Review: Magnus Chase and the Sword of Summer by Rick Riordan

Title: Magnus Chase and the Sword of Summer

Author: Rick Riordan

Pages: 528

Goodreads link

My rating: 4/5

There were two things that initially attracted me to this book: Rick Riordan and Norse mythology. I’m a big fan of both, so this was a bit of a no-brainer. I’m afraid it’s been languishing unread on my shelf for a while now, but I recently had a craving for mythology, so the time was right.

I’ve previously really enjoyed Riordan’s Percy Jackson books, not just because they cannibalise the weird and wonderful library of Greek mythology, but also because Percy is not a stereotypical hero. He has some problems in the ‘normal’ world that the author elegantly turns into strengths in his fictitious world, showing both his son and now a multitude of kids and kidults that weakness is a subjective term. I rather like the ambition behind that message.

Magnus Chase is another unlikely hero that bumbles and stumbles his way to success, with, of course, some help from some unlikely friends. Every Rick Riordan book I’ve read so far is first person, and I really like that because it allows the POV character’s voice to really shine through and shape the narrative. And Magnus has a great voice: he’s really quick-witted and sarky, but in a good way. He can fire off amusing observations and understatements from the hip, which keeps you smiling throughout, even in the joke-inappropriate moments of near and actual death. It keeps the mood light and upbeat, which is not an unusual tactic for getting through the struggle, and it keeps the mythology on the silly side, when it could so easily be utterly gruesome and traumatic. It’s akin to what Disney did to traditional fairy tales: made them attractive to kids.

If I have to give one slightly negative point, it would be that the story felt a bit bitty. I recognise a lot of the stories from Norse mythology in this book, but some of them feel slightly shoehorned and just there to fill up some space because they exist. I like the modern interpretations of the stories, don’t get me wrong, but in some places it feels like they’ve been used to the detriment of the plot. It’s a bit myth first and narrative second. This is perhaps why the book is significantly longer than any of the Percy Jacksons.

Having said that, I still really enjoyed reading the first in this series, and I definitely intend to keep going. It’s good fun and has some excellent twists on the old myths. And, of course, at the centre beats the heart of Rick Riordan’s purpose: it doesn’t matter what ‘faults’ you have; as long as you have courage, you can be a hero.

Review: TimeRiders by Alex Scarrow

Title: TimeRiders

Author: Alex Scarrow

Pages: 425

Goodreads link

My Rating: 5/5

A while ago, I promised I’d dig out my old review for TimeRiders by Alex Scarrow, the first in a favourite series of mine. So here it is!

When I think about a time travel story, my first instinct is to go straight to the story, pick one of the many points in history that excite me, and imagine all the hilarious, awkward and hair-raising situations modern kids would get themselves into. Oh, and then I’d shove in some lame time-travelling apparatus and crowbar in a reason for the kids to accidentally fall through a wormhole. And that’s probably why I don’t have an empire of time-travelling novels and Alex Scarrow does. The time-travelling element isn’t just crowbarred in after the story has been written, it forms the incredibly – and sometimes alarmingly – robust basis of the book. It’s scientific, it’s clever, it’s comprehensive, and it’s the nearest I have ever been to believing that time travel is actually happening – we just aren’t aware of it yet.

A good example is the way that the TimeRiders have to be suspended almost naked in a vat of water when they travel in order to prevent contamination, but on the other side, this leaves them inconveniently wet and, well, almost naked when they arrive. Why would you force this on your characters? Wouldn’t you rather gear them up and give them some awesome gadgets? Not if you’ve actually thought about the mechanics and the risks of time travel, and the water vat scheme turns out to be the most practical for non-fiction time travel.

This level of detail and the consequent extreme realism is the foundation of elite science fiction – it’s what makes the world of Star Trek so popular and what creates some of the world’s most passionate fans, and Alex Scarrow has done his utmost to produce the most realistic time travel world I have ever encountered.

And then there’s the story itself, which I really struggled to find fault with. It trots along at a great pace with an infuriating lack of explanations that keep you turning over to the next page as the narrative snakes from one point of view to another. What I find really impressive is the distinctiveness of each character’s voice. It’s one of those skills in authors I really admire: to be able to switch the tone of the narrative voice seamlessly to suit the character the story is following.

It is quite a while into the book before any time alteration occurs, but the beginning is far from long-winded, as it takes you through the mechanics of the time travel and the training of the TimeRiders, which helps the reader realise that time travel and timeline alteration is not something to make light of. In fact, as the story builds, you’ll find that the most threatening bad guy is not the deluded time alterer, it’s actually time travel itself. It is very much shown to have a similar effect and threat level on the world as the splitting of the atom. As Dr Oppenheimer aptly quoted, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” The same can be applied to the fictional creator of time travel in TimeRiders, Roald Waldstein. The invention of time travel causes nothing but destruction yet cannot be uninvented, and even the good guys, the time cops, are sucked into the devastation, facing the choice of either dying horribly in their own times or sacrificing and risking everything in order to prevent time alteration. The costs of keeping their lives are immense. The responsibility of the world rests on their shoulders, yet they are only kids – kids without the choices we take for granted.

