Merch Review: Harry Potter Bag and Bangles

Can I just say I love the word “bangle”. It’s probably one of my favourite words in English, so I may say it an excessive number of times in this review.

But enough of that! I treated myself to some new merch, as it was my birthday at the end of May. Any excuse! And besides, I needed a new bag for my cousin’s wedding. Again, any excuse! So where does the average girl go to buy a new bag for a black-tie do? One of her favourite merch sites, of course!

I found this frankly fabulous clutch bag on EMP. It is in the style of Harry Potter’s acceptance letter from Hogwarts. On the front is the Hogwarts crest and a faux wax seal. On the back is, of course, Harry’s address while he resided in the cupboard under the stairs. There is then a zip along the top and a small detachable wrist strap. Another addition, which I was quite excited about, is an owl post medallion. It’s solid metal and quite heavy, but once you’ve got all your crap in the bag, it doesn’t feel unbalanced. I love it as a piece of merch in its own right.

The bag is great quality faux leather, and, perhaps most importantly, the zip is good quality. There’s nothing worse on a bag than an argumentative zip! It’s a nice size to both hold in your hand and contain all your crap, and the medallion adds a nice bit of bling. I think the only thing I would do to improve it is to have the envelope flap as the opening point, so it acts just like an envelope. I have seen similar bags with this feature, but they are either more the size of a handbag or a smaller clutch, and this bag is bang on for size. Big enough to actually hold all the things you need, but small enough to still be a sensible clutch. Definitely a recommended buy!

Whilst I was looking for a new bag on EMP, I happened to stumble across another piece of Harry Potter merch that I instantly fell in love with. These are a set of three silver metal bangles made for a Ravenclaw. The widest bangle is set with dark blue “gems” to represent the house colour, the second widest bangle has the words “Learning; Wit; Wisdom; Learning” etched on it to represent the valued attributes of the house, and the thinnest bangle is etched with the house name, “Ravenclaw”.

They are, of course, available in all the houses. Hufflepuff and Gryffindor come in gold, but I’m glad that Ravenclaw is in silver, as gold hates my skin tone, and I, in turn, am not a fan of it. I’m also lucky that blue is my favourite colour, and works very well with my skin tone, so it’s the ideal house for me, even if my brain doesn’t live up to the ideals all the time!

I should say, however, that these bangles are quite small. Every other joint in my body has always been chunky, but fortunately, I have quite slender wrists, and these are about right for me. They are about 17cm in circumference. Overall, however, they are a nice quality and are quite a subtle and elegant piece of merch that only the keen of eye may notice. I wore these to my cousin’s wedding too, so they make a nice piece of jewellery for formal or informal occasions. Definitely a recommended buy for the slim-wristed.

Hidden Dawn Gets a Copyedit

Well, it’s taken me an age and a half, but I have finally managed to copyedit my book Hidden Dawn. Funnily enough, I have been unable to do it because I’ve been copyediting other people’s books (my day job)!

Of course, I “proofread” my book before I first published it, but clearly did a rubbish job because there were some very obvious and embarrassing errors in there. My excuse is that I was exhausted from writing it back then and just wanted to get it published and over with, but it’s been a year and a half now, so I’m well refreshed! Also, and I really stress this, YOU SHOULD NEVER EVER COPYEDIT OR PROOFREAD YOUR OWN BOOK. NO MATTER HOW BRILLIANT YOU ARE, YOU WILL NOT SEE EVERYTHING. Even if you get a friend who likes reading to read through your book for typos, this is ten times more effective than doing it yourself. As the creator, you are far FAR too close to the writing. You know what’s happening and what’s coming up, so your brain will do the brilliant thing that human brains do, and make the reading process as efficient as possible by drawing on memories and stored knowledge, and thereby allowing itself to skip over the detail in each sentence. The brain, demonstrating another of its brilliant skills, will do this without making you consciously aware of it, so no matter how hard you concentrate, you will always miss something, and probably several things. Just like I did, and I’m a professional copyeditor!

Do as I say and not as I do, of course, but I am an impoverished freelancer who cannot afford someone to copyedit such a long book. If you are in the same position, like I say, at least get a close friend who is good at English to read it, because they will see things your brain simply will not allow you to see. I do this for a living, however, so I know what I’m looking for and I have learnt to be objective when I need to be. I also have an extremely astute eye for detail. I’m the kind of person who can walk into a room and know exactly what object is out of place from my previous visit. So what I’m trying to say is, my book should be totally error-free now.

The latest version of Hidden Dawn is on Amazon, so it should automatically update on your ereader, but if you want to make sure, just delete it from your library and re-download it from Amazon. Easy peasy.

And please do accept my apologies for those clangers you had to sit through in the old version. I promise I have done a far better job this time around!

