BLOG TOUR: Spylark by Danny Rurlander

Spylark Jacket lowresI’m kicking off the autumn term on the blog with the first stop on the blog tour for Spylark by Danny Rurlander. What a great way to bring in the new term!  Spylark is a fantastic middle-grade thriller full of adventure, lots of action and some great characters – not to mention a really cool and clever idea at the heart of the story!  Spylark is set in the author’s native Lake District and uses the islands that inspired Swallows and Amazons as the backdrop. Danny Rurlander’s debut novel is a perfect adventure of the absolutely classic kind. With themes about the importance of friendship, bravery, terrorism and technology, readers will be swept up into the daring mission to save a Very Important Person from assassination. A thoroughly riveting read, Spylark is a must for middle grade bookshelves!

Danny Rurlander Photo.pngDanny Rurlander studied English Literature at the University of East Anglia, and worked in the finance sector for several years. He now serves on the staff team of a multi-cultural, city-centre church. While at University Danny spent two years learning to fly with RAF, as an officer cadet in the Cambridge University Air Squadron.  He has lived in Austria, Kenya, Devon and Australia, but always longed to return to his native Lake District where he grew up exploring the fells and camping on islands, so it’s no wonder his descriptions of the landscape where Spylark is set are so real! I’m delighted to welcome Danny to the blog today to share some insight into what inspiration means to him.

Inspiration

“There’s a moment, roughly half way through the book, when Jim Rothwell, an older man whose wisdom and life experience help the child protagonists navigate some of the trickier moments of their adventure, offers a challenging view of love.

 ‘Joel, my lad, love is not always a feeling. Sometimes it’s a decision.’

This down to earth and counter-intuitive idea of love is also true, in my experience, of ‘inspiration’.  Inspiration, for the fiction writer, is not so much a feeling, but a decision, an act of the will.  If you sit around waiting for it to turn up, you’ll never write anything. But where does inspiration come from?  The answer is so obvious it seems almost unnecessary to say it.  Inspiration comes from two spheres: what you already know and what you don’t know, but know you need to know.

In writing Spylark a number of key influences and experiences (the first sphere of inspiration) found their way into the book: my own childhood adventures in the part of the world where the book is set; a first-hand knowledge of flying aeroplanes gained through my time with the RAF; and perhaps most of all, memories of books I read as a child.  In particular I grew up not only reading Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons adventures but trying to live them out!

Spylark is a classic action-adventure thriller, involving spies, criminals, and a group of child heroes who save the day.  But the book plays with this genre by means of a key technological concept. Tom, the main character, who has suffered a life-changing accident several years before the story begins, ‘escapes’ the harsh realities of his life by means of his home made drone.  This enables him to be in two places at once, and enables the narrative to switch between locations in the blink of an eye.

This brings me to the second source of inspiration – what you don’t know, but know you need to know. Before I started I knew nothing at all about drones.  So I had to find out enough to make the story convincing.  Writers traditionally call this ‘research’ but that has always sounded rather outfacing and dull when you are itching to get going with the story.  I prefer to think of it as fueling the tanks for the creative energy of writing.

The internet makes this easy of course. I subscribed to a few drone blogs to understand the technical stuff.  I then tried to get my head around what could actually be possible, and how a terrorist might use this technology for destructive purposes.  (At one stage if – for some reason – my hard drive had been examined by the police, it could have looked rather suspicious!)  But it’s a good idea not to rely too heavily on Google.  I also bought a book on drones, went out to the local beach to watch people flying them, and met up with a local enthusiast to watch him at work and ask him questions.

The key to this is not to think of what you don’t know as a barrier but an opportunity.  I often say that writers are nosey-parkers!  They learn to listen in on other people’s conversations on the bus; they observe the world around them in fine detail, tune into the stories of other people’s lives and actively imagine the world from someone else’s point of view.  After all, one of the reasons children read is to learn about what they don’t know.  If as a writer you can learn something new, the chances are the story will be even more vivid and fresh than those that come from your experience.”