So, the observant amongst you may have noticed that I quite liked this book. It has put in place the strong foundations of a fantastic sci-fi series and unfolds a thrilling adventure with quite a serious edge. I’m really looking forward to many more exciting and intriguing time alterations.

Cover Crush – The Binding by Bridget Collins

This little beaut has just arrived, and I can unashamedly confess that I bought it for its cover. It is The Binding by Bridget Collins, a recently released adult debut from this author that is being heralded by a storm of fabulous reviews. I have to say I’m not much of a sucker for hype – I prefer to wait for a variety of unfiltered reviews to come in from real readers and then make a decision – but I really couldn’t ignore the production value that has gone into this book. It so rarely happens these days that a publisher will actually part with a decent amount of cash for production (Angie Sage’s books are another example I can think of), but I really appreciate it as a reader when it does happen and designers get to do what they do best. I like to hold beautiful books and appreciate them while they sit on my shelves. The written word is a thing of beauty, a world contained within the leaves of this small object, and it should be bound with that in mind.

Even the dust jacket is delicious on The Binding, rich blues and browns with gold foil accents, but peel that off, and there’s a gorgeous filigree of gold foil over the hard cover, which is a kind of dark French blue. The pages are thick and creamy, as they often are in hardbacks, and the flyleaves have a lovely marbled paper effect in colours similar to the dust jacket, harking back to those books of yore. There are also some sweet pencil sketches introducing each of the three parts in the book, and you can’t beat a pencil sketch in my opinion.

All I can hope for now is that the story itself does justice to the cover! Even if it doesn’t, I’m keeping this book on my shelves for purposes of aesthetic satisfaction. When it comes to books, I’m shallow like that.

Winter Solstice Book Haul

I must have been on Santa’s Nice List this year, because I’ve had one heck of a haul of books this solstice/Christmas. Check out the booty …

My lovely mum got me the two illustrated beauties at the top: The Books of Earthsea and The Tales of Beedle the Bard. Now, small confession, I’ve never actually read Ursula Le Guin. I know, bad. Very bad. But I saw this complete illustrated edition and my must-have-that-book radar went off, so I put it on my wishlist with the intention of actually reading these classic books. Something to look forward to in 2019! And Beedle will be a nice addition to my growing collection of illustrated Harry Potter books.

The rest are a bunch of paperbacks I’ve been coveting for some time now. Dear old Alex Rider wasn’t a happy lad when I last left him a few years ago, but now Anthony Horowitz has written a new(ish) story to resolve his situation a bit. Patrick Ness is one of my all-time favourite authors, so I’m thrilled to get Release. Those of you who read my review of Ready Player One will know I loved Ernest Cline’s first novel, so I’m looking forward to Armada. Reviews suggest it’s not as good as RPO, but I remain open-minded.

The others are books that have piqued my interest on my book-truffling exhibitions, so these are all on my list to read in 2019 (and I’m hoping to fit them all in!).

One very happy reader here!

DNF: The Maze Runner

Oh dear. Oh deary dear.

I decided to read The Maze Runner by James Dashner because I got hold of the film while it was on sale, and I hate to watch a film adaptation before reading the book. I want to know whether the adaptation does the original material any justice. So I started reading the book. And then I started forcing myself to swallow small portions of it most nights. And then, after what felt like a month of trying, I had got to about three quarters of the way through, and I just couldn’t force myself any more. And I watched the film instead.

Just see the film.

I can’t even begin to express how much I despise DNFing. I so rarely do it I could probably count the times I have done so on one hand. I like to think I’m a fair judge, and give each book a fair trial by reading the whole thing, even if it’s not really my cup of hot chocolate. But there was just something about The Maze Runner that I just couldn’t push through. It felt like it was a lot longer than it actually is, although that was probably because I was dragging the reading out over so many weeks. I don’t think it was the story that was an issue. In fact, it’s really my kind of story, right up my genre alley. I think it was the writing. I just found it very bland and unexciting. It was a book of beige. I struggled to picture the glade and the maze and the characters. I think it just wasn’t very evocative or engaging. I’m sure it’s to a lot of people’s taste, and judging by the sales, it really must be. But it’s just not to my taste. I like to be sucked in by writing, and there was really no suction there for me at all.

