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.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Thursday Thoughts: Review of The Dirty Secrets of Markham Savoy by C C Dalton

Rich, handsome, and intelligent, Markham Savoy rules the roost at Coleham Academy. He can make problems disappear - in return for a favour. But just why is Markham collecting so many favours, and when will he call them in?

Twist Literary caught my attention when I reviewed their debut release Alibi. They're putting out fast-paced serial novels consisting of a story told from several different characters' points of view, one in each book, with edgy, tantalising content. This is in a similar vein to Alibi, with rich characters (in both senses of the word!), lots of secrets, and a very readable writing style which makes it easy to gallop through. Markham is a brilliant main character, very manipulative but still fairly likeable, and I also thought Piper, the one girl who may just be a match for Markham, was really great. The book ends on a cliffhanger, as you'd expect from a serial novel, which has got me eagerly awaiting book two, Dane's Addiction (especially since it's written by Sorrel Provola who wrote the excellent final part to Alibi.)

 Definitely worth reading, and an absolute steal on Kindle for the bargain price of £1.28 - particularly if you're a fan of the kind of book like Gossip Girl or Pretty Little Liars, which is the audience this is aiming at.