Find out more at dannyrurlander.com and chickenhousebooks.com. SPYLARK by Danny Rurlander is out now in paperback (£6.99, Chicken House)

With thanks to Chicken House for sending me this book to review. Be sure to follow the rest of the blog tour:

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New review: How High the Moon by Karyn Parsons

I was instantly intrigued by this story given it was written by Karyn Parsons, best known for her role as Will Smith’s ditsy cousin Hilary Banks in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Karyn has since gone on to found and produce Sweet Blackberry an award-winning series of children’s animated films to share stories about unsung black heroes in history. How High the Moon is her debut novel for children aged 9 and up.  A sweeping tale of growing up in segregated America, it tells the story of Ella and her family and friends and will stay with you long after the final page.

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How  High the Moon by Karyn Parsons

“Boston was nothing like South Carolina. Up there, colored folks could go anywhere they wanted. Folks didn’t wait for church to dress in their fancy clothes. Fancy was just life. Mama was a city girl . . . and now I was going to be one too.”

It’s 1944, and in a small, Southern, segregated town, eleven-year-old Ella spends her summers running wild with her cousins and friends. But life isn’t always so sunny. The deep racial tension that simmers beneath their town’s peaceful facade never quite goes away, and Ella misses her mama – a beautiful jazz singer, who lives in Boston. So when an invitation arrives to come to Boston for a visit Ella is ecstatic – and the trip proves life-changing in more ways than one. For the first time, Ella sees what life outside of segregation is like, and begins to dream of a very different future. But her happiness is shattered when she returns home to the news that her classmate has been arrested for the murder of two white girls – and nothing will ever be the same again.

A moving and beautifully written historical tale drawing you into a world of racial tension, family bonds and friendship. It is told through the voices of the various central characters –11 year old Ella, desperate to find her place in the world; Henry, Ella’s steadfast best friend and Mryna, an orphan girl taken in by Ella’s grandparents who experiences first love with classmate George.  Ella has a love-hate relationship with Myrna and is often in conflict with her. When Ella goes to Boston to stay with her mother she hopes to find the truth about her father – who judging by Ella’s skin-colour and the prejudice she is often on the receiving end of, was white.  However, Ella finds her mother unwilling to share any more than this and unwilling to give up her lifestyle of late-night performing to be a stay-at-home mother. Ella finds a surprising ally in her mother’s roommate, Helen, but the time comes when she must return home. The story takes a heart-rending turn when George, Myrna’s boyfriend is accused of murder, turning their world upside down and causing increased racial tension with the threat of lynch-mobs never far away.

There are so many facets to this brilliant story and it weaves a believable but haunting narrative. Ella is a brave heroine, with a voice that must be heard. The character building is excellent and you can’t help but feel Ella, her friends and family really existed, pulling empathy from the reader from the first page. Sadly, the story of George is based on truth – George Stinney Jr was 14 years old when he was excused of murdering two white girls and executed for murder. Seventy years later he was exonerated and his trial and sentence declared a sham.

I never fail to be horrified by man’s inhumanity to man and shedding light on the racial tensions in 1940s Deep South, and what it was really like to live during this time is important. Particularly in the current climate where racial inequality still exists; this book will build empathy and understanding and would be most suitable for older primary children and also good for those students studying this period of history.  How High the Moon is brilliant and brave storytelling and is deservedly described as future classic.

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Find out more www.penguin.co.uk. With thanks to Puffin for sending me this book to review.

New review: Call Me Alastair by Cory Leonardo

With a beautiful feather-covered book jacket, Call Me Alastair caught my attention in more ways than one. I’ve never read a book where one of the central protagonists is a parrot! An impressive literary middle grade debut by American author, Cory Leonardo and published by ScholasticCall Me Alastair will tug at your heart strings.

