel the project. I was devastated and hurt... but also relieved. I hated the book and I was supposed to write a sequel! Blech. I had no interest in writing a sequel to a book I didn’t believe in and that my publisher didn’t like! But still, I was really sad and embarrassed and worried that I’d never want to write YA again. The years I spent on that project really did suck a lot of passion out of me, and I started to hate YA.

I took about nine months off YA (to write the first book in a middle grade series), and then I decided to try to write another YA novel just for me. I needed to write a book that I felt good about, and that wasn’t under contract anywhere. That book was None of the Regular Rules. I love this book, and I’m really proud of how it turned out. After I worked on it for about a year, my agent and I sent it out to a few publishers, and the response was the same from everyone: I really like this novel (love Johnny, love Sophie, love the list), but it’s a tough market and I’m not sure I love it enough to take a chance. Both my agent and I really believed in the book, and so we decided to look into publishing it as an e-book exclusive. Most of my YA book sales in the past few years have been e-books, and I’m absolutely fascinated by this market and the way bookselling is changing. So I decided to give it a shot with a book I truly believe in and love more than any other I’ve ever written. So far, it’s going great! I hit the Top 100 list for Teen Romance last week for the first time, and that was a really exciting day.

Sounds like a trying time - but I'm glad it had the end result that it did!

4. I absolutely love the gorgeous picture on your website's home page! Where did you get the idea for it, and who created it?

Thank you!! I love it, too. My website was designed by a really amazing guy named Manning Krull. He actually drew the custom illustration on the homepage just for me! I’m very inspired by Paris, and it just so happened that Manning lived in Paris when he was working on my website— he and I came up with the idea of a Parisian café scene to inspire the website design. I was absolutely blown away when he sent me the sketch!

5. If you'd written a list like Suzy's in the book when you were a teen, what would have been on it?

I wrote Suzy’s list, remember? It’s probably fairly similar to something I might have written myself...

6. Johnny Rush was fantastic! What are your top tips for writing hot love interests?

Oh, thanks! The most important thing for me is that my guys are realistic. I like flawed dudes. I don’t really like big, sweeping, hulky hero sorts of guys. I’m not a huge fan of paranormal romance novels where the guy and girl are somehow bound together by some sort of powerful and crazy force that is based on some sort of otherworldly connection that just hits them—bang! I prefer romance that kind of creeps up on you, the way it often does in real life.

I like everyday heroes, the guys who complement my main characters perfectly. I also like confident main characters—no one wants to be with a drip of a guy, so it’s important that he has a little edge to him and says what he’s thinking (secrets are fun, but shyness is a no-no for me). It’s also really important to me that my leading man sees my leading lady differently than everyone else…he needs to see her potential and help her find the best version of herself. That’s sort of a romance rule, right?

7. On the subject of Johnny, I also thought the chemistry between him and Sophie was superb. What's your favourite example of chemistry between two fictional characters?

Hands down, Meg and John in Jennifer Echols’ Going Too Far. I also really like Anna and St. Clair in Anna and the French Kiss. And I do really like the way my stomach flip-flops in Simone Elkeles’ novels…

I've just got Going Too Far out of the library but haven't read it yet - very excited to now you've said that! Anna and the French Kiss sounds fabulous and I can't believe I haven't read that one as so many people keep recommending it.

8. Do you listen to music when you write? If so, what's the soundtrack to None of the Regular Rules?

I don’t really listen to music when I write. But! The title of None of the Regular Rules was inspired by a Trip Shakespeare song (None of the Regular Rules Were True)—so I did listen to a bit of Trip Shakespeare while I wrote this book. And I sometimes listen to my Edith Piaf Pandora station.

9. What are you reading at the moment?|

I’m trying to read some of the successful e-books that are out right now. I just finished Wife for Hire, and I’m about to start Nyrae Dawn’s Charade. I bought The Secret of Ella and Micha. But I also just got a memoir called End of Your Life Book Club. I’ve been eager to sit down and my friend Kelly Barnhill’s new middle grade novel, Iron Hearted Violet. I’m usually reading about six books at once—anything from chapter books to adult romance. I always like suggestions!

Ooh... a few there I haven't heard of! I'll keep an eye out for them.

10. What's next for Erin Downing?

I have a new series for younger readers that is launching in hardcover in May 2013 (THE QUIRKS, written as Erin Soderberg)—I just finished writing the second book in the series, and I’ll begin the third after Christmas. I also have a tween novel coming out next December (Best Friends Forever…or Until Someone Better Comes Along). I am nearly finished with an adult romance novel that I’ve been working on for a couple of years—I just might publish that as an e-book exclusive sometime this spring! We shall see…

Sunday 16 December 2012

Sunday Spotlight: Book Review of Oranges And Lemons: Rhymes From Past Times by Karen Dolby

My new Sunday Spotlight feature (which actually bears a striking similarity to my old Saturday Spotlight feature) will showcase some of my favourite recent books reviewed for the superb Bookbag site.

Karen Dolby's book is a loving look at nursery rhymes from many different times and places, handily organised into groups like 'Monday's Child: The Rhythm of Days' and 'Oranges and Lemons: Songs and Games'. In addition to the rhymes themselves, Dolby sets them into context and tells us of the stories behind them.

This is fascinating to anyone who has an interest in folklore and rhymes, even if the amount of detail given varies rather a lot between rhymes. 'Jack and Jill' has a particularly interesting set of theories associated with it, while the story behind the innocent-sounding 'London Bridge' will leave you shivering. Others however, like 'Aiken Drum', have only a couple of lines about them.

For me personally, the most interesting part is probably the speculation about the identity of some of the people that the rhymes were based on - just which of the King of Spain's daughters was it who appeared in so many rhymes? Was 'Who Killed Cock Robin' about the death of a bird, or something more sinister?

Most, though, have a decent amount of interesting facts about them, and there's a great collection of verses and some charming little sketches to go with them. It's set out so nicely that I could definitely see it being well-received as a gift - it's a beautiful book. It's also very comprehensive for a fairly small book - there's well over a hundred rhymes here and I can't think of any well-known ones that have been missed out. As well, it's surprisingly up to date with its most modern references - even DC Comics character Solomon Grundy gets a mention in the part about the nursery rhyme the character is based on!

Highly recommended to anyone with an interest in old rhymes, or really in history generally.

Friday 14 December 2012

Friday Feature: Author Interview with Lydia Sharp

While I don't normally read that many novellas, I really enjoyed Lydia Sharp's Twin Sense. (One thing that e-publishing has been brilliant for is people being able to release shorter books at great prices!) When I realised she was a fellow member of the fabulous Absolute Write site, I got in touch asking for an interview and was really pleased that she accepted.

1. When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

This isn't meant to be narcissistic, but I see myself. I see my teen self, the one who needed these stories some-odd years ago but couldn't find them, and I see my adult self who refuses to grow up. I know there are plenty of other people out there like me, or like I was, and that's who I'm writing for.

2. Who came up with the fabulous cover for Twin Sense?

The cover was a dual effort between me and Musa Publishing's lead cover artist Kelly Shorten, although Kelly must be credited with the actual product--I simply provided ideas. One of the benefits of being with small a press is how much say the author has in the final cover. Kelly and I went through 15 mock-ups before putting together the final. And I knew as soon as I saw it that it would be The One. It was insta-love (which is bad for stories, but great for book covers!).

3. You have a huge online presence! As well as your own blog, you contribute to Write It Sideways and Writer Unboxed, while I first found out about Twin Sense when you posted on Absolute Write. How important do you think the internet is to a writer today?

Very important. But I don't view it as just having a large online presence, as if to say that is my main goal. The main goal is always to genuinely connect with my audience. So I view social networking more as doing what I love doing, and doing what is necessary to survive in today's world of publishing. Everything you mentioned above came about through years of continual effort and refusing to let my public persona flicker out of existence. "Success" and growth don't happen overnight, and shouldn't be expected to, especially before you have anything published. It also shouldn't take over your time so much that your writing suffers. Building an online presence is never more important than producing quality work for your readers.