Birthday Haul 2018

I’m not one for big birthday celebrations, but there is something about my birthday I do get excited about – books and games galore! I’m very lucky to have some very generous donors to my collection, so I thought I’d share my haul with you.

birthday-haul-1801

I’m a huge fan of the TimeRiders series by Alex Scarrow. In fact, it’s probably my favourite YA time-travelling series, as there’s a lot of detail in the actual mechanics of the time-travelling. A lot of books just skip over the technicalities and the inherent difficulties and paradoxes, but Scarrow faces up to them, which makes the suspension of disbelief a total breeze. They are also quite gritty and have some challenging issues in them. Here you can see books 6, 7, 8 and 9 to complete my collection.

I came to Andrzej Sapkowski through the game The Witcher 3, which is definitely fighting for top spot on my list of all-time favourite games. Alas, The Witcher 3 picks up on Geralt’s story part way through, with two preceding games. However, I’m massively put off going backwards in a series of games because of crappier graphics and gameplay. I think the only game series I’ve done that for without too much regret is Assassin’s Creed, after starting on Black Flag. So I thought I’d catch up with Geralt’s story by reading the books that the game was based on. No regrets in doing that at all! They’re actually really brilliant books told in a lovely narrative style, so I’ve now completed my collection with these five.

I also got Ready Player One, which I want to read before I watch the film (most important!) and A Court of Frost and Starlight. I’m a big fan of Sarah J. Maas (although recently I’ve not been so wowed by here stories as I was with the earlier titles), but I’ve heard some quite bad reviews of this relatively short instalment. Apparently, it just follows the characters going shopping and eating dinner, but I shall reserve judgement until I’ve read it myself.

I also bagged a couple of gaming presents. I’ve been excited for God of War for a long time now, even though I haven’t played any previous titles in the franchise (again, I don’t look back in gaming). But I absolutely LOVE Norse mythology, and Kratos sounds a lot like me – permanently grumpy! I’m going to read the Neil Gaiman Norse Mythology book first so that I’ve had a refresher course and can understand as many references as possible. My other gaming present is a face mask as modelled by Aiden Pearce in the game Watch Dogs, another big favourite of mine. I know what I’m sporting this winter!

I’m very happy that my mum dug deep into my Amazon wishlist and found this little beauty that I’d added as a “would be nice but probably can never justify buying” item. It’s a beautiful illustrated edition of a complete collection of Winnie-the-Pooh. And it’s flipping gorgeous! I have very distinct memories of being read Winnie-the-Pooh when I was a child, so this has great sentimental value for me too. I shall enjoy this little jaunt down Memory Lane!

Review: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

la-belle-sauvage-cover

Title: La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust #1)

Author: Philip Pullman

Pages: 464

Goodreads link

My rating: star5

As a big fan of His Dark Materials, I was so excited when this book came out. It is just wonderful to be back in the world of Dust and daemons, and a weighty tome of it too!

I don’t know what it is about Philip Pullman’s writing, but even though the subject matter can be pretty intense, I actually find it very soothing. I will often read the first couple of pages of Northern Lights as a self-soothing exercise. It’s the mental equivalent of relaxing into a comfy armchair by the fire on a dark rainy night. Perhaps it’s because it’s slightly old-fashioned in tone, but whatever it is, it really works for me.

Having said that, La Belle Sauvage has quite a different tone to His Dark Materials. Pullman doesn’t hold back on the dark stuff, but he steps it up another gear in this story. There’s swearing and rape and paedophilia and self-mutilation. He’s not afraid to challenge his young characters with the horrors of real life.

This story has that familiar Pullman arc of everything starting out making sense, okay the parameters of his world are a little different to ours, but it makes sense. And then suddenly he hits you with this Odyssean surreality; you plummet down a rabbit hole of extraordinary myths, those kinds of myths that try to teach you something about reality that is hard to accept. I spent the first part of this book luxuriating in the details, all the new information about the world that we didn’t get in HDM, and following the characters whose names only made a fleeting appearance in those first books. And then in the second part, it’s a real fire-up-the-brain exercise as stuff gets weird.

And just like HDM, not everything is explained. It’s both infuriating and exhilarating. I think this is the most intriguing quality, not having every question answered clearly. A lot is left up to the reader’s own interpretation. It’s like Pullman lays out before you a world and a set of characters and a scenario, and then he leaves you to decide on your own opinions about it all. He keeps his own opinion to himself and credits the reader with the intelligence to discover any truths. Now, that’s clever writing. And I can’t wait for the next one!

Review: Song of the Lioness by Tamora Pierce

song-of-the-lioness-covers

Title: Song of the Lioness

Author: Tamora Pierce

Pages: 960 (across four books)

Goodreads link

My rating: star5

I’ve had a moment of nostalgia! The first two books in the Song of the Lioness series are older even than me, and the copies I have are knocking on the door of twenty years old. They’ve got that crusty old book smell about them, and sunlight and dust have yellowed the pages. But these are some of the most beloved books in my collection.