 

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Call Me Alastair by Cory Leonardo

Born in the back of a pet store, Alastair the parrot dreams of escape. But when his sister Aggie is purchased by a big-hearted boy, and Alastair is adopted by a lonely widow, his hopes for the future crash-land. In between anxiously plucking his feathers, chewing a few books, and finding his own poetic voice, Alastair plots his way back to Aggie and their flight to freedom.

Call Me Alastair is a moving and quirky tale, unlike anything I’ve read before.  Told through the eyes of three characters: Alastair, the literary parrot who has never known freedom and is fiercely protective of his sister; Fritz a twelve year old boy who helps in the pet store and recently lost his grandfather; and Bertie, a feisty widow trying to find purpose after the death of her husband. Each character is struggling to find their freedom – whether this be literally, in Alastair’s case, or freedom from grief and loneliness.  Alastair has a habit of eating books, and often ‘regurgitates’ these literary snacks in the form of poetry, reflecting much about his state of mind as he comes to terms with being separated from his sister. Fritz’s voice is heard through a medical log, sharing his desire to be a doctor and giving glimpses into the daily grind of life and being a bit different.  And Bertie’s story comes through the beautiful letters she writes to her husband of many years who has passed away; whilst trying hard to maintain a jovial attitude, it is clear just how much she misses him.  Their stories intertwine and each helps the other find acceptance and friendship.

The lingering narrative draws you in, tugging at your heart, creating empathy and understanding in a truly unexpected way. There is also light-hearted humour – particularly from the other residents of the pet shop who have many and varied views; a brilliant insight into what the world of domestic pets might be like! You can’t help but love Alastair, despite his crankiness and moments of melancholy; after all wouldn’t we all feel like that if we were separated from the one we love most in the world?  Fritz is just the most gorgeous boy, full of love and care and trying hard to make amends for things that just aren’t his fault. And Bertie, well, I just wanted to give her a great big hug and be her friend.

Call Me Alastair is a story to make time for; a wonderfully written tale of three very different characters who inadvertently help each other see they are not alone in the world.  Help and happiness can come from the most unexpected places but that is often one of the joys of life. I think Call Me Alastair demonstrates this beautifully.

Find out more at www.coryleonardo.com and www.scholastic.co.uk

With thanks to Scholastic for sending me this book to review.

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New review: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

The Poet X has been on my TBR shelf for some time – I should have read it straightaway.  In a word it is brilliant. The author Elizabeth Acevedo was born and raised in New York City and her poetry is infused with Dominican bolero and her beloved city’s tough grit. With over twelve years of performance experience, she has delivered talks, won multiple poetry slam awards and featured in many international publications.  This is her debut novel and it will have you holding your breath, crying and cheering all at the same time. A really moving and uplifting read.

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The Poet X By Elizabeth Acevedo

Xiomara has always kept her words to herself. When it comes to standing her ground in her Harlem neighbourhood, she lets her fists and her fierceness do the talking. But Xiomara has secrets – her feelings for a boy in her bio class, and the notebook full of poems that she keeps under her bed. And a slam poetry club that will pull those secrets into the spotlight. Because in spite of a world that might not want to hear her, Xiomara refuses to stay silent.

Xiomara Batista has not had the easiest childhood. Born late to Catholic parents who thought they couldn’t have children, she and her twin brother are seen as gifts from God and as such her mother remains fervently thankful to this day.  Attending daily mass, regular confession and preparing for confirmation are all part of the norm for Xiomara. As an attractive young woman, Xiomara receives a lot of unwanted attention and her mother, Mami, persistently reminds her of the sin this can lead to.  Xiomara’s father is not around and when he is, he doesn’t have much to say. Whilst her very intelligent brother attends a private school, Xiomara goes to the local Harlem high school, where drug abuse and gang culture are standard. She takes refuge in words – she may fight with her fists but the real battles with herself, her uncertainties about her faith, her parents and her feelings about a forbidden romance take place on the pages of her precious notebook.  With her twin struggling with his own secrets and her best friend too devoutly religious to help, Xiomara finally sees her words for the way out they truly are – especially when a new English teacher invites her to a Spoken Word Poetry Club.

