Monthly Archives: October 2012

VIII scores X out of X

There are some periods of history which have been so thoroughly mined by writers of historical fiction that there would appear to be nothing new left to say. So when someone recommended that I read VIII, my initial response was ‘Must I read yet another novel about the Tudors?’. Thank goodness I did. It may be a crowded marketplace, but VIII is different.
For a start it is narrated by Henry himself. The novel opens during the Perkin Warbeck rebellion and we are plunged into the confusion and terror of the young Hal as he is dragged from his bed in the middle of the night to be taken to the safety of the Tower of London. The way in which Castor uses this scene to establish the historical context without falling into the trap of clumsy exposition is admirable. She cleverly links the young Hal’s recognition of his mother’s uncertainties about the fate of her brothers with his own doubts about his role as the overlooked second son so that when he begins to be haunted by visions of a tortured young boy it seems natural rather than supernatural. One of the puzzles of Henry VIII is how he developed from Tudor golden boy into monstrous tyrant. Because Castor uses the device of the wraith to connect the troubled recent past, Hal’s own suppressed doubts about the legitimacy of the Tudor dynasty, and his ambiguous position as the despised second son who becomes the heir barely tolerated by his father, his eventual descent into monstrous madness seems not only natural but inevitable.
The novel spends considerably longer on Henry’s early life, giving an intimate portrait of his relationship with his parents, his older brother Arthur and his secondhand bride, Catherine of Aragon. The closely observed realistic detail of Tudor life, particularly in the first half of the book, is one of its greatest strengths and means that as the story gathers momentum, galloping from one abandoned wife to the next driven by Hal’s spiralling madness, the reader is rooted in time and place sufficiently well to withstand the furious pace.
Using the first person point of view means VIII is not event driven and makes transition from glorious boy to tyrant psychologically convincing. It also means that the novel can be boy-oriented without defaulting to the swords and slashing mode that seems to characterise much historical fiction aimed at boys.
I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this book to pupils from Year 7 right through to A-Level, and although the c-word is not always a popular commendation among writers of YA fiction, this is very definitely a novel that adults will enjoy too. Castor’s next book will explore the contrasting characters of Henry’s daughters, Mary and Elizabeth. I can’t wait to read it.

VIII by HM Castor is published by Templar Publishing


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Filed under H M Castor, TheWideWideWorld, VIII, YA historical fiction

Crewel spins an enchanted web

A couple of years ago you couldn’t go into the YA section of a bookshop without coming slap up against a dedicated Dark Romance wall with its glowering shelves of Twilite wannabes. (And don’t even get me started on the repackaging of Jane Eyre as a Dark Romance title.) Now, the buzz is all around  dystopia, with the runaway success of The Hunger Games and Divergent fuelling a boom in disfunctional heroines on a mission to save the world.  I was really excited when Crewel arrived in the post a couple of days ago, as there has been so much hype surrounding it, but I really expect it to surpass Collins and Roth. Well, I was wrong.

Although Crewel serves up many of the familiar dystopian tropes that readers will be familiar from the Hunger Games, Divergent,  et al; a spiky heroine Adelice, who needs to conceal her unusual powers, a technocratic world controlled by a secretive and powerful elite, a love triangle… the resulting novel is considerably more than the sum of its parts.

Crewel’s underlying theme, like that of the Hunger Games, is taken from Greek mythology. Where Collins used the Theseus story to underpin her novel, Albin’s plot echoes the ancient myth of the Moirai, the three fates who spin the thread of human life and decide when to bring it to an end. Born on the highly regimented world of Arras (think Polonius for a clue to the plot twist), Adelice is chosen to be a Spinster, one of the sequestered female elite who weaves the fabric that holds their world together. Torn from her horrified family, she struggles against the sinister Guild Ambassador Cormac Patton, finding help in unexpected places as she attempts to piece together what is really happening beneath the surface of Arras.

Alongside the inevitable romance, there is a strong feminist strand to the book which will appeal to its target readership. Adelice is a heroine very much in the mould of Katniss Everdeen and although character delineation in the book is totally subservient to the demands of the action, the contrast between her inner vulnerability and tough exterior readily engages the reader’s sympathy.

Ultimately, however, it is  the detail of Albin’s invented world and quality of her writing that lift the whole novel well above the pedestrian and comfortably wins it a place in my top five dystopian titles. Crewel is a real pageturner, I read the whole thing in a single sitting and I’ll be waiting impatiently for the next instalment to find out how Albin moves the action on from the inevitable cliffhanger ending.

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Filed under Crewel, dystopian novels, Gennifer Albin

The Wide Wide Web

It started out as a list of YA books on my PGCE course wiki last year. A few people thought it was useful, so I decided to retrieve it and maybe post it online somewhere as a resource for other teachers. Then I started categorising. Historical books needed a seperate page. What about recent titles? Wouldn’t some links be good?
Now I’ve got a website. I didn’t quite plan that. I published it online last week and some helpful people on Mumsnet and the TES forums critiqued it a bit for me. There is still lots to do on it, but I’m hoping it will evolve into a useful reference point for English teachers looking for YA fiction resources. There is so much to do when you are teaching that keeping up with new fiction often slips way down the list, but I know from experience how being able to share pupil’s enthusiasms for the books they are reading can transform your relationship. When a child comes up to me and says ‘Miss, I really enjoyed that book you told me about’ that makes my day.
Not long before I decided to build the website, I was in a secondhand bookshop in Barnstaple, poking around in odd volumes of forgotten 19th century fiction to see if I could find an Anthony Trollope I hadn’t read yet. I like them for train journeys – there’s nothing like knowing you have 600 pages of 7pt type on onionskin paper in your pocket in case of unexpected delays. Especially on the Barnstaple to Exeter line where sheep on the track can hold you up for ages. Anyway, I didn’t find any Trollope that day, but I did find The Wide Wide World – a sentimental epic that sold more copies in its day than any other American novel bar Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I had to buy it. It was pretty much unreadable, but that’s not the point. Owning it was a link with my favourite literary heroine from childhood, Jo March, who I remember crying over it in Aunt March’s house in Little Women. So when I found the Wide Wide World domain name was available, I snapped it up. Because for teenagers that is what fiction is, a way into the wide wide world outside their own experience. Books are ‘magic casements, opening on the foam of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn’. As an English teacher, my job is to point the way to those windows.

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Filed under Little Women, TheWideWideWorld