The good thing about the Internet now, even compared to when I started blogging 3+ years ago, is that there are so many more choices. Some view this as a bad thing, but that's because they think you have to do everything. You don't have to do everything. Try each venue once, for at least six months, then stick with the ones that work best for you and the needs of your career. Blogging suits me. In addition to the blogs you mentioned above, I've also blogged for the YA Contemps, Gay YA, and The Book Book (all of which are no longer posting new content, or I'd still be with them). Twitter works well for me too. I like the speed of it. I'm giving Facebook a try, but still not completely sold on it. Pinterest? Been there, done that, no thanks. Google+... Is that even still a thing? And there are many others--the point is, you don't have to utilize them all to see results.

In addition to being social media savvy, I believe writing communities like Absolute Write are essential. Not necessarily to sales, directly, but to learning the craft, the business, and forming a camaraderie with fellow authors. 

4. Despite not usually being a fan of love triangles/quadrangles/etc, I really liked the one at the centre of Twin Sense. What's your own favourite love triangle from someone else's book?

Thanks, I'm glad you liked it! I'm not usually a fan of love triangles either, but that's because they are often done poorly. When they're done well they can enhance the tension and conflict of any story. The first good one that pops into my head is fromMatched by Ally Condie. It was very basic--choosing between the one you're supposed to be with and the one you want to be with--and I think that's why it worked so well for me.

I also liked the complex love... pentagon(?) that E. Lockhart had going on in her Ruby Oliver series (one of my absolute favorites--you all must read it!). I learned a lot about how to keep the reader guessing by reading those books. Love triangles (and beyond) that are too predictable have the greatest potential for reader frustration. If it's obvious who the lead character is going to choose in the end, why should anyone waste time reading the story?

5. I know you've talked a bit about a novel called The Seven Deaths of Kat Monroe, which sounds brilliant! What do you prefer, writing novels or writing short stories?

Aw, thank you again! Seven Deaths is my fifth completed novel, and I've lost count how many works of short fiction I've completed. By short fiction I mean either flash fiction, short story, novelette, or novella. I have three short stories published in anthologies, and Twin Sense is my first published novella. To be honest, I don't have a preference. Each length presents different challenges and different joys. For instance, one of the nice things about writing a short story is how quickly I can reach the satisfaction of finishing it. However, I also love how deep I can get into my characters' lives through the long stretch of a novel.

6. Do you listen to music when you write? If so, what was the soundtrack for Twin Sense?

I can't NOT listen to music while writing, preferably with lyrics. For Twin Sense I listened to a lot of punk--bands that were really popular in the early 00s. That type of music is very fun, upbeat, and quirky, which helped me keep the right frame of mind for writing a romantic comedy. Here are a few of the songs I listened to for Twin Sense:

"In Too Deep" by Sum 41:
"Dammit" by Blink 182: 
"My Friends Over You" by Newfound Glory: 

7. What are you reading at the moment?

An ARC of Liberty by Annie Laurie Cechini, a YA sci-fi that will be a 2013 debut: 

8. What's next for Lydia Sharp?

Right now I'm working on a YA rom-com short story for an upcoming anthology with Musa Publishing that will release in spring/summer 2013. In addition to that, I'm in the process of querying agents for my YA novel we talked about above, Seven Deaths. I've also just begun work on a new YA novel, which will likely become my Big Project for 2013.

At some point in the future I'd also like to write the kind of novels people rave about at their book clubs, in between bites of cheesecake truffles and sips of wine. (yes, I know I'm dreaming, but at least my dream includes cheesecake)

Twin Sense 

As girlfriends of the Taylor twins, Layna and Sherri have only been friends by association. But when Sherri breaks up with Keith (for real this time), and Kevin gives Layna a promise ring (whoa, what?), Layna's whole world spins off balance. She avoids Kevin's unwelcome pressure to commit by spending more time with Sherri.

Without the twins around, Layna and Sherri are tempted to go beyond friendship status. Then Keith tries to win Sherri back, and Kevin apologizes for rushing Layna. Now she's stuck inside a double-trouble love quadrangle that has her reaching for the consolation cheesecake. The only way to sort out this mess is to make an impossible choice - between the one she wants and the other one she wants - or she might end up with no one.

Lydia Sharp is a novelist and short fiction author who grew up on the shores of Lake Erie. Then she got tired of finding sand in her clothes so she moved further inland, but she'll always call Ohio home. Laughing is her favorite pastime. Kissing is a close second.

You can find her on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, Amazon and the blogs linked above. You can also e-mail her at lydiasharp4sff (at) yahoo (dot) com

You can also find some Twin Sense extras on her blog! If you'd like to buy Twin Sense, you can do that at Musa Publishing, Amazon or B&N.

Thursday 13 December 2012

Thursday Thoughts: Book Review of Dash and Lily's Book of Dares

Just before Christmas, Lily leaves a notebook on the shelf of her favourite bookshop. Dash finds it and follows the instructions, setting off a chain of passing the book back and forth trading their hopes and dreams. Could the two be just as right for each other in person as they are in writing?

I have to admit, I struggled with the first quarter of this - Dash is super-snarky and it took me a while to get into his voice. Once I got used to it, however, I absolutely adored this book. There's a pair of fabulous narrators, an intriguing plot, and some wonderful supporting characters. It also captures the atmosphere of both the setting of New York City and the timing of the Christmas period perfectly.

This is a super-short review - I may edit it later if I think of more to say - but to be honest I can sum it up with 'Get someone you love this book for Christmas!' - it's an absolutely perfect read for the holiday period and is just, basically, wonderful.

Tuesday 11 December 2012

Top Ten 'New To Me in 2012' Authors (of non-contemporary YA)

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish.

My top ten new to me contemporary authors are over at YA Contemporary if you'd like to check them out as well. 

1. Elizabeth Wein - Like the contemporary list, this isn't in order. Also like the contemporary list, if it was in order, there'd only be one contender for number one. It's no secret that Wein's World War II novel Code Name Verity was my favourite of the year, a stunning, poignant, and absolutely heartbreaking book with two of the best main characters for years.

2. Natasha Farrant - On the subject of WWII books, Farrant’s The Things We Did For Love is also gorgeously written and again reduced me to tears.

3. HM Castor – Castor’s VIII, following the life of Henry VIII, is a brilliant portrayal of a historical figure which really brings out the man behind the king.

4. Scott Cramer – I’ve been pushing Cramer’s Night of the Purple Moon as hard as I can this year – it’s a brilliantly chilling sci-fi story which deserves to have a much wider readership.

5. Jillian Larkin – As a fan of the 1920s as a setting, I’ve been spoilt for choice by some of the brilliant books released this year. Larkin’s Flappers series is the best of them all, though.

6. Cora Harrison – If it’s the UK in the Twenties you want rather than Prohibition-era America, don’t miss Harrison’s superb Debutantes.

7. Will Hill – Yes, prior to this year I hadn’t bothered with Department 19, thinking I didn’t need to read another vampire book. How wrong can you be? Hill’s first book is stunning; the sequel The Rising surpasses it in every way. Twice the length of most YA books and Will Hill never wastes a word. Superb.

8. David Morgan - While the paranormal genre is filled with tales of werewolves, vampires, zombies, mermaids and fairies, there's still some really original stuff out there. Morgan's The Boo Hag, about a creature from South Carolina's Gullah culture is one of my favourite paranormals this year.

9. AC Gaughen - Despite the love triangle at the centre of Robin Hood retelling Scarlet annoying me somewhat, with Robin seeming like a control freak, Scarlet herself - not a boy but a girl, with a wonderful narrative voice and an incredibly well-plotted history with villain Guy of Gisbourne - won me over completely.