I first read them at secondary school, when I was about twelve or thirteen, and for a while my best friend and I were completely obsessed with all things Tamora Pierce. We were both real tomboys, never fitting in with the pretty girls at school. We wanted to be Lara Croft and go on adventures, finding treasures and solving mysteries. We were hungry for the world, life always too small for us. And Song of the Lioness spoke to our spirits like no other book had done before.

So this is a very personal review for me. We were at that stage and in that time when the destinies and interests of boys and girls had to be very different. And in reading these books, we discovered that the expectations of us were not necessarily valid. Here, in Alanna, was a girl who knew her mind, who didn’t care to let tradition dictate her life and who wasn’t afraid to take risks in the name of adventure. It was okay to have “male” ambitions.

I’m not going to say that the story is particularly original or complex, and I’m not going to say that the writing is particularly groundbreaking. In fact, re-reading the first and second books, The First Adventure and In the Hands of the Goddess, I realise they are actually not that amazing. Those two books in particular leap-frog through time, so you just get snippets of action here and there over eight years. They feel rushed and patchy, but back in the eighties, children’s books were extremely restricted by word count. However, the action does level out in the third and fourth books, The Woman Who Rides Like a Man and Lioness Rampant. You get flowing sequential action that is much more engaging.

Funnily enough, re-reading them as an adult, I’ve now realised how much of a two-timing miss Alanna is! She sleeps with men here, she sleeps with men there, she sleeps with them pretty much anywhere, without bothering to cancel one liaison before taking up another. But then, that’s the point of these books really. You wouldn’t bat an eyelid if she was a man. And that’s what I really appreciate about these books; it’s not just that Alanna is dressing up as a man, becoming a knight and going off on adventures, she’s breaking down barriers and looking stereotypes straight in the face and challenging them. Why shouldn’t a woman sleep around? Why shouldn’t a woman go off to face almost certain death without the protection of a man? Why shouldn’t a woman have absolute sovereignty over her reproductive system? Why shouldn’t a woman kill another person? Why shouldn’t she do as she pleases, inherit land and titles, marry whom she choses, dress how she wants? All things that men take for granted. And this is where the real greatness lies in Song of the Lioness. Tamora Pierce was not afraid to say, “Why can’t she do that?” She was challenging stereotypes and taboos all the way back thirty-plus years ago that are still in existence today, and that we still can’t relent from challenging today.

I’m so glad I read these again with my older and wiser head on. I can now appreciate consciously what I could only absorb subconsciously as a child. And I’m fairly certain that these books had a huge influence on the attitudes I hold today. Yes, I am a feminist, and no, that’s not a bad thing. All it means is that I believe that every woman should have the same rights and privileges as every man, and we should be judged by our actions and abilities without any reference to our gender. I have never yet heard a rational argument that convincingly persuades me otherwise. So, really, this is a big five-star thank you to Tamora Pierce and Alanna for empowering me at a time when there was very little else doing so. Keep adventuring, and stay true to yourself.

Twenty Questions Book Tag

Well, this is exciting. This is officially my first book tag, which I have half-inched off the lovely Lauren at Books are Only the Beginning. Prepare yourself for an insight into my soul …

How many books is too many books in a series?

This is probably the question I’ve pondered over the longest. I think it really depends. Some series I’m happy to finish after three books, some I’m happy to keep reading through twelve or fifteen or fifty books. Erin Hunter’s Warrior series, for example, just goes on and on and on (I currently have about thirty books), and I’m very happy to keep consuming every volume. But then, something like The Hunger Games is perfect as a trilogy. I guess it’s the same as films vs. TV series. Some stories/worlds lend themselves to lengthy serialisation, while others do best as fewer feature-length instalments. So, in effect, I can’t give you a good answer to this question. One answer does not fit all!

How do you feel about cliffhangers?

I bloody hate them! Unless, of course, I can move straight on to the next book. I’m like that with TV series too. I can’t watch them “live” on TV, one episode a week. I have to wait until the entire run has finished, buy the box set and binge my way through the lot. If a book is part of a series, I tend to start in after a few of the books have come out, but I rarely read straight through as series, one book consecutively after another, because I’m desperate to resolve cliffhangers in other series!

Hardback or paperback?

Oh, how I’d love to afford to buy all my books in hardback, but alas. Most of my books are paperback, but if I read a paperback series and really like it, I might also buy the hardbacks. For example, I have His Dark Materials in both the original paperbacks I read back in the day and the beautiful twentieth anniversary hardback editions. What really peeves me, however, is when a series starts out just paperback, then the publisher realises they can make more money by releasing a hardback first for the rest of the series, but because I have all the previous books in paperback, I can’t just switch to hardback and have half paperback, half hardback. That would upset my shelves. So I end up having to wait six months to a year to get the paperback version. Very tedious.

