Guest Post: Elspeth Hart and the School for Show-Offs by Sarah Forbes.

I’m thrilled today to be welcoming Sarah Forbes, author of the excellent Elspeth Hart and the School for Show-offs, to the blog as the last stop on her tour. When I was asked what I would like Sarah to write about for me I knew instantly, the book is filled with wonderfully awful characters so I wanted to hear more about them and how Sarah created them.
Elspeth Hart cover

Writing baddies:
The awful characters in Elspeth Hart and the School for Show-offs

I don’t know about you, but I love a good villain. Sometimes we love rooting for a protagonist who so obviously deserves to have things work out for them. Other times it’s sheer joy to lounge about reading stories about vile people doing things we would never dream of doing.

I was channel-surfing one evening and saw a remake of Fame the movie on TV. Watching it, I thought about how, as a quiet person, that would be my worst nightmare – being in a school where performing all the time was key to success. That might have sparked off some ideas for the awful show-offs in the school where Elspeth’s story is set! I wanted to have an incredibly vain ringleader character (Tatiana Firensky) and for her to have a couple of sidekicks (dim-witted Octavia Ornamento and gymnastic star Esmerelda Higginsbot). What was really fun for me was seeing how James Brown, the illustrator, interpreted my character descriptions when I’d finished writing the story. He absolutely nailed it and often draws little extra details that I’d never have thought of, really making the books come alive.

The teachers in the book area bit awful too: there’s Madame Chi-chi, who used to star in Italian soap operas and has an awful temper, Madame Stringy, who is small and fragile and cries easily, and Professor Bombast, who isn’t a professor at all but just bought a certificate off the internet saying he was. I think the idea of things (and people) being fake is a driving force in quite a lot of the story!

As for the REALLY awful characters, Miss Crabb and Gladys Goulash: I think they just seemed to appear in my mind as soon as I thought about having evil dinner ladies as the baddies in the book. They’re pretty disgusting – always burping, farting, scratching their armpits or putting slugs and cockroaches in the school dinners. I have to admit, though, they are really fun to write!

One thing I’ve learned from writing illustrated children’s books is just how useful it is to have a clear idea of how your characters look and move around. My top tip for anyone writing young fiction would be to write a really detailed character brief for each of your characters. Even if you’re not working with an illustrator, it can really help to know exactly what your characters look like, as you plot their adventures!

Thanks so much for having me on the blog! x

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April 2015 Reads.

Another text based round up of my reads for April. I think I’ve resolved my vlogging issues though so all being well my May round up will be back to video.

April was the month when I moved to London and started my new job so I had a really busy time of it. I was pleased to still read 7 books, I did think my count might have dropped a little.


A Whisper of Wolves by Kris Humphrey. Stripes Books.
This was a pretty quick, fairly enjoyable MG fantasy read. I liked the world set up as far as it goes but would definitely have liked to see more of it. My one criticism of the book as a whole is that it just wasn’t enough, I wanted more of everything – including the plot. This is the first book in a planned quartet, I think I’ll wait now until all of the books have been published and then read them together in the hope they’re more satisfying this way.

Eternal Hunter by Cynthia Eden. Bello Books.
This was another book that left me wanting more, but this time in a good way. It’s fast, fun and pulpy – it focuses on Night Watch, a company of supernatural bounty hunters and the murky underworld they deal with. A wide range of supernatural creatures get a mention, it doesn’t rely simply on the tried and tested vampires and werewolves though they do of course get a mention. I enjoyed re-encountering creatures I’d come across in tv shows like Supernatural and Teen Wolf – I think this book is a good match up for shows like them. I’m really looking forward to reading more of the books that feature the Night Watch.

A Robot in the Garden by Deborah Install. Doubleday.
Some books are just unique. You read them and realise nothing else is ever going to match that specific reading experience and that’s okay. This book was, for me, definitely one of those sorts of books. Tang, a beaten up old robot, appears in Ben’s garden at the very time he needs a change in his life. Their stories become instantly entwined as they begin a journey that ticks both the road trip and coming of age boxes. Tang is a wonderful character, I found myself very emotionally invested both in his story and in his relationship with Ben. This is a great book, one that I think will stay with me for a long time.