On the plus side, I really enjoyed the film. As with most adaptations, there were a number of significant differences between the book and the film, but in essence, it was there. Which goes to show I really did like the story. I guess the strong visuals in the film made up for those patchy images that my own imagination had managed to cobble together, so it just came together better for me as a film.

I’m sorry. I did try. The film was great, and I’ll be watching all the others. But the book was just that bit too long with that bit too uninteresting writing for me to persevere to the end.

In search of the Best Harry Potter Reading Experience

At the end of October, as the nights were drawing in, a chill could be felt in the air, and the leaves began to turn, I found myself feeling the urge to dive once again into the soothing pages of Harry Potter. I don’t know why I associate HP with this time of year. Perhaps it’s the heavy focus in the books on Halloween and Christmas. Perhaps it’s because I find autumn is the most comfortable season of the year for me, and that’s synonymous with Hogwarts. Whatever the reason, I indulged and cracked open the latest illustrated entry into the series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Perhaps the most Halloweeny of the lot, and I think still my favourite of the seven.

Once again Jim Kay has done a fantastic job of adding colour and texture to J.K. Rowling’s world. And just as the mood of the books has turned darker, so too has Kay’s illustrations. Probably my favourite page is the dementor on the Hogwarts Express – a dark, cloaked, faceless figure looming through the doorway with that gnarly hand, and a candlelit reflection of Professor Lupin staring in terror.

I have to say, on the downside, that there were fewer illustrations than my appetite would have liked. I did some reading around, and it seems that Jim Kay was a bit rushed on this job. In his own post, he expresses how good it is to be able to take his time over the next book, The Goblet of Fire, implying he had been rushed on The Prisoner of Azkaban. There are a number of spreads in a row at numerous points where the illustration is just a background wallpaper print for the text. I know the books are getting longer now, and they have to save money on the printing, but it was a bit disappointing to turn the page and find yet another wallpaper spread.

However, what I did find in this book was a fantastic new reading experience, at least for me, that made the book even more enjoyable this time round. I don’t know why, but partway through, I had the idea to listen to Stephen Fry narrate the book while I followed the text and turned the pages. It’s a complete and unabashed return to childhood, sitting in bed and looking at the illustrations and turning the pages while a grown-up reads the words. It was a total indulgence, and I absolutely loved it.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban with the Audible audiobook.

I don’t care that I’m somewhere above thirty; this was by far the most enjoyable Harry Potter reading experience I’ve had yet (except, of course, for the first time I ever read the books; nothing can beat that). Stephen Fry is just the perfect person to narrate the books, and does a much better job than my rubbish internal voice, and when you add that to the illustrations, the whole experience levels up. I’m not gonna lie; I hate being an adult. It’s ghastly. So being able to return to childhood for just a short while is a wonderful antidote for the unpleasantness of adulthood. If you’re feeling rubbish, you’ve had a bad day, or the weather is being wonderfully grim, I can’t recommend this experience highly enough. Go on. Indulge.

Tip for Sticky Labels on Book Covers

If there’s one thing that really makes my blood boil when it comes to books, it’s people who try to damage them. Be it cracking and wrenching a spine beyond recognition, dog-earing pages or writing notes in the margins, I am physically pained and sickened by the sight of book abuse. I can feel my heart beating faster even just writing about this.

But there is something else that really ticks me off and that I definitely class as book abuse: sticky labels on book covers! Gah! Curse the marketing goon who ever thought of it! And is it just me, or are they getting stickier? In the old days, you used to be able to easily peel labels off things without leaving a nasty, sticky residue, but these days, the marketeers have really upped their glue game. I suppose now that people buy their books online, the labels have to be robust enough to survive the journey from printer to warehouse to doormat. It would, after all, be a total disaster if their precious money/personal data-grubbing marketing message was lost in transit!

Well, I’ve found a little wrinkle that might come in handy if your book cover has been savaged by glue. I recently purchased a book that came with one of these hideous decals promoting a wine-tasting holiday, or some such impossible-to-win prize draw, in exchange for personal data. Perfectly irrelevant to me because I don’t like the taste of alcohol! Anyway, after I’d carefully peeled this thing off, there was a huge circle of stubborn stickiness that was not amenable to any amount of rubbing. Then I remembered that nail varnish remover is pretty good at removing most things, not just nail varnish. So I whipped out my bottle, applied some to a cotton wool pad, and hey presto! The gluey slime came off without a fight, with absolutely no damage to the book cover. I also had a go at some kind of dirt residue on the same cover, and that came off like a dream too.

So there you have it: my tip for removing sticky nastiness and muck from book covers! I wouldn’t recommend scouring away at it for ages, as, like I said, nail varnish remover is good at removing most things, so I wouldn’t want to be responsible for advice that leads you to rub off any ink or varnish from your covers. But I just dabbed on a little bit, did a few swipes, and there was no damage at all, just a nice, clean book cover.