Favourite book?

I haven’t found it yet.

Least favourite book?

Yikes. I don’t think I have one. I didn’t get on with Watership Down, not because of the dying rabbits, but I actually found it really dull. It probably has its merits. But I don’t think I’ve actually hated a book so much as to declare it my least favourite. It’s more a case of books being forgettable, so if I do have a least favourite, I’ve probably forgotten it.

Love triangles, yes or no?

NOOOOOOO! I’m not a fan of romance anyway. I’m more of an action and mystery girl, with more interest is worlds and parameters than relationships, particularly romantic ones. I want to change the world for everyone, not just two people (or three in a triangle). Plus, I think it’s really quite dangerous to portray unrealistic romantic scenarios to young women and girls. It encourages them to reach for the unreachable and place excessive importance on romantic involvement when there is a lot more to life and their potential in other areas of it. And don’t forget, somebody in that triangle is going to get hurt, and should we really be encouraging girls to aspire to damage others?

The most recent book you just couldn’t finish?

Snow Like Ashes. I did actually finish this one book, but it is part of a series, and there’s no way I’m reading any more. I still devote time to wondering how this utterly unoriginal and dully written twaddle got a publishing deal (and such a nice cover!). You can read my review of Snow Like Ashes here. I don’t think I have ever not finished a book … If I have, I don’t remember them. I like to give everything a fair go, and I like to read to the end to give a book a fair trial, but I will abandon a series if the first book doesn’t do it for me.

A book you’re currently reading?

I’m currently reading Echoes by Laura Tisdall. Turns out she grew up just down the road from where I live! I’m about a third of the way through, and so far I’m hooked. I’m really relating to the main character, who has problems with over-sensitivity, like me, and the story is about the hackersphere and mysteriously vanishing hackers. It’s wonderfully refreshing!

Last book you recommended to someone?

Hmmm. Well, the last book I reviewed was Rebel of the Sands, and I would recommend reading that. Alas, I don’t have many (or any) friends who also read the same kind of books I do, so I don’t do much recommending out loud.

Oldest book you’ve read?

Well, I was made to read Beowulf when I was about eleven in school. Didn’t follow it at all, totally confused the whole way through. This is the problem with introducing “the classics” to children too young. If it’s inaccessible and they don’t relate, you risk turning them off the classics forever. I think that’s what happened to me.

Newest book you’ve read?

Probably La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman actually. There are very few books that I would actually rush out and buy on release day, but I had that one pre-ordered. I’ve just realised I haven’t done a review of it. Oops!

Favourite author?

I haven’t found him/her yet. There are some authors I like better than others, but I haven’t found myself to be devoted enough to anyone to call them my favourite. But that’s the problem with me, I’m always looking, probably for the impossible. I feel like my theme song is “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” by U2. I am never satisfied, which I know is a bad thing, but that’s the way I’m built.

Buying books or borrowing books?

Oh, buying. Definitely, buying. I am extremely particular about the condition of my books. It makes me physically sick to see broken spines, bent covers and dog ears, and it can often feel like no one else seems to share this reverence and respect for books. It is also for this reason that I NEVER lend my books to anyone. I’ve done it in the past, and I was badly bitten and had to replace my copies. I wouldn’t even let anyone touch my books, to be honest.

A book you dislike that everyone seems to love?

Pretty much any neo-gothic romance type book with unrealistic love interests and swooning, weak females that need to be physically held up by unrealistic males. Or any literary type book, you know, the kind that manages to waffle on for hundreds of pages without actually having any plot. I just don’t get it.

Bookmarks or dog-ears?

I cannot even begin to express how much pain the defacement of books causes me. Bookmarks. Bookmarks. Bookmarks. There is no other alternative. And I love bookmarks in their own right. I have a small collection, and if I go anywhere and find an interesting bookmark, I have to have it. Chances are I’ll like it too much to actually use it, but that doesn’t matter. I have a small stock of “usable” bookmarks that I do use as actual bookmarks.

A book you can always re-read?

Anything Jane Austen. I know it’s a cliche, but aside from brilliantly woven plots and Austen’s trademark tongue-in-cheek, archetype-ribbing, I re-read an Austen novel whenever I feel like my language is getting a bit plain and unoriginal. It instantly upgrades by vocabulary and the way I construct sentences, so it does actually serve a purpose.

Can you read while hearing music?

Unfortunately not. I would love to be able to multitask my hobbies, but my brain seems to be attuned to rhythms and melodies, and it becomes completely absorbed by them. I certainly can’t listen to music that I know the words to. It seems singing has a greater priority in my brain than reading! The best I can do is listen to background noises, like forest sounds or river sounds or thunderstorm sounds.