That Girl From Nowhere by Dorothy Koomson. Arrow.
I have been a huge Dorothy Koomson fan for years and I’m always eager to read her new book, usually I pick a time when I can sit and read the whole book uninterrupted. This was exactly what I did for That Girl From Nowhere, much to the amusement of my new flatmate as she found me making a cup of tea with the book still in my hand! The book itself lives up to my very high expectations, it brought everything I expect from a book by Dorothy and in such style. I found that I really took to the main character, Clemency, from the first page and that her story was one that really made me think. Photography and jewellery making feature heavily in this book, I love the former and admire the latter so this book had added interest for me. There are so many layers to the stories in this book, I think it’s going to be a great one to re-read.

When Mr Dog Bites by Brian Conaghan. Bloomsbury.
This is probably the hardest book of the month for me to review. A few weeks after reading it I’m still not entirely sure what I think about it. I can’t say I enjoyed it, but I think it’s a very good book and I’m really glad that I’ve read it. It’s certainly a challenging read in places, but I think this is a definite positive – we all need challenging reads in our lives.

I’m sorry I don’t have more organised thoughts about this book, I’m going to keep thinking about it and maybe come back to it.

Prince of Shadows by Rachel Caine. New American Library.
I absolutely loved this book. I had it recommended to me after a discussion about Shakespeare and interpretations of Shakespeare by my good friend Liz. It is a re-working of Romeo and Juliet, its focus is not on the star-crossed lovers but instead on Benvolio Montague. Romeo and Juliet do of course play their part, and Mercutio’s storyline is significant, but it is Benvolio who takes centre stage. I wasn’t sure initially how interesting I would find another take on Romeo and Juliet but the shift in focus works really well, and whilst there are elements of the story that are familiar much of it feels new and fresh. There is comedy and tragedy a-plenty, I shed more than a few tears whilst reading this on public transport! My only criticism of the book has to go to the cover, I’m afraid I don’t like it at all and think that the book deserves far better – it definitely wouldn’t entice me to pick the book up and what a shame it would have been to have missed out on it.

The Italian Wife by Kate Furnivall. Sphere.
My final April read was a historical book for grown ups, something I don’t read often. Oddly it is the second book I’ve read this year to feature elements of Mussolini’s Italy (Black Dove, White Raven was the first) – before this I don’t think I’d ever read anything about this element of history. This story focused on Isabella who lost her husband, one of Mussolini’s Blackshirts, in an attack some years before the book takes place. She has built a life for herself but this is affected entirely by the fascist regime and incidents make her start to push at the limits around her. This book is an odd, yet very successful, mixture of tense thriller elements (at times I was reading whilst holding my breath) and more gentle, quiet plot. I enjoyed reading it a lot, and will be interested to read more from this author.

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Wandering, wondering. *

My new job has lots of nice elements, one of these is that you’re strongly encouraged to take your whole lunch hour. I’ve fallen into the habit of spending a good proportion of it outside, my office is located in Central London so there are plenty of places to go and browse. Today however I moved from my desk to the student common room and spent the hour sitting at a computer doing some work of my own that needed to be done. It was as I was on the train home that I realised how tired I was feeling, the same sort of tired I’ve felt in other jobs when I’ve ended up not getting away from my computer for any time during the day.

I decided this evening to do something about it. My Fitbit was showing I was a bit short of my new personal target, the weather was dry and mild, so I pulled on my jacket and boots and got walking. I turned left out of my building, I turn right every day to go to work and so there’s a whole half of the area I live in that I haven’t really seen yet. I started walking, and my thoughts turned to the day.

Social media’s been abuzz with election chatter for weeks now. I’ve observed it but haven’t really engaged, a combination of barely being able to keep up with any social media as I adjust to my new life, and a feeling of not having a lot to add to what’s already being said. Yes, today I’ve tweeted about voting, and hit the I voted button on Facebook, but that’s as much. I’ve been thinking a lot about it though, plenty about who to vote for and plenty about voting as a whole.

While I walked I passed 3 polling stations. Each of them had people on their way in to cast their vote and people leaving having done so. None of them had obvious queues though when my flatmate went to ours earlier on this evening she said there were two fairly significant queues for the two wards based there. Every group of people I passed were talking about the election, from groups of friends on their way out of the local sports fields to a group I spotted of strangers who’d stopped to chat – inspired I assume from the elderly vicar’s visible sticker proclaiming that he’d voted Labour.