Review: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

ready-player-one-cover

Title: Ready Player One

Author: Ernest Cline

Pages: 374

Goodreads link

My rating: 5/5

This was one of those times when I wanted to read the book before I saw the film, and since Ernest Cline is a self-confessed uber-geek, I felt like I was in safe hands with this one. Even from the first page, I knew I had found a book nestled very deeply within my comfort zone. Within these pages, I was among friends.

And, boy, do I know feel like a total geek wannabe. I love books, games and films, but I now realise I am several hundred levels away from being able to call myself a true geek. I’m not going to tell you what year I was born, but I don’t remember the eighties. Yet since reading Ready Player One, I feel like I was there, in the infancy of true consumer gaming. The whole book is a neon tapestry of geeky knowledge woven with extra geeky knowledge, with an extra sprinkling of geeky knowledge for good measure. And the best part is that Cline’s encyclopaedia of eighties geek culture is delivered in an unnervingly prophetic dystopian – only one of my favourite genres. I keep going on at people that virtual reality is the future of our society, in a world that is overcrowded and drained of resources. Cline’s bleak near future satisfies my predictions and provides a jolly good story to boot.

There’s plenty of world-building, which I can rarely get enough of, but it’s done in such a thorough way that it’s hard to poke holes in it. This is why geeks should write books. They are very hole-aware because a robust world is the only satisfying one. To be honest, as I was reading Ready Player One, I really struggled to like the POV character, Wade. At times, he gets a bit bogged down in self-pity and has a whiff of the cowardy custard about him, but he does improve, and now that I think about it, he’s just exhibiting the same insecurities that a lot of us loner-geek types can’t shake (I am definitely included in that category). So really, he’s an archetype geek, and I can’t criticise that. Who wants a perfect hero after all? There’s nowhere to go with that.

I have to say, I was totally gripped by this book. It was the kind of book that I made time for during my day. It’s a real escape-and-immerse novel that’s as robust as any decent massive open-world game. It’s a pure, unashamed geek-fest, written for geeks, by a geek. If you’re a geek, you’ll love it. If you’re not (or you’re a wannabe like me), you’ll be really impressed by it. And I think that’s probably my key descriptor for Ready Player One: it’s impressive. I am impressed.

Now, have I said ‘geek’ too many times?

Legal Deposit Libraries

Here’s something you need to consider if you are self-publishing your book in the UK. If you are publishing a paperback version, you will at some point receive a request from the legal deposit libraries for one copy of your book for each of the UK’s designated deposit libraries. There are six of these libraries in total:

  • Bodleian Libraries of the University of Oxford
  • Cambridge University Library
  • The National Library of Scotland
  • The Library of Trinity College, Dublin
  • The National Library of Wales
  • The British Library.

The deposits for the first five in this list are handled by the Agency for the Legal Deposit Libraries, which has its office in Edinburgh. The British Library will send their request separately.

Publishers (and if you are self-publishing, that means you) in the UK are legally required to deposit one copy of every paperback they produce to these six libraries, under the Legal Deposit Libraries Act, 2003. And yes, this does also mean POD books, such as those you can make on Amazon KDP. I’m not sure you’d go to jail if you didn’t comply, but it’s probably considered very bad form if you do not. In fact, I had to delay sending copies of my books off to begin with, as they weren’t up to the standard I wanted them to be at for permanent posterity in the six biggest libraries in the UK. During that delay, I got a second email from the Agency for the Legal Deposit Libraries to tell me I still hadn’t delivered the books to them, so I guess their tactic is just to continuously email you until you comply. And if you’re a good little citizen, like me, you’ll do as you’re told.

Before I got the requests from the LDLs, I was aware of such libraries and such legal requirements, both having been to Cambridge University and having worked in publishing. But I wasn’t aware that this applied to self-published authors. Where on earth, I thought to myself, would they keep all these gazillions of self-published books? Surely, it must just be publishing companies that fall under this requirement. But, no. I assumed incorrectly. And to be honest, I actually found it quite the financial burden to bear. I publish my book through Amazon, so I had to buy six copies of my own books, pay for shipping on Amazon, and then pay for shipping to the LDLs. Fortunately, five of the books go to the same place (the Agency for the Legal Deposit Libraries), so this saves a little bit on postage costs, but it’s not an insignificant amount. So please be aware of this as an additional expense if you are self-publishing.

Apparently, this legal requirement does apply to ebooks (and seemingly every other digital publication, such as webpages, which they seem to harvest themselves), so if you only publish your books as ebooks, you’re technically still obliged to deposit a