One POV or multiple POVs?

Definitely one. How I struggled through Game of Thrones! Fortunately, I listened to GoT rather than read it. I probably would have given up if I’d read it. I just hate having to sit through POVs that I don’t particularly like in order to get back to the POVs that I do like. It makes me start to resent books. Plus, I really like to get to know a character right down into their deepest depths, that’s where I can start caring about them, and I don’t think you can really do that if you’re skipping about over multiple POVs. I’m like that in real life too. I’d far rather have a handful of very close friends who I know very well than a large group of acquaintances.

Do you read a book in one sitting or over multiple days?

Oh, how I’d love to be a quick reader! What I wouldn’t give! Unfortunately, I’m a plodder. I like to read “aloud” in my head as if I was being read to by a narrator, to really absorb every tiny detail. It may have something to do with my line of work in proofreading and copyediting, but I’m a details person. Plus, I just don’t have the time to sit and read for a day.

A book you’ve read because of the cover?

Again, Snow Like Ashes, and, boy, did I regret it! I also got Rebel of the Sands because of the cover, probably one of the nicest covers I’ve seen, but that wasn’t such a disappointment. I have to say, I’m quite susceptible to a nice cover, so wrap your turds in pretty wrappings and I’ll read it. I would like to say, however, that I’ve read plenty of great books with crappy covers that I absolutely hate displaying on my shelves, so it balances out.

~

Phew! Thank you if you managed to get through all that! It was actually lots of fun, so I’ll do more of these in the future. If you want to do this book tag yourself, here are all twenty questions without my wafflings in between:

How many books is too many books in a series?
How do you feel about cliffhangers?
Hardback or paperback?
Favourite book?
Least favourite book?
Love triangles, yes or no?
The most recent book you just couldn’t finish?
A book you’re currently reading?
Last book you recommended to someone?
Oldest book you’ve read?
Newest book you’ve read?
Favourite author?
Buying books or borrowing books?
A book you dislike that everyone seem to love?
Bookmarks or dog-ears?
A book you can always re-read?
Can you read while hearing music?
One POV or multiple POVs?
Do you read a book in one sitting or over multiple days?
A book you’ve read because of the cover?

Review: Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton

rebel-of-the-sands-cover

Title: Rebel of the Sands

Author: Alwyn Hamilton

Pages: 358

Goodreads link

My rating: star1

Okay, I’m going to hold my hands up here and confess that I bought this book because of the cover. I’m so ashamed! But, to be fair, it is a stunningly beautiful cover with gold foil and the kind of blues that you want to spend the rest of your life looking at. Even if I hadn’t read Rebel of the Sands, I would have just kept it on my shelf for its cover alone.

Right, enough about the cover! Mind you, I do have one large piece of beef about the cover: it’s got one of those irritating and unremovable circles with ‘Like Katniss? Love Rey? Meet Amani’ written on it. Ga! I hate these things! Could you announce any louder that you’re being a me-tooing, bandwagoning, other-people’s-work-leeching publisher? It’s nothing to do with the author, but it’s lazy marketing on the part of the publisher. And the fact that I can’t remove this really burns. It doesn’t even need it! The marketplace is flooded with strong, butt-kicking heroines. The blurb on the back of the book is enough to tell me Rebel of the Sands features another one. I don’t need to be patronised by the obvious!

But, in reality, that little unremovable circle sums up a problem that I have with Rebel of the Sands. The desert setting and Middle-Eastern flavour were a big selling point to me for this one. It’s not unheard of, but it’s pretty rare in this genre, and I was hoping to find myself breathing in one heck of a lungful of fresh air. But actually, apart from the setting, there is quite a healthy helping of deja vu here.

Strong heroine with a few broken bits meets handsome stranger who rescues her from a dire future and takes her to a place where she discovers she has magical powers and a mythical parent and might be the key to ridding the world of evil. Oh, and by the way, the handsome stranger turns out to be a prince. Shucks.

I’ve heard it before. In fact, I’ve heard it a thousand times before, in every other female-oriented YA book.

However, there are some redeeming features to Rebel of the Sands, and these are the reasons I gave it so many as four stars despite my rant. Firstly, the writing is excellent. It pulls you in right from the first chapter, and it was really the opening few chapters that kept me churning through to the end despite my growing disappointment in an over-hashed plot line. Amani has an engaging point of view, and it’s this point of view that brings me to another feature I liked: gender discrimination. No, I don’t mean I’m in favour of gender discrimination, I mean that Hamilton really explores a world where women are treated with great inferiority compared to men. It’s the kind of exploration that gets my hackles up and has me hissing and spitting in my head. It’s a long way from Western countries, but it’s important that we stay aware of inequality around the world and that especially young readers have a taste of how it is for others. When you are looking through the eyes of woman in an unequal world, it makes you want to appreciate what you have more and fight harder for those who don’t have it and keep fighting until genuine equality is achieved. Forget the story, this is actually one of the key takeaways of this book for me, and sometimes there are more important things in a book than the superficial plot.