My thoughts turned to my grandad after seeing this particular group. This is the first general election since he died, and whilst I always feel his absence it’s obviously on significant days that I feel it the most. My grandad, you see, is responsible for much of my interest in politics, he was active in local politics for years, and the older I got the more politics entered our discussions. He was always a patient and interested conversational partner, and even when I was pretty young and naive never dismissed what I had to say instead choosing to take the opportunity to encourage me to learn and grow. I found myself imagining the discussions we’d have had over the last few months if he’d still been here. I can imagine all too well what his reactions would have been to many of the goings on, and I know like me he’d have felt a real sense of concern about what the count will bring.

This general election is going to be the first in a while that sees me not watching any of the count. I was actually involved in the 1997 count, and then watched many hours of the coverage for the next three. My job is particularly busy at the moment so there’s no annual leave allowed. It’s a shame, if I could I would have booked tomorrow off and sat up for as long as I could stay awake. Instead I will simply have to go to sleep and wake up to see where things will stand.

*The title of this was almost entirely influenced by the song I Wonder as I Wander – one of the male voice choirs my school choir used to regular share concert bills with sang this song and I could never work out if they were thinking whilst walking or vice versa, the two words sound exactly the same in my accent.

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March 2015 Reads – the text version.

Before I moved down to London I made sure I recorded my vlog for my March 2015 Reads. I knew I wouldn’t have time to edit and upload it, but as long as I had the data I could do that once I was moved. Unfortunately disaster struck that raw data, I managed to corrupt it beyond the point of retrieval so unfortunately there will be no March 2015 vlog. I didn’t want the 6 books I read in March to miss their time to shine however, so here’s a text based version of my thoughts on the books.


The Sleepover Club: Summer Secrets by Angie Bates.Harper Collins.
The first book I read in March was a really sweet middle grade read. I did a full review of it for Middle Grade Strikes Back, you can read that review here.

Elspeth Hart and the School for Show Offs by Sarah Forbes. Stripes Publishing.
This was another great middle grade read, it doesn’t come out until 4th May though so I’m not saying much about it. I’m going to be reviewing it in full for Middle Grade Strikes Back and hosting Sarah on her blog tour so there’s lots to come for this book!

Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein. Electric Monkey.
I was really keen to read this book, I really enjoyed the author’s debut novel Code Name Verity and thought the synopsis for this sounded great. It was a really interesting book, I think it’s a very good book but I found I didn’t love it. I’m not sure if this was to do with the really high expectations I had or whether it was something else. I didn’t connect entirely with the two main characters, again something that was very different when I read Code Name Verity.

What I did really like about this book was the historical setting, inter-war Ethiopia. I knew a little of this history as I studied it at school but I’d never seen it featured in a novel, and seeing Mussolini’s invasion through the eyes of teenagers was a bold, effective reading experience. Just as I’d expected Wein doesn’t shrink away from the horrors of this time, I actually found myself stepping away from the book a couple of times for a breather.

Overall as I say, a very good book.

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale. Headline.
I again came to this book with high expectations having read a previous book by the author, Notes From An Exhibition. This book completely lived up to my expectations, I was quickly swept up in the story and found myself transported to its setting – both in terms of time and geography. Before reading this book I didn’t know anything about the way the British went to Canada and began farming its prairies, this book taught me a lot and left me with a lot to think about past actions. That’s only one element of the story though, the main character Harry is first introduced as an inpatient of a mental health institution and the book then skips between this time and Harry’s past as we begin to build a picture of this man and how life’s twists and turns have brought him to the point at which we meet him. This plotline is skillfully handled, the jumps in time are seamless and never jar. There are elements of this book I wasn’t expecting based on the blurb (though in hindsight they’re alluded to) and these added a real depth to the story.

I really enjoyed this book, I realise there are other books by this author that I haven’t read – I now feel encouraged to carry on working my way through his other works.