10. Laura Lam - I'm beyond confused whether people whose books come out next year belong on lists relating to 2012, but Laura Lam is too incredibly awesome not to make it onto this one. Her Pantomime is hands-down my favourite fantasy of the year, and deserves to be a massive success.

Sunday 9 December 2012

Sunday Spotlight: Review of Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor

My new Sunday Spotlight feature (which actually bears a striking similarity to my old Saturday Spotlight feature) will showcase some of my favourite recent books reviewed for the superb Bookbag site.

Warning: Spoilers below for Daughter of Smoke and Bone!

Karou and Akiva once dreamt of a peaceful world, but their dreams look further away from reality than ever. Is there any way that either of them can gain redemption?

If you haven't read the first book, that probably makes very little sense. This is intentional - if you haven't read the first book, this entire novel will make pretty much no sense, so I'd go and grab that one first. If you have read the first book, I'm hoping that you'll forgive me for the somewhat cryptic plot summary, because this is staggeringly hard to even begin to summarise without spoiling anything.

I have to be honest, I wasn't one hundred per cent sure I was going to read this one. I really liked most of Daughter of Smoke and Bone but felt that it trailed off once Akiva was introduced, and was a bit concerned this was going to be a let-down. I liked Karou enough to try this one anyway - and wow, I'm glad I did! Karou is nearly as awesome as she was in book one despite her understandable grief at the catastrophic turn her life took at the end of that book. Akiva goes from being moderately annoying to a really good hero, partly because of his real desire for redemption and partly because Taylor's villains are so memorably monstrous that anyone doing anything to stand up to them looks at least reasonably heroic.

And then there's Zuzana and Mik, Karou's human friends, who completely steal every scene they're in. They're brave, loyal, and utterly adorable, right from the opening scene (in which Zuzana tries to get her boyfriend to help her in dropping something rather unpleasant on Karou's ex-boyfriend's head as he shows off for the adoring media.)

Couple these fantastic characters with Laini Taylor's gorgeous prose, and a plot full of unexpected twists and turns, and you've got a book that's even better than the first one. Oh, and there's even a satisfying ending! In some ways, it's a massive cliffhanger but Taylor ties up one of the main plot threads really well while leaving things beautifully poised for the next book.

Very high recommendation to fantasy fans.

Friday 7 December 2012

Friday Feature: Author Interview with Andy Briggs

Really pleased to present an interview with Andy Briggs, author of the excellent and series and of the superb Tarzan reboot (can't wait for book 3 in February!) amongst his many other talents!

1. When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

The most attractive, highly intelligent people on the planet! Actually, that’s an intriguing question. I write for myself - books, screenplays, comics - whatever they are, they are written for for me. I just hope that a wide range of people will enjoy my work, reflecting the fact that my tastes are extremely broad.

2. I've praised the Tarzan books because there's a really strong environmental message in them but it never comes at the expense of the action. How important is it to you that you get that message across?

The environmental message is vitally important. Personally, I don’t want any message shoved in my face, it should be subtly laced through a story. I like to become interested in a topic, then I will seek out further information myself. I only hope that there’s enough in my Tarzan books to open people’s eyes and give them a push in the right direction.

The Greystoke Legacy has an underlying theme involving illegal logging while The Jungle Warrior shifts focus on the illegal animal trade - the third biggest illegal activity in the world. The next installment, The Savage Lands, has coltan as a theme - something most people have never heard of, yet we all use.

3. You're multi-talented - as well as your Tarzan books, and series, you've written comics and started off writing for TV and film. Which type of writing is your favourite?

When I do a school visit, I never introduce myself as an “author”, I tell them I’m a writer. My passion is telling stories, and I am lucky enough to be able to write across a range of media to tell different tales. So, to answer the question, I don’t prefer one over the other - I enjoy them all equally. I do, however, enjoy writing a script (for example), the jumping into a book for the next project. I feel variety helps keep stories and ideas fresh!

4. Tarzan was originally published in 1912, making 2012 the 100th anniversary for the character. Why do you think he's still such a popular character a century on?

I have said elsewhere that Tarzan was the world’s first eco-warrior, a character more relevant now than a century ago - but the reason I think he is still so popular is that he represents a freedom within us all we still wish we possessed. How often have we been having a mundane day in work and longed to leap through the windows, jump across the rooftops or escape into the wild? Tarzan allows us a peek into the primeval instinct that our ancestors used every day, and is still hidden within us. Tarzan is in our DNA.

5. And on that note, if asked to pick one recent children's or teen novel that you think will still be loved in 100 years time, what would you go for?

I think, without a doubt, it would be Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series. He’s such a fantastic character and Eoin brought that world alive with amazing clarity. Like Tarzan, I think there is something of Artemis in us all, the rogue that just wants to break convention and occasionally rule the world. I often feel like that.

Artemis Fowl is one of those series I really should get round to reading more of! Loved the first two and just haven't found time to read the rest yet.

6. It's been a great year for reboots - in addition to your own fantastic second book in the Tarzan series, Anthony McGowan has kicked off his sequel series to Willard Price's adventure books. Which classic children's book or series would you most like to see get an update?

I would love to read some new Biggles stories - whether they are new WWI or WWII epics or whether we see Biggles return as a jet fighter pilot, I don’t know. But he’s such a fun character that he could survive a makeover.

Seconded! I loved Biggles and it would be great to see some new stories.

7. One of my favourite things about the Tarzan series is the great location of a modern African setting. Have you been over to Africa for research purposes?

Of course! I thoroughly believe in research. Along with the jungle and savannas, I stood on the edge of active volcanoes (for books 2 and 3), explored underwater rivers and ancient ruins deep within the jungle (for book 3). I think it’s the only way a writer can capture the details that make locations feel real.

With each Tarzan book we donate a portion of the proceeds to EAZA’s (European Association of Zoos and Aquaria) Ape charity. In January, Ape Action Africa are throwing me into the Cameroon jungle - essentially, I’m an Author, Get Me Out of Here - and we are doing a series of video blogs to show the plight of the apes, promote Tarzan, and raise awareness of the excellent charity. We aim to offer FREE video resources to schools and libraries across the country, which can be used in conjunction with the curriculum. There will be more details on my website in the coming weeks.

Sounds like it'll be fantastic - best of luck!

8. And on a similar note, what's your favourite location in someone else's books?

Middle Earth? Discworld? The choices are vast - but if I had to chose one single place, I would love to have a table at The Restaurant at the End of the Universe - as described in Douglas Adam’s book of the same name.

9. What are you reading at the moment?

I have just started Michael Grant’s BZRK, then plan on reading Andy Robb’s GEEKHOOD.

I'm a huge fan of Grant's GONE series but haven't got round to BZRK yet. Andy Robb is on my 'to read' list as well!

10. What's next for Andy Briggs?

This summer we wrapped a movie I wrote and produced, currently called LEGENDARY, which will be out some point next year. There is a bundle of exciting TV shows and movies close to announcement and I have just finished a new stand-alone YA book. But who knows what will happen to any of these? One thing is for sure - TARZAN: THE SAVAGE LANDS is out February 7th. Then later in the year an animated TARZAN 3D movie hits the cinema. Next year will be another epic year for the ape-man.

Best wishes for all of those exciting projects, Andy! I look forward to reading and watching.

Thursday 6 December 2012

Thursday Thoughts: Book Review of Pantomime by LR Lam

Pantomime is almost certainly the best fantasy of the year. That's virtually all I can say about it without getting deep into spoiler territory, which as regular readers will know, I hate. (Oh, actually, I can probably just about tell you that there's a circus in there as well without completely ruining it for you.) I'm not sure whether to praise LR Lam for writing such a phenomenal book or curse her for writing one that's almost completely unreviewable. There's such a big twist early on (which, admittedly, I guessed), that I can't even really say much about the start.