I will be reading the other books in this series because I think (at least, I hope) there will be more important things to come. And who knows, maybe the story will acquire some novelty, and I’ll be even happier. You can’t know what a pie tastes like until you’ve eaten it, after all.

Review: PathFinder by Angie Sage

pathfinder-cover

Title: PathFinder

Author: Angie Sage

Pages: 460

Goodreads link

My rating: star1

My Angie Sage books occupy quite a bit of real estate on my bookshelves. I have ten in total, but they’re all hardbacks and really quite chunky books. And it is so worth having the hardback editions of both the Septimus Heap series and Sage’s newer TodHunter Moon series. Bloomsbury doesn’t publish the hardbacks in the UK (they did for the first few Septimus Heap books, but they then switched to the cheaper paperback option with, frankly, ghastly covers), so I get imported versions from the US published by Katherine Tegen Books. Thank you, America, for waving the flag for good-looking books! The hardbacks are aesthetically so satisfying to hold and read, and the aesthetic really does add to the experience of reading these books. The cover designs are made to look like old leather-bound, metal-cornered tomes that you need to brush the dust off, and the paper has a lovely tactile quality with frayed edges. It really suits the high-fantasy setting for these series and sets off the carefree, childhood-innocence indulgence of reading an Angie Sage book.

It’s been a while since I read the Septimus Heap books, and I was so well rewarded for jumping back into Angie Sage’s fantastical, magical world with PathFinder. One of the best aspects is actually just meeting all these wonderful characters again, now slightly older. Marcia with her infamous purple python shoes, Jenna the down-to-earth queen and, of course, Septimus, now the Extraordinary Wizard. And now we get a bunch of new characters to boot, and they don’t disappoint. Angie Sage has a wonderful talent for characterisation, to the extent that you know exactly who an old character is in PathFinder before their name is even mentioned. And I was squeaking with joy when the form-shifting cat Ullr made his appearance again. A ginger cat that turns into a panther at night? Yes, please!

The story of PathFinder certainly doesn’t suffer from Second Album Syndrome. It stands right alongside any of the Septimus Heap books for its originality, engagement and quirkiness. Despite the old characters, the plot is completely new, with yet another fascinating bit of Magick going on. Tod is an interesting and complex character with a engaging point of view to witness the story through. Even though she doesn’t have the Magickal skills of Septimus or Marcia, she’s loyal and courageous and an all-round marvellous new heroine. There’s a real sense of mystery in her past and, in fact, in the whole book. It really feels like this story is heading somewhere I don’t want to miss out on.

Of course, I’m not going to mention an Angie Sage book without also mentioning the incredibly talented Mark Zug, who peppers Sage’s books with delicious pencil drawings. These are not the kind of sketches you quickly skip over, even if you did just end a chapter on a cliffhanger. These are the kind of pencil drawings you ooh and aah over, and scrutinise for every detail. I wish more books had this kind of fine drawing in them; they just make the whole experience far richer, as if it has another dimension. It all adds to the visual sophistication of the book, which in turn enhances the natural sophistication of the story and its characters.

It is always a genuine treat to read an Angie Sage book, and PathFinder really delivers as the first book in the TodHunter Moon series. It’s what I would call a hot-chocolate read, the kind with whipped cream, marshmallows and a chocolate flake stuck in for good measure. I get from PathFinder, and all of Angie Sage’s books, the same sensation I get when someone places in front of me a hot chocolate with all the trimmings. Only, the books last a lot longer!

Five Books That Changed My Life

No, don’t worry. There’s nothing particularly worthy on this list. This post is not designed to shame you, but rather to give you a bit of insight into the books that had a great impact on me, perhaps great enough that they shaped the course of my life in some way.

1. Hairy Maclary by Lynley Dodd

See, I told you it wasn’t worthy! Whenever I think back to the books of my early childhood, Hairy Maclary and his band of wonderfully rhymingly named friends really stick out to me. I’ve always been a fan of dogs and all animals with two or four legs, but there is something I particularly like about books written from the point of view of animals. Humans are complicated creatures that I still haven’t worked out yet, but authors who write about animals have a gift for observing the world in its simplest terms. They can just cut to the core of existence and get rid of all the baggage we humans like to carry. If something we do is weird or destructive, they’ll say so.

I don’t want to get too philosophical here, after all these are just fun picture books, but it is safe to say that I have some very fond memories of my mum reading me these books. I particularly remember her impression of Scarface Claw, the toughest tom in town. We would make loud hissing and spitting sounds together that entertained me endlessly. And I think that’s the point really. If you introduce your child to the delight and wonder of reading at an early age, it will stick with them for ever. And what a wonderful gift that is to give someone. Thanks, Mum!

2. Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb

When I was about 9 or 10 years old, I started to go off reading. At my school, we had shelves of books in each classroom that we were dutifully supposed to borrow from, but I guess nothing there really inspired me. I remember struggling through my SATs tests because one of the tests was to write a coherent story, but my creativity levels were at an all-time low. My teacher probably didn’t help, because she was extremely disparaging about the books I did try to read, about animal rescues and the like. She wanted me to read much more worthy titles, and anyone who has been forced to read literary “classics” as part of the school curriculum may know just how much that discourages you from reading at all.

So, my dislike of reading continued until one day my mum brought me home an adult high-fantasy book called Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb. I completely devoured it and read straight through the next two books in the series, too. I’d never got attached to a character in a book as much as I was attached to Fitz, so this book not only rekindled my interest in reading, it also introduced me to the idea that characters were there to actually become emotionally involved with. It was like my empathy for fictitious characters suddenly kicked in, and I was away, completely sold on the idea of reading again. To this day, being emotionally involved with the POV character is absolutely essential to my enjoyment of a book. And, crucially, this was the book that inspired me to actually write my own story, my first full-length story when I was about 13 or 14. So, once again, thanks, Mum!

3. Song of the Lioness by Tamora Pierce

Not long after Robin Hobb came Tamora Pierce. I have very distinct memories of reading her books with my best friend at school when we were about 13 or 14. She and I were very similar in that we both wanted to be adventurers. We both loved Lara Croft and films like The Fifth Element that have very strong female leads. This was very early in the 21st century, so us girls were still very much subject to gender stereotypes. At the school I went to, girls were expected to do English Lit, Art and Theatre Studies at A-level. There is absolutely nothing wrong with these subjects, but there is absolutely something wrong with the expectation that girls should just study the arts and leave the sciences to the boys. We were also under the reign of the “popular” girls, who were all very girly girls and thought of little else other than how they looked and which boy they were going out with.

So, when my friend and I found Tamora Pierce, it was like the sky had split open and the world was turned upside down. Here was a girl, Alanna of Trebond, who dared to have the ambitions of a boy, to dress up as a boy, to do as well as a boy and to go on daring adventures. It was utterly inspiring, and more importantly, it was aspiring. Tamora showed us girls trapped in a world of stereotypes that we didn’t have to stay trapped if we didn’t want to. I say this list isn’t worthy, but what more important lesson could a girl learn these days? You are equal, you are valuable, you matter, you can choose to do whatever you want, and you don’t have to accept the limits that other people place upon you. Song of the Lioness is a defining piece of literature in my life.

4. Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling

Yes, yes, I know. It’s a bit of an obvious and unoriginal choice, but this might not be for the obvious and unoriginal reasons you are expecting. Harry Potter is not only important to me, it is important to everyone. It has become deeply embedded in our culture, and if you haven’t read the books, or at least watched the films, I really don’t know how you survive the average conversation without becoming totally confused.

However, for me, there’s another layer of significance here that deeply impacted my life. Harry Potter introduced me to fandoms and the idea of being a fan of something, really, being more than just a casual fan. The definition of a geek is “a knowledgeable and obsessive enthusiast” of something, and all of a sudden, it became acceptable to be a geek. The rise of the fandoms in the age of the internet and subsequent social media is a direct cause for the rise of the modern geek, something that is now considered cool to call oneself. This is a liberating turn in our culture. We’ve all been able to come out of our geek closets and admit that we actually really like something, and we like to collect objects and information that pertain to that something. No more do we have to hide our collections in the garden shed or temper our public displays of affection and enthusiasm. Harry Potter was the start of a chain of events that mean it is now cool to engage with and know a lot about something. Harry Potter is the reason I have a snorlax plush on my desk. Harry Potter is the reason I meet with my friends in restaurants to discuss the latest computer games. Harry Potter is the reason I go to Comic Con and cosplay as my favourite fictional characters. Harry Potter is the reason I display every other fun, unworthy book I own in my house with pride. Harry Potter is the reason I don’t have to feel ashamed to be me and love the things that I love any more. That is why these books are so important to me.

5. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Okay, so here is my one slightly worthy contribution to this list, but I’m not going to go into the traditional lit crit essay you can find in any study guide. There is a very specific reason why Jane Austen is on my list, and it has nothing to do with Mr Darcy. Pride and Prejudice is on my list because it’s the first JA book that I actually read, rather than just watching the TV and film adaptations, and it taught me a very important lesson in my writing. It taught me to upgrade my vocabulary. Whenever I feel myself getting a bit beige with my language or a bit inarticulate, I read a bit of Jane Austen, because every time I do, my language and powers of articulation suddenly increase tenfold.