Jessica’s Ghost by Andrew Norris. David Fickling Books.
Francis has never had a friend like Jessica before. She’s the first person he’s ever met who can make him feel completely himself. Jessica has never had a friend like Francis before. Not just because he’s someone to laugh with every day – but because he’s the first person who has ever been able to see her…

This is a book about identity and belonging, about understanding your place in the world and the people around you. It deftly handles big issues; bullying, loneliness and isolation, mental health difficulties and suicide – it explores them with care, reassuring the reader all the way. I’m sure many young readers will identify with the things they read in this book, whether they affect them themselves or someone in their life.

The book has a real warmth to it, and a real sense of hope. It made me shed a tear or two as I read, when I put the book down having finished reading it I felt really glad I’d had the opportunity to do so.

Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli.
This book is another contender for my end of year best books list, I loved it so much that when I finished reading I was tempted to go back to the start and read it all over again (an idea I must admit that had been put in my head by George Lester who actually did do it – you cans see his review here). This book is sweet and warm and funny and emotional and thought-provoking… it’s been nearly a month since I read it and I’m still thinking about it and still not really able to get down coherently why I loved it so much.

The two main characters, Simon and Blue have been emailing for some time but other than knowing they’re both at the same high school they don’t know who the other is – I must admit I did guess Blue’s identity but was so thrilled to keep reading and discover that I was right that I didn’t mind working it out at all. The slow burn of their relationship, and their own understanding of themselves is just wonderful and so well done.

In short this book is brilliant and everyone should read it!

 

So there we have it, quick thoughts about the books I read in March. I’m not entirely sure what’s going to happen about my April Reads round up. I’d like to get straight back to the vlogs but I have a few logistics to work out first. I shall do my very best though to have something up early in May.

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It all starts here.

I moved to London on Saturday. I started a new job today. The last five weeks have been spent getting everything ready for both of these things to happen (hence the minimal blogging activity) and if I’m being entirely honest I’m only just started to take on board the fact that all this is really happening.

I’d been trying to find work and move to London for ages. No matter how many application forms I sent off I still felt like I was making no progress, and whilst I remained as positive as I could to anyone who asked how things were going deep down I increasingly began to believe it was never going to happen. There was something different about this application though, the minute I hit submit something felt different and it all went from there.

In the five weeks between being offered the job and starting it I’ve had to find somewhere to live (the hardest part of this entire process in the end) and pack up at least the essential parts of my life. The excitement of all of it has been balanced by nerves and apprehension, I’m still at that stage of cycling between thinking this is finally my time and wondering what on earth I’ve done.

It was only this evening as I emailed a friend that I realised that only 3 days ago I was living at home in all its familiarity. It’s okay that everything feels big and new and sometimes scary – it is. Bit by bit though the unfamiliar is going to be familiar, newness will make way for routine, and I’m going to find my own path. When I think about it that way the excitement takes over again, and so it should!

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February 2015 Reads.

Apologies for the tardiness of this, but yesterday I finally filmed my February 2015 Reads vlog. I explain in it that the beginning of March was incredibly busy for me (by the 10th March I’d slept at least one night in 4 different towns and cities) and then my household was hit by an attack of germs that would have meant me trying to vlog with barely any voice.

Better late than never, here’s my run down of the books I read in February:

The books, in order of reading, are:

  • No True Echo by Gareth P. Jones. Hot Key Books.
  • Captive by A.J. Grainger. Simon & Schuster UK.
  • Marly’s Ghost by David Levithan. Electric Monkey.
  • All Balls and Glitter: My Life by Craig Revel Horwood. Michael O’Mara Books.
  • Worry Magic by Dawn McNiff. Hot Key Books.
  • Three Amazing Things About You by Jill Mansell. Headline.
  • A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab. Titan Books.

There are still lots of things I want to improve on in these videos, I am pleased however that I managed to discuss 7 books in less time than it took me to introduce myself and talk about 3 books in my last effort! Just.

My copies of No True Echo, Captive, Marly’s Ghost, Worry Magic, Three Amazing Things About You and A Darker Shade of Magic were provided by the publisher for review consideration. All opinions expressed are my own.

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Middle Grade Strikes Back review.

Quick post to say that my next review for Middle Grade Strikes Back is live today, you can find it here.

WorryMagic

It’s a charming contemporary story about Courtney, a girl who worries all of the time. Why not head over to find out what I thought about it?

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