The 357 pages of this book flew by and short of life’s necessities interrupting I read it in one go. Written entirely in verse, I found myself clutching it and rushing for my train so I could hurry up and get back into Xiomara’s world.  She is one of the most absorbing characters I’ve ever read – her voice is loud and clear and her words thought-provoking, powerful, tender, true.  A coming-of-age story like no other, you are completely drawn into Xiomara’s thoughts; you can feel her pain, her fears, her hopes, her joy at discovering and recognising the pangs of first love. With each passing day, Xiomara’s relationships with those around her become more complicated. Poetry enables her to truly express herself and find the determination to explore who she really is whilst dealing with the oppression of those who are supposed to love her the most, but show it the least. I would have quite happily screamed at her mother for being so ridiculously lacking in love, so blinded is she by her faith.  This story is not without complexity but it touches on so many things a teenager trying to find their identity might feel (in fact so many things we all sometimes feel) and each verse generates real emotion. Acceptance, kindness, home, laughter, friendship, faith, teaching, discipline, passion, self-belief; love has many faces and this story powerfully explores them all. The Poet X is absolutely one of the best YA books I’ve read – an empowering story, it’s no surprise it was a New York Times bestseller.  Everyone should read it.

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Find out more at www.acevedowrites.com.

With thanks to Egmont for sending me this book to review.

Book of the Month: A Sky Painted Gold by Laura Wood

book of the monthWhen this book arrived through the letterbox on a cold, damp, dreary morning some months ago it was like the promise of summer lit up the room! A Sky Painted Gold by Laura Wood, published by Scholastic is the perfect summer read for Book of the Month. Laura Wood is the winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing and is the author of four novels in the middles grade Poppy Pym series.  This is her debut YA novel and what a fabulous way to start writing for teens!

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Gorgeous inside and out, A Sky Painted Gold brings to life a decadent, glorious time of innocence, coming of age and finding love. Centred on seventeen-year-old Lou, the story begins with a discarded apple, a beautiful empty old house, new arrivals and innocent hopes for adventure! Lou is an aspiring writer with a large family. Her eldest soon-to-be-married sister is her confidante and best friend, but change is on its way. With the arrival of the owners of the empty house, the famous Cardew family, Louisa takes her first invited steps, not just across to the old house, but into the discovery of romance and the glittering world of the wealthy. Celebrations and cocktails galore and glamorous new acquaintances all conspire to turn Lou’s head – and her heart. Who wouldn’t fall in love with stunning surroundings, fabulous parties and beautiful people? But this story wouldn’t be as thrilling without the dark secrets it holds and family ties that threaten to overwhelm. The more Lou becomes involved in this world of glamour that so entices her, the harder these secrets are to ignore.

I absolutely loved this story. Beautifully described, I was drawn to the world created with its heady summer celebrations, the hint of love and the potential heartbreak. With a wonderful cast of characters and a story line that spans an array of relationships, you felt every moment and every dance! I loved Lou’s relationship with her family; her desire to be a writer and the love at the heart of this novel. Echoes of Gatsby run throughout and the picture created of summertime in the 1920s is gorgeous. The perfect summer read, A Sky Painted Gold will light up your bookshelf!

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Find out more at www.lauraclarewood.com . 

Thank you to Scholastic for sending me a proof copy of this book to review.

book of the month

 

 

BLOG TOUR: The Truth About Lies by Tracy Darnton

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I’m delighted to be hosting a stop on the blog tour for the fantastic debut The Truth About Lies thriller by Tracy Darnton, from Stripes Publishing.

tracy-darntonTracy won the Stripes YA Short Story Prize in 2016, run in partnership with The Bookseller’s YA Book Prize.  Her story The Letter was published in the short story anthology I’ll Be Home for Christmas.  This is her first novel and I can assure you it is a gripping, brilliant read full of suspense,exploring the issues around memory and what happens when everything you do is built on lies.  Tracy joins the blog today with a very special guest post- welcome to the blog Tracy!