I think it’s very easy to slip into bland words and common expressions because these days the most common use of language is to convey information in the shortest and most transparent way possible. Text messages, for instance, emails, news bulletins, tweets. Nobody has time any more to really take time to explore and use the more obscure words and phrases in our language. The English language has around 170,000 words in it, but the average adult English speaker has a vocabulary of about 20,000, and much of this is passive vocabulary that they understand but don’t actually use.

I’m not trying to tell you all that you’re not trying hard enough or that you are stupid or lazy, or for that matter that I am wonderfully articulate and learned. What I’m saying is that by reading the language used by Jane Austen, I’ve become more confident to increase the complexity of my own language, because people can still understand me. That’s what I’m saying: that readers are more intelligent than they are often given credit for in fiction.

What I like about Jane Austen is that it stretches my linguistic muscles. The words and sentences and expressions themselves are part of the enjoyment of the book, not just the clever plots and dashing heroes. She pushes and challenges me to think more about my language, be more conscious about the things I write and the way I express myself. She has taught me to love my language and find words interesting and write them down so that I can use them somewhere in conversation or in writing. And for that reason, Pride and Pred had to be on my list.

Review: Sand by Hugh Howey

sand-cover

Title: Sand

Author: Hugh Howey

Pages: 384

Goodreads link

My rating: star1

I very rarely read a trilogy straight through, one book after another, but I made a very happy exception to my tendency for Hugh Howey’s Wool trilogy. I happened across this author by chance while perusing recommendations on Amazon, and it is a very happy union. I went straight through from Wool to Dust without blinking. So I thought I’d give some of Howey’s other books a go and picked up Sand.

It was wonderful to submerge myself in Howey’s deliciously evocative writing style again. He has a way of embroidering each scene that really places the reader right there in the moment, sensing the environment of his characters. His descriptions and metaphors are sublimely succinct and trigger the exact sensation or emotion that you should be feeling at any moment. You don’t have to force your mind or squeeze your imagination in any way; it all just floats freely into your consciousness. In his style, Hugh Howey approaches writing genius. Add onto this the fact that his genre of choice is post-apocalyptic, and I’m a very happy literate bunny.

In Sand you’ll find another intriguing post-apocalyptic world set on top of hundreds of metres of – you guessed it – sand that has settled over Denver, Colorado. With Howey’s evocative way with words, you really do start to feel the sand in your boots, and perhaps more alarmingly, the inevitable claustrophobia of diving hundred of metres below the surface with the main characters. If you have unresolved fears about being buried alive, you might want to rain check this one. You spend of an uncomfortable amount of time busting for air, so it might not be suitable for slow readers either!

Perhaps one of the best features of Sand is the dynamic between the four siblings, three of whom provide the majority of the narrative. Howey has really captured that dichotomy between love and frustration that ultimately manifests as family loyalty. Their collective tenacity is at the heart of this story, and this is ultimately a story about family, even though it’s embedded in an engaging, brain-teasing plot.

Or, at least, it’s engaging right until the end. After following the siblings around the desert, uncovering mysteries, dastardly plots and cryptic clues as to the origins of the apocalypse, you get nothing. No answers and no ending. There’s a reasonable pace throughout the book, but it really starts to ramp up in the last few chapters, and you start to feel like you’re about to be hit with an awesome climax. But it’s like the author suddenly hit the word-count limit, and he had to draw a hasty conclusion. The eldest sibling goes off on a potentially thrilling mission, but you don’t go with her. You’re left sitting in the middle of the desert staring poignantly at the sky and witnessing the side effects of her mission from miles away. I said conclusion before, but that’s really not what it is at all. It’s a rush of speculation, the bear minimum required to write the final sentence, and it leaves you utterly unfulfilled. You’ve invested all this time and thought and emotion in the story and characters for not very much at all. It’s the literary equivalent of fasting all week and then not getting to eat that pizza and ice-cream sundae at the end of it. What happens to the missing characters? What happens to the bad guys? Who even were the bad guys? What happens to the residents of the desert towns? What happens to the world? How did the world come to be like this? I know it’s good for the imagination and the soul not to have every question raised throughout a story answered, but the amount of answers you get in Sand is utterly mean. Is the point of the exercise for the reader to entirely speculate and invent not only the answers but the whole rest of the ending that was completely missing? I’m not sure I’m down with that. The point of reading someone else’s work is to explore their ideas and perceive a world through someone else’s mental filter. I can listen to my own ideas and perceptions any time I like!

So, yes, Sand has a great deal of potential, and it gives some interesting insights into the human condition. But it’s ultimately disappointing. Howey’s writing is evocative and engaging, and he is without question one of my favourite writers. It’s worth reading for the setting and the sensations alone, but be prepared to turn over the last page and wonder where the hell the rest of the words are.