I'll try and say what I loved about it without actually referring to the twists and turns of the plot. Firstly, there's stunning world-building. Lam has created a world in which magic used to exist but seems to have disappeared, leaving only remnants such as the mysterious substance Penglass. Inside this big world, she's also created a fabulous society of circus misfits who are reliant on each other to earn a living but have their own intrigues, quarrels and love affairs. She's populated it with brilliant characters, capable of love, heroism, and cruelty. It's a book which looks at bullying, romance, family, and perhaps most impressively, issues about sexuality that are normally found only in a handful of contemporary books. All of these things have been woven perfectly into the rich tapestry of Lam's fantasy world, and feel every bit as natural to the world and as important, as the fantasy trappings like the Penglass and the Vestige.

This is one for open-minded readers, but it should be one for absolutely every open-minded reader. (It should also come with a box of tissues - while I cry my eyes out fairly regularly at many contemporary novels, I'm fairly sure that this is either the first or second fantasy ever to have that effect on me.) As if to prove there is no end to her talent, Lam actually manages to give us a cliffhanger ending which I thought worked really well. (She tidies up enough of the storyline to give us a proper conclusion, but it still had me desperately wanting the sequel right this minute!)

If it's not clear enough, absolutely massive recommendation as one of the very, very best of the 200 plus novels I've read this year, and I'm sure this will be a huge success.

Sunday 2 December 2012

Sunday Spotlight: Book Review of Haunting Violet by Alyxandra Harvey

My new Sunday Spotlight feature (which actually bears a striking similarity to my old Saturday Spotlight feature) will showcase some of my favourite recent books reviewed for the superb Bookbag site.

Violet Willoughby is the daughter of one of England's foremost mediums. With her mother in high demand, she follows her, assisting in her work as she puts the cream of society in touch with their dear departed. Of course, it's all fake. Violet has spent seven years helping her mother con the gullible into believing she has real psychic powers, so Violet herself certainly doesn't believe in ghosts. Which makes it all the more surprising when one appears to her…

Rowena drowned last year in mysterious circumstances and is desperate to communicate with Violet so that she can expose her murderer. With Rowena's twin sister Tabitha possibly in danger, Violet must desperately try to find out who the killer is.

Violet is a really good heroine – likeable, spunky and clever. She's helped in her quest to solve the murder by her friend Elizabeth and the dark and handsome Colin, an orphan rescued by her mother, and the relationships between her and the other two are very well portrayed. Add to that her entertainingly dreadful mother, who provides much needed comic relief in between the thrilling search for the person who killed Rowena, and you have a host of interesting characters. I also loved the descriptions of the fake séances and the tricks with Violet, Colin and her mother used to convince people of her mother's gift – ingenious and a great insight into Victorian charlatans.

It's not perfect – I felt the ending was somewhat rushed, and it seemed rather convenient that Rowena's ghost had quite so much trouble in pointing out her murderer – but this is clearly a significant step up from much of the paranormal teen fiction out there today and deserves to find lots of success in a rather crowded market.

Thursday 29 November 2012

Thursday Thoughts: Book Review of None of the Regular Rules by Erin Downing

(Note: This book was provided to me by the author in exchange for a fair and honest review.)

Just before senior year starts, Sophie, Ella and Grace find a list of dares written by Sophie's aunt Suzy. Suzy died a decade ago and has barely been spoken of since by Sophie's family. To pay tribute to her, the trio make up their mind to complete every dare on the list. But as much fun as ticking off items like "change a tyre", "go to a party" and "sneak into the planetarium" is, nothing can prepare Sophie for a revelation about her family.

None Of The Regular Rules does everything at least pretty well - Downing has an easy to read writing style, her dialogue is good, and she captures the fraught relationships between teenagers and their mothers with particular skill. However the stand-out part, which lifts it far above 'readable' and into 'go read now' territory, is the chemistry between narrator Sophie and Johnny Rush, the guy with the porn star name. (Her words, not mine!) The heat between the pair of them is so great that if it wasn't an e-book, I'd be expecting the pages to catch fire. Sophie is a wonderful main character but Johnny is seriously swoon-worthy, and gets more so every time he's on the page.

It's also a much darker book than I was expecting, in many ways. It starts off as a fairly light read, apart from the shadow of Suzy's death a decade in the past, but as the book goes on Downing weaves in some far grittier topics, which she handles well. I did think that one particular subplot was perhaps a tad rushed, though, but on the other hand it's quite interesting to see the topic involved there crop up in a book without being the main subject of the novel. (Apologies if that sentence is even more incomprehensible than usual, as always, fear of spoilers trumps clarity in my revews.)

Additionally, Downing captures the atmosphere of the end of school brilliantly. In fact, I'd say the only other book I can think of which really brings down the curtains on its characters' high-school experience as well as this one does is John Green's superb Paper Towns (which is set over a much shorter period of time.) Oh, one last thing - Trever German may be my new favourite minor character ever, or certainly my favourite of 2012. He's utterly wonderful every time he appears!

Definite recommendations to fans of YA contemporary books as an absolute bargain at just £1.94, I really want to get my hand on some of Erin Downing's others now!

Sunday 25 November 2012

Sunday Spotlight: Amy and Roger's Epic Detour by Morgan Matson

My new Sunday Spotlight feature (which actually bears a striking similarity to my old Saturday Spotlight feature) will showcase some of my favourite recent books reviewed for the superb Bookbag site. I can't quite believe I've never reviewed this one here before, as it's one of my favourites of the last few years!

Amy hasn't got in a car for months, since her dad died in the crash, so she can't believe it when her mother tells her she needs to take it from California to the East Coast, even if she has arranged for Roger, the seriously cute son of a family friend, to drive. She thinks the trip will be a four day nightmare, as scheduled by her mother. Except Roger's not keen on overly regimented trips, and Amy's so upset at being forced into doing this that she's happy to go off track… so the pair decide to take the scenic route and explore America on the way there.

I have a bad feeling that in trying to explain how much I loved this book, I'm going to spend too much time on just how gorgeous it is to look at – with photos of some of the places they visited, receipts from various diners, and pages from a travel book Amy's filling in one state at a time – and not enough on the wonderful main story. So, before I start rhapsodizing over the way it's put together, I'll just tell you that Amy and Roger are fantastic characters, the people they meet are sweet, funny and quirky in their own ways, Amy's fear of cars and the start of her recovery from her guilt after her father's death are very well-portrayed, and the descriptions of the places they visit are great. Apart from anything else, going into too much detail about the plot would risk spoiling things – this is definitely one where you want to find out where the detour takes them as you read it rather than beforehand.

So, onto the complete loveliness of the way it's put together – stunning. The travel book pages, motel reservation slips, and similar things add to the story wonderfully, especially towards the end, the photos are beautiful, and as for the playlists… wow! If you're a big music fan the time taken to read the book will no doubt be dwarfed by the time taken to check out some of the hundred plus songs the pair listen to while driving, ranging from Amy's musical theatre highlights, to the Britpop of Oasis, to hot new artists like Owl City to the more obscure such as Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin. From what I've managed to track down in the few hours since finishing nearly every song sums up the stage of the journey it's played at brilliantly, adding even more to an already superb book.

Huge recommendation, as you've probably worked out.

Thursday 22 November 2012

Thursday Thoughts: Book Review of Where She Went by Gayle Forman

Warning: Staggeringly huge spoilers for If I Stay. Seriously, if you haven't read it, don't go near this review. 

Three years after Mia lost her parents and brother, and nearly died herself, in a tragic accident in If I Stay, she's a rising star of classical music. Adam is a rock star. They haven't spoken for a long time. Until Mia plays a concert in New York, Adam attends, and she sends word for him to go backstage. Can Adam finally find out what went wrong with their relationship?

I got this book out of the library about three weeks ago, but couldn't bring myself to get round to reading it because I was so devastated by the thought of Mia and Adam, one of my favourite couples in recent teen fiction, splitting up. When I finally picked it up, I raced through it in a few hours, though. Told from Adam's point of view this time, it's a stunning portrayal of the end of a romance, the effect that grief has on a survivor of an accident, and the perils of fame.

It's a hugely emotional read - I tweeted when I'd just finished it, saying that I'd cried more at this one than at If I Stay. Rereading my review of the first book has reminded me that I cried a LOT over that book, so this may not be true, actually, but it's certainly a close-run thing. Adam and Mia are two incredibly well-rounded characters, and as depressing as it is to see that they grew apart after their love seemed so strong in the original book, the flashbacks to the period in between the two books make it perfectly believable. There's not much of a supporting cast, but that doesn't matter - this is very tightly focused on the lead characters, and  is all the better for it.

Massive recommendation as one of the very best contemporary novels I've read this year - and it's been an incredibly good year for contemporary!

Sunday 18 November 2012

Sunday Spotlight: Book Review of What Boys Really Want by Pete Hautman

My new Sunday Spotlight feature (which actually bears a striking similarity to my old Saturday Spotlight feature) will showcase some of my favourite recent books reviewed for the superb Bookbag site.

Adam is a teenage entrepeneur with a keen eye for a get rich quick scheme. His best friend Lita is an aspiring novelist who also writes an anonymous blog. There's definitely no romance between them - Lita may have broken up a couple of Adam's relationships without him realising it, but that's for his own good. In fact, Lita's convinced Adam knows nothing about romance, so when he comes up with the great idea of writing a self-help book which explains what boys are looking for in a girl, she wants nothing to do with it. Of course, if she took more of an interest, she might notice there are a lot of parts with a significant resemblance to a certain blog...

This is one of the warmest and sweetest books I've read for absolutely ages. I can't think of the last time I found one where every teen, and even most of the adults, were likeable! This also makes it a really good mixture of the predictable - it's fairly clear that Lita will end up finding out about Adam's plagiarism - and the unexpected - there were several plot twists which I definitely didn't see coming but were subtly signposted when you thought back. It's also very, very funny, particularly Lita's snarky narration.

There's also fabulous character development, with Adam in particularly really growing wonderfully through the story, while both his voice and Lita's are clear and fresh. The developing romances are great, with the way Lita's friend Emily goes after Adam's friend Dennis being a fantastic sub-plot. In addition, teens reading may get some sort of an insight into the dark and mysterious enigma that is what boys - and perhaps even girls - really want!

Strong recommendation, I've never read any of Pete Hautman's books before but will definitely check out some of his others!

Friday 16 November 2012

Friday Feature: Interview with HM Castor

I really enjoyed reading HM Castor's VIII, the story of Henry VIII, so was thrilled to get an interview with her!

1. When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, what do you see?

Someone who wants to be told a great story, I think - nothing more restrictive than that!

2. The Tudor period has always been a favourite of mine in history, and VIII is one of the most recent of a large amount of books set in this time that I've really enjoyed. Do you have any other favourite Tudor reads you could share with us?

It probably won't surprise you if I mention Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies - both astonishingly brilliant books, in my view, and deservedly feted. I am also a huge fan of the six books that make up The Lymond Chronicles, by Dorothy Dunnett. They're set in the mid-sixteenth century, range right across Europe and the Mediterranean and are, both in terms of historical research and literary creation, just breathtakingly good: witty, moving, erudite & maddeningly page-turning - if you haven't read them, you have a huge treat in store.

Both Mantels have been on my (huge!) TBR list for ages, really looking forward to them when I finally get a chance to tackle them. The Lymond Chronicles sound fab as well so will definitely keep an eye out for them.

3. I thought one of the strongest points of the book was the relationship between Hal and his father, Henry VII. What's your favourite fictional father-son relationship?

Having recently watched the Shakespeare history plays that made up The Hollow Crown on the BBC, I'll have to say Shakespeare's Henry IV and Prince Hal.

4. You mention in the excellent Q & A for VIII that you started martial arts lessons to help with your research for VIII - how good are you?   

Ah, hum. Not as good as I'd like to be - I wish I'd started younger! Last autumn I was a red belt at taekwondo, and working for the first grade of black belt (the next step up). However, some old injuries were grumbling, & then I was hospitalised with pneumonia & during a long convalescence lost fitness. So now, lapsed, I am no good at all. But I watched the Olympic competition on TV with awe & appreciation!

I originally come from Wrexham, not far from Jade Jones's hometown of Flint, so was also glued to the taekwondo! I don't think I'd ever be able to try it myself, though. 

5. I've really enjoyed reading some of your brilliant posts over on The History Girls - how did you get involved with the group?

That's very kind of you - thank you. I love blogging with The History Girls and feel privileged to be in the company of so many great writers there. The variety of posts is wonderful, and I'm as keen a reader as a writer of them. The way I got involved was this: Helen Boyle at Templar (publishers of VIII) put me in touch with Mary Hoffman, whose brainchild The History Girls was, just as she was in the process of setting it up. I felt very lucky to be included.

6. If you could throw a literary dinner party, which six people (authors or characters, or a mixture) would you invite?

What a deliciously difficult question! I would like, please, to invite three authors (I'm assuming you can bring the dead back to life for me, here), each accompanied by a character of their own creation: Diana Wynne Jones with her great fictional enchanter Chrestomanci (in his Charmed Life incarnation), Hilary Mantel with her version of Thomas Cromwell, and Dorothy Dunnett with Francis Crawford of Lymond, her main character from The Lymond Chronicles.

7. I commented when reviewing VIII that I was slightly surprised it's being marketed as YA since it covers Henry's entire life and could see it appealing to adults as well. when you were writing it, did you always think of it as a YA novel?

I did, yes, but I see the YA and adult categories as (often) overlapping in any case. I first read Dorothy Dunnett as a teenager, but love her as an adult just as much. Ditto the Brontes, Dickens, Jane Austen... Diana Wynne Jones, Alan Garner, Margaret Mahy… And now I'd put, for example, the brilliant Margo Lanagan & David Almond in the same appealing-to-both category, along with many other excellent writers working currently. If VIII is in their company, I'm very happy.

8. I'd always been intending on reading VIII, as a big fan of books about the Tudors, but didn't get round to picking it up until it was chosen for the Amazon Kindle Daily Deal - a real rarity for a YA novel! Were you surprised to have the book chosen and how big an impact do you think that choice has had on the book's success?

Yes, I was surprised, since I understand it's rare for a YA book to be selected. As for the scale of the impact, I really am in the dark, since I don't know any figures. But certainly some people will have read it who wouldn't otherwise have picked it up, and that's a lovely thing.

9. I know that your next book will focus on Henry VIII's daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, and am really looking forward to it. When you've finished them, though, will you move onto the Stuarts, or would you consider trying your hand at a contemporary novel?

I find it very hard to look beyond the work in hand, so the honest answer is I don't know. I think there might be something to be explored with Henry VIII's parents, though, so I could be heading in the other direction… My hunch, anyway, is that I'll stay in the past for a while yet, though if an idea strikes, I can't rule anything out!

Sounds fab, would love to read more about Henry VII - as mentioned earlier, I thought his relationship with Hal was a really strong point of VIII.

10. What's next for HM Castor?

I would absolutely love to be able to carry on doing what I'm doing right now. I've written many books of different types over the years, and have enjoyed the process immensely, but I have never felt so deeply committed to the material I'm working on as I do now. It's as if I've come home at last, and it would be very painful to have to stop. But with the book industry as tightly squeezed as it is, with libraries closing and bookshops disappearing from high streets, few writers can look to the future with certainty. I will plough on, and hope!

I hope so as well! Thanks so much for agreeing to do this interview.

Thursday 15 November 2012

Thursday Thoughts: Book Review of Speechless by Hannah Harrington

(Disclaimer: I received this book from the publishers via Edelweiss in exchange for a fair and honest review.)

Chelsea Knot doesn't know when to shut up. Until she opens her mouth and reveals a big secret, which leads to someone getting hospitalised. In response, Chelsea finds the strength to confess what happened, then vows to stay silent for good. Shunned by her old friends for her apparent betrayal, but helped by the people closest to the hospitalised boy, can she ever forgive herself?

Perhaps surprisingly for a book centering on a girl's vow of silence, the strongest point here is Chelsea's voice. As she did in her debut Saving June, Harrington has created an excellent main character. It's easy to dislike her at first due to her thoughtlessness at the start of the book, but hard not to warm to her as she's so desperate to atone for her actions. Her communications with others through text messaging, whiteboards and other non-verbal ways is entertaining and touching, especially when romance develops between her and one of Noah's friends.

The other characters are generally good although I had to say that a couple of characters, particularly Chelsea's new best friend Asha were perhaps a tiny bit too perfect for me. On the other hand, some of the more minor characters, particularly Chelsea's ex-best friend Kristen and her initial crush Brendon, are really well-developed and completely believable. I also thought Chelsea's relationship with her parents, as she tried to cope with their disappointment with her behaviour and their concern over her vow of silence, was very well-portrayed.

This deals with some tough issues including bullying, hate crimes and homophobia. Harrington's writing style is easy to read and hard to put down. Following on from the excellent Saving June this is definitely one which establishes her as an author to watch out for in the future.

Sunday 11 November 2012

I'm Not Really Here - But I Am Elsewhere

I've got a 'real books vs e-books' post planned out, complete with photos, but feeling too lousy to write it at the moment!

Luckily, if you desperately want to read something by me (am I being optimistic here?!) I've had the honour of featuring on TWO great blogs in the last week or so.

Nicole from Word For Teens was kind enough to ask me to participate in her brilliant Characterize series of posts - head over there if you want to see my thoughts on the title character of Rick Yancey's wonderful Monstrumologist series. Take a look at the rest, as well! I think my favourite so far is Sean Ferrell's brilliant piece on Neville Longbottom, but I'm thrilled to have been asked to contribute alongside Julie Kagawa, Nova Ren Suma and Siobhan Vivian along with some fab book bloggers!

Also, the fabulous ladies from UKYA - Keris Stainton, Susie Day, and Keren David - asked me to take part in their UKYA Top Ten series! Check it out here. I'm guessing everyone who reads the blog will know what my number one pick was, as I haven't shut up about it all year. Again, some brilliant people taking part, including Luisa Plaja, Hayley Long, Sue Ransom, Savita Kalhan, Tanya Byrne, Zoe Marriott, Miriam Halahmy, Andy Robb, Keris Stainton herself, and some of my favourite book bloggers - Jessie from Books 4 Teens, Cicely from Cicely Loves Books, Kirsty from the Overflowing Library, Caitlin from the Cait Files, Emma from Book Angel Booktopia, Laura of Sister Spooky (who's like a brilliant guest-posting machine - check out her fabulous piece on funny YA contemporary books on my other blog!), and Raimy from Readaraptor.

Sunday Spotlight: Book Review of Beat The Band by Don Calame

My new Sunday Spotlight feature (which actually bears a striking similarity to my old Saturday Spotlight feature) will showcase some of my favourite recent books reviewed for the superb Bookbag site.

This is a sequel to the superb Swim the Fly, but for once I’ve pretty much avoided spoilers in this review!
It's a welcome return for the trio of Matt, Sean and Cooper from the earlier book, but there's a significant difference, as Cooper - something of a zany sidekick in the original - takes centre stage here. Moving on from wanting to see a naked girl last year, this time his goal is to go all the way with a girl. Things are looking bad for him, though, when he's paired up for a health project on safe sex with social pariah Hot Dog Helen. Deciding the only way to overcome the humiliation of association with her is to give the school something else to remember him for, Coop persuades the other two members of the trio to enter the Battle of the Bands competition. Can any of them play an instrument? Oh, come on, what do you think?
As much as I liked Matt, I have to say that Cooper, who's cruder, far more brazen, and at times completely obnoxious is, if anything, an even better narrator. Taking the place of Matt's horny grandfather in the crazy adult role is Coop's father, who's unemployed, has memories of his own band, and is a complete scene-stealer - an early part with him showing Cooper how to put a condom on is rather too excruciatingly hilarious to be read in public without attracting some really strange looks (as I found out to my cost on the bus into work!), while the rest of his appearances are just as fantastic. Cooper and his dad are the real stand-out characters for me, but the rest are well drawn as well, especially Helen, and Valerie (who I really loved in the earlier book.) Special mention goes to the dialogue, which is just perfect – perhaps unsurprisingly for a screenwriter, Calame captures the way teenage boys talk to each other, with virtually ever other sentence being an insult without any real meaning behind in, brilliantly.
Like Swim The Fly, this is unashamedly lowbrow. In fact, I’d describe it as the written equivalent of something like American Pie (still my favourite of that genre of teen comedy, so I mean that as a wholehearted compliment; I appreciate not everyone would!) Buried beneath the coarseness and vulgarity, there’s a huge heart here and the ending left me with an absolutely massive grin on my face. It also zips along at a cracking pace – so much so that I finished it in just two sittings, I was so reluctant to put it down. (It would have been one sitting but the day job got in the way!)
Extremely high recommendation to teen boys in particular. I haven't got round to reading book 3, Call The Shots, yet but am really looking forward to it!

Friday 9 November 2012

Friday Feature: Guest Post by Liz Filleul - YA Reality Check

I've been a big fan of author Liz Filleul ever since reading her work for the first time a few years ago. We knew each other slightly over the internet at that point but lost touch, so I was delighted to renew our acquaintance on Twitter a while ago, and even more delighted when she agreed to write a guest post for me.

In popular YA novels, many main characters lead miserable lives at the beginning. Harry Potter famously slept in a cupboard under the stairs and was generally treated like crap by the Dursleys until he discovered he was a wizard and set off for Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Katniss Everdeen struggled to put food on the table in Panem’s poverty-stricken district 12 until her survival skills helped her win the Hunger Games and transformed her into the symbol and leader of rebellion. Henderson’s Boys and the CHERUB kids are neglected and often ill-treated orphans until they’re selected to be part of the British Security Service.

Whether the hero/ine becomes a powerful magician, a secret agent or national leader, what happens to them reflects what most of us would like to happen when we’re going through a bad patch – a magic wand waved over us or someone to intervene to make things better. The rags-to-riches and good-overcoming-evil themes have been around forever, and we never tire of them.

But what about the real teenagers out there whose lives really are miserable and for whom there is no life-changing intervention, magical or otherwise? Where are the gritty YA novels and characters that truly depict their lives?

The other day I read a powerful YA novel called Taste the Bright Lights by a Northern Ireland journalist, Laura Canning. The story is narrated by Lisa, a 14-year-old girl who is frequently and viciously beaten up by her ‘stepda’, Paul.


She longs to run away from home, but every time she tries she’s discovered by the police, returned home – and thrashed again. When her best friend Nicola discovers she’s pregnant and the pair of them get expelled from school for hitting a girl who’s been bullying Lisa, Nicola suggests they run away. They make it to Belfast, where they meet another girl, Karen, who lives in a squat, and move in with her and her friends.

There, Lisa and Nicola are taught how to steal wallets for money. They drink and take Es. They have sex with the boys who live at or turn up to visit the squat. Lisa doesn’t want to steal or have sex, but feels she has no choice because the boys have said she and Nicola can live there.

When Nicola has a miscarriage Lisa summons an ambulance so the girls are discovered. Nicola is welcomed by her parents and happy to go home. Lisa’s mum and Paul, however, don’t want her back. Lisa is relieved about that, but dismayed to find herself in the care of the authorities. First, she’s placed in a house with a caring couple, but because she’s not from Belfast, she has to be moved nearer home and into a care home. There, she’s smiled at and talked at by social workers and bullied by the other residents. The book ends with Lisa accepted by the other residents, but plotting her escape from the home, with a plan to earn her living from sex. You just know things aren’t going to get better for her.


Taste the Bright Lights reminded me of girls I knew in my own teens, whose terrible home lives resulted in them inadvertently making their lives ever more hellish. They got in with the wrong crowd, went from violent parents to violent partners, had babies when they were little more than children themselves. It saddened me that that was a few decades ago and, according to this novel, very little has changed for girls from abusive families.

Initially, Laura Canning approached agents and mainstream publishers with Taste the Bright Lights. They loved it – the style (an irresistible vernacular), the in-your-face characters, the gritty, sad and sometimes funny story.

But they knocked it back, saying it was too controversial for today’s YA market.

So Laura went ahead and published it herself. And I’m glad she did, because a story like this needs to be out there. Back in the 1980s, it would probably have been snapped up by a feminist publishing house. Just as back in the 1980s, children’s telly was way grittier than it’s allowed to be today. (Bernard Ashley said his Break in the Sun, also about a girl who runs away from her abusive stepfather, couldn’t be repeated on telly today because of the content.)

Historically, novels have been a catalyst for change – Black Beauty for example, and Dickens’s social justice novels. So it seems strange to me that publishers don’t think the YA market could stomach a book as grim as Taste the Bright Lights. Surely today’s market is as interested in grim reality as it is in angels, secret agents and apocalyptic fiction?

Isn’t it?

Liz Filleul lives in Melbourne, Australia, where she works part-time as a senior editor in a large publishing house and spends the rest of her time ferrying her son to school and various sporting activities, writing fiction and reading (mostly YA).

Liz won Sisters in Crime Australia’s Scarlet Stiletto Award for short crime fiction in 2004, and was runner up in 2007 and 2011. She has been shortlisted again for this year’s awards. She has had two novels published by Bettany Press in the UK – To All Appearance, Dead, a murder mystery set among collectors of girls’ school stories, and First Term at Cotterford, a contemporary school story. She is currently writing a YA novel set during World War II.

Liz blogs at Story Spinner.

Thursday 8 November 2012

Thursday Thoughts: Series Review of You, Me and Thing by Karen McCombie

Having just read the second and third in Karen McCombie's You, Me and Thing series, I thought I'd knock up a quick review of the series.

This is aimed at a significantly younger age-range than most of the books I review here (and indeed most of the books I read), but I couldn't miss it because it's by the wonderful Karen McCombie, who doesn't write anything except brilliant books. This is no exception, featuring a great central trio, McCombie's usual engaging writing style, and absolutely beautiful black and white illustrations from Alex T Smith.

McCombie's words and Smith's pictures both capture the characters perfectly - Thing is absolutely adorable, while the main human characters of sensible Ruby and Jackson, a pleasant young boy who can just occasionally be a bit of a 'donut', interact really well together. Oh, what IS Thing? No-one really knows - even Thing itself. Ruby and next-door neighbour Jackson find it at the bottom of their garden when its old home in the wood is destroyed by builders. Described by Jackson as "A sort of troll crossed with a fairy crossed with a squirrel?", it has wings on its back (although they don't work.) It's not keen on the squirrel comparison (squirrels are mean!) and it lets the pair know this. Did I mention it can also talk to people and animals? As well, it has a habit of accidentally doing magic when it feels a bit ARRGHH! The magic, each time, goes a bit wrong which keeps leaving the pair in a bit of a bind as they're having to frantically try and put things right.

All 3 books so far are lovely. They're playful, with lots of the fun being Thing's fairly wobbly grasp of English, picked up from overhearing people in the woods, and the fabulous illustrations really add to them. They're relatively short, and would make fantastic bedtime reading for younger children, as well as being perfectly pitched for confident readers to enjoy them on their own. Highly recommended for the young and young at heart!

(Oh, and don't miss the brilliant website!)

Tuesday 6 November 2012

Top Ten Book Related Websites

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish.

1. The Bookbag - The site which got me into book reviewing! I've been reviewing for The Bookbag for about 3 years now, so I'm completely biased, but I have to say that I've never seen another site which has so many consistently high-quality reviews.

2. Absolute Write - Prior to finding AW in April this year, I'd been trying to write a book for about 15 years, without ever getting more than 15k into something. (And that one took six years or so!) Since finding AW, I've got 35k into one novel - shelved for a bit while I decide whether to change something, wrote 50k of a novel (which is so shoddy it barely counts as a first draft, but is still a massive achievement for me) last month, and am 25k into my NaNoWriMo after five days. There is so much staggeringly good advice here that ANYONE reading it will improve as a writer.

3. UKYA - Brilliant site focusing on UK YA books which is run by the awesome trio of authors Keris Stainton, Susie Day, and Keren David. Lots of great info on teen books by UK authors and it's a really well set-out site, making it very easy to find books by location or genre.

4. Raych Kruger - There are lots of fab book bloggers out there, but no-one has got a voice like Raych's! Read her 'nine caterpillar' review of Jaclyn Moriarty's Feeling Sorry For Celia and be amazed by how entertaining AND useful it is. Extract - "Ok, so Feeling Sorry for Celia is an extremely stupid and irrelevant title and that is the only criticism I have because the book itself is SO VERY GREAT. It is DROLL and HEARTFELT and WHIMSICAL and NIFTY without being GIMMICKY (ok, it's a little gimmicky. But it's gimmicky in a way that WORKS)."

5. Read Write and Read Some More - Annabelle is a really good blogger and writes fab, detailed reviews. She also gave me an awesome guest post for my YA contemporary theme week last week!

6. TV Tropes - Huge apologies for linking to the internet's biggest time sink, but I couldn't leave out this ridiculously informative site. I routinely lose hours on it by getting distracted, though, so enter at your own peril.

7. ReadARaptor - Raimy's blog is full of brilliant reviews and looks gorgeous - she has one of the best headers around!

8. Sister Spooky  - Laura is hugely enthusiastic about books and has really similar tastes to me, so if she loves something, I know there's a fair chance I will too,

9. Word For Teens - Nicole was kind enough to hand me my guest blogging debut as part of her wonderful Characterize series. As well as some fab guest posts, she's another blogger who writes great reviews.

10. Writing From The Tub - There are times when I want to find out what a book is like quickly. Carly's 'mini-reviews', which are about 50 words long plus the plot summary, are a fab way of doing this!

11. YATV - Sneaking in my own site as an 11th! It's not book related but has had contributions from authors Keris Stainton and Susie Day, who took part in my Gilmore Girls roundtable, and I've got a few other YA authors lined up as well. In addition, book blogger Carly Bennett recaps Girls and Fresh Meat on the site. Please take a look if you have any interest in TV!

Saturday 3 November 2012

Sunday Spotlight: Sean Griswold's Head by Lindsey Leavitt

My new Sunday Spotlight feature (which actually bears a striking similarity to my old Saturday Spotlight feature) will showcase some of my favourite recent books reviewed for the superb Bookbag site.

When she finds out her dad was diagnosed with MS some months ago, but no-one had felt the need to tell her, Payton's world starts to fall apart. So much so, that when her new counselor suggests picking something as a Focus Object to write about, she decides to go for it, and chooses Sean Griswold's head. But what starts off as a supposedly academic study of the said head becomes something rather more interesting, as she realizes that Sean himself might be someone worth focusing on.
While the whole Focus Object part of this book was what got me interested in reading it first, sticking out as a rather original concept, in the end any teen romance is going to live or die on its characters. Luckily, Sean Griswold's Head succeeds massively on this front – the central trio of Sean himself, narrator Payton, and her best friend Jac are utterly adorable and had me rooting for the three of them right the way through this charming book. Add a strong supporting cast, particularly Payton's family – all trying in their own way to deal with her dad's illness – and you have a surefire winner on your hands.
I think perhaps the strongest part of the novel is the way the characters, and the relationships between them, develop. Everything feels utterly realistic, the way Payton's family tried to shield her from the truth about her dad's MS felt completely frustrating but also very believable, while her romance with Sean and the ups and downs of her friendship with Jac move at a near perfect pace.
It's also really, really, easy to read, thanks to some sparkling dialogue and a great narration by Payton, who's smart, funny, and near obsessed with Seinfeld. If she sounds like the kind of character you'd like to spend some time getting to know, drop everything and go get this one now! However, just because it's so readable doesn't mean it's afraid of tackling tough issues – the effects of MS are clearly shown, and the way it hits Payton's dad and his entire family struggle to cope with it really bring home the suffering inflicted by the disease.
Overall, this is an extremely strong recommendation and goes down as one of my top few romances of the past few years, alongside books like Amy & Roger's Epic Detour, The Sky Is Everywhere and Skin Deep

Friday 2 November 2012

Friday Feature: Interview with Jaye Robin Brown

March 2014 Edit: Sing To The Wind has been renamed No Place To Fall, and will be out later this year. I can't wait!

As great as it is to interview fabulous authors who I'm already a big fan of, one thing I've grown to really enjoy this year is finding out about some of the great authors who've just signed their first publishing deals. I stumbled across some posts about a book called Sing To The Wind a few months ago, which sounded awesome, so I was thrilled when I managed to get an interview with author Jaye Robin Brown, who's recently signed with Harper Teen.

1. For those readers who haven't heard of Sing To The Wind, can you tell us a bit about it, and who you think it will appeal to?

Sing to the Wind is a contemporary YA set in the mountains of western North Carolina. The story's about a mountain girl who can flat out sing some bluegrass, the boys she likes, the town she’s dying to get away from, and the dysfunctional family that's putting roadblocks in the way of her emerging dreams.

Sounds brilliant, I can't wait to read it!

2. You were one of the winners of Ruth Lauren Steven and Michelle Krys's Christmas In July contest earlier this year. What made you enter the contest, and would you recommend similar contests to other authors looking for an agent?

That contest was amazing and such a catalyst for this moment. I can’t thank Ruth and Michelle enough for hosting it. I’d done blog contests in the past (other manuscripts) and met with mixed results. What I liked about Christmas In July was the winnowing would be done by Ruth and Michelle, and if you didn’t make it in, only you would know. I was utterly flabbergasted to see I’d been chosen and even more so to receive multiple requests to see the manuscript. As for if I’d recommend blog contests to agent hunters - I’d say it depends on the writer. It’s scary putting fragile words out there for the entire world to see. I’m not sure I would recommend it to beginning writers. You’ve got to have very thick skin to deal with some of the comments people make on some of the contests available on the blogosphere. But it’s also a way to get your work in front of agents who might be closed to queries and an instant way to get feedback on what’s working and what’s not. So if you’re not too terribly tender, and you’ve gotten your manuscript as far as you can take it, then I say go for it.

3. On a similar note, are there any tips you'd give to authors that you wish you'd known when you first started writing your book?

Hmmm, tips. First, read, read read. In your genre, out of your genre. Note which books you love and why. See what works, what you’re aiming for. Second, find great critique partners and be a great critique partner. Be open to criticism and praise. And lastly I guess is realize this is a business. You can have the prettiest sentences anyone has ever strung together but if the story doesn’t transport you, it will be hard to find a home for it. Publishers are in this business to bring books into the world, and to make money. Great stories sell. Story. It’s a word I think a lot about and really pay attention to when I write. Stories captivate.

Fabulous advice there - thank you!

4. The query letter you wrote for the Ruth Lauren Steven competition had me hooked at North Carolina - I love Southern fiction! What are your favourite novels set in the South?

Oh man. You’ve opened a can of worms, I’m a reader, first and foremost.
• Gone With The Wind
• To Kill A Mockingbird
• Breathing by Cheryl Herbsman (sweet summer YA romance set on the Carolina coast)
• Alabama Moon by Watt Key (fabulous voiced MG novel about the son of a survivalist)
• Fried Green Tomatoes and the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg
• The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
• All Over But the Shouting by Rick Bragg
• Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison
• Looking for Alaska by John Green (set in a southern boarding school)
• Carolina author Sharyn McCrumb - I like her mysteries and her historical stuff
• Anything by Rita Mae Brown
• And for an honorary southern book, The Beans of Egypt, Maine by Carolyn Chute.

Looking For Alaska is one of my favourites, and To Kill A Mockingbird is in my top five of all time. Will definitely check out some of the rest!

5. Your main character is a really talented singer. Did you have any special talents as a teenager?

I was an equestrian until the age of 15 when a hurricane blew through our neighborhood and knocked down all the fences at the farm where I kept my horse. After that, it became harder to get to the farm where we moved him and my parents made the decision to sell him. With more support, I might have gone into equestrian studies somewhere. (I do have horses now but just for pleasure) I also was medium good at art and never stopped making things. And I suppose, this writing thing might work out, too, though I’m a ways away from my teenage years.

6. What are you most looking forward to about being a published author?

Connecting with readers, introducing my characters to the world and watching them take on real lives of their own completely disconnected from me, stepping more fully into this amazing world of kidlit authors, and getting to talk books constantly (Like this! - thank you :0))

7. Is there anything about being a published author that you're dreading?

Nothing! I’m excited about it all.

8. I know that as well as being an author, you're a high school art teacher - do you discuss YA books with your students?

I talk books to my students ALL THE TIME. They loan books to me, I loan books to them. In fact, later this year as part of this special half-hour period we have, I’m hosting a YA book club. Not sure what our format will be but we’ll be talking all things young adult. My students are amazing people.

That's great! One of the reasons I miss teaching is that I used to love being able to share recommendations with some of my book-addicted students. 

9. Do you listen to music when you write? If so, what's the soundtrack to Sing To The Wind? (With a name and a plot like that, I'm really hoping there is!)

I’m glad you asked! Actually I can’t listen to music while I write, but I did download stuff to listen to on my commute and there are lots of songs mentioned in the story. So I’ll tell you a few in order of appearance - be warned, it’s a bit eclectic, and Amber’s taste is decidedly Appalachian.

• Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash - Jackson
• James Taylor - Carolina
• Amazing Grace - Traditional
• Iris Dement - Pretty Saro
• All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies - Traditional
• Barbary Allen - Traditional (I love Emmy Rossum’s version from Songcatcher)
• False Lady - Traditional
• Little Feat - Dixie Chicken
• The House Carpenter (traditional ballad - I downloaded Hedy Silver’s version)
• Johnny Cash - Redemption Song
• Allison Krauss - I’ll Fly Away

I also regularly listen to two great radio stations near where I live - Amber could listen to them, too. One is WNCW in Spindale, NC - live streaming available, they play loads of Americana and Bluegrass. The other is WETS live from the campus of East TN State University. ETSU has a degree in bluegrass studies and is home to tons of great young musicians. The Carter Family Fold is also just up the mountain from there and is the old homeplace of the Carter Family (June Carter Cash), they have live music on a regular basis.

WOW! What a fantastic playlist. Johnny Cash and James Taylor are two of my favourite artists.

10. Have you got any plans for future books you can share with us?

I just scrapped 38k of another contemporary I’m working on, but I’m keeping the characters and the heart of it. It’s about grief, healing, popsicle trucks, and a hot artist. I also have a book I wrote earlier that I can’t trunk, a horse girl adventure that I’m about to age up from an upper MG to a YA. It was a lack of technology dystopian, but I’m going to change the setting to an alternate world to bypass dystopian overload. The setting is based on the Appalachian mountains and is loaded with quirky characters.

Both sound really interesting! Can't wait to read them, and, of course, Sing To The Wind!

Jaye Robin Brown has her own website and blog and can also be found on Twitter. Thanks for doing this interview, Jaye, and very best wishes for the future.