Unforgettable memory tips from The Truth About Lies

“I’ve always been interested in memory and writing my YA thriller The Truth About Lies was a great opportunity to explore it further. I can still remember the poems I learnt by heart when stuck at home with measles, the sickly smell of Impulse body spray from my teenage bedroom and definitely the shock of a near accident age 11. Why do I remember those things but not where I left my keys this morning?

In writing the book I became obsessed with all the little memory techniques that you can use to improve your powers of retrieval. I wove some of them into the book by using memory games as chapter headings. These hold their own clues or hints as to what has happened in the past.

I use the teacher character Mr Desai to set memory tasks too. He quickly learns all the students’ names using a classic technique of association. Give it a go: Imagine you’ve just met my character Dan at a party. Picture him with a famous Dan – Daniel Radcliffe maybe – sitting on his shoulders. Now ‘put’ Dan in a judo suit as dan is a ranking in martial arts.

To help further, add some emotion or general silliness – Dan Radcliffe blowing you kisses or raspberries – and how you would feel about that. And boom – Dan will be very impressed that you remember who he is next time you meet (though he won’t realise the role played by Daniel Radcliffe and some kisses).

Mr Desai teaches a memory palace or loci technique, placing items to remember along the route they know well around Dartmeet College. Making the images as whacky as possible helps to engrain them.

Lastly, the class develop their own mnemonics, for instance taking the first letters of something they need to remember to make a new word or phrase like BIDMAS in maths or Richard of York gave battle in vain. I dragged myself through theory for piano with a huge set of mnemonics. But, spoiler alert, Jess receives a rather sinister one tacked to her noticeboard…

The Truth About Lies conveys some of my fascination with how we can improve our memory. Don’t forget to try it.”

 

The Truth About Lies will be published by Stripes today! You can follow Tracy on Twitter @TracyDarnton #thetruthaboutlies

With thanks to Stripes Publishing for inviting me to participate in the blog tour and sending me a review copy of this book. 

Check out the rest of the blog tour at these brilliant blogs!

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New review: Sleeper by J D Fennell

This novel had been sat on my to be read pile for some time so I’m glad I finally read it. It’s definitely one to recommend; an edge-of-your seat thriller set in wartime London with plenty of plot twists to keep you guessing.

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Sleeper by J D Fennell

Sixteen-year-old Will Starling is pulled from the sea with no memory of his past. In his blazer is a strange notebook with a bullet lodged inside it: a bullet meant for him. As London prepares for the Blitz, Will soon finds himself pursued by vicious agents and a ruthless killer known as the Pastor. All of them want Will’s notebook and will do anything to get it.

Sleeper is a fantastic gripping read set in World War 2 and featuring a brave hero, Will, who has lost his memory.  The reader is shown the precursor to this memory loss and then follows Will on his journey desperately trying to rediscover who he really is.  Fraught with danger and deception and villains at every corner,  Sleeper is a roller-coaster ride through the streets of wartime London. At every turn Will loses those who want to help him to ruthless killers – in particular the evil Pastor; a quite horrible character! Will follows the only clue he has and ends up at a school for young Mi5 agents in training.

But even then he is not safe and only as he escapes yet another attack does Will find a true ally in the shape of Anna. With her help he begins to understand who he really is and the mission he must complete in order to save, not just himself and Anna, but the whole of London from the Nazis. I enjoyed the wide cast of characters and never knowing quite who was on Will’s side. Weaving history with magical realism and a spy thriller narrative, the story has plenty of fantastic action sequences.  Sleeper has deservedly been nominated for the Amazing Book Awards and I wish the author every success with this fantastic debut novel.

Sleeper is published by the Dome Press. With thanks to The Dome Press for sending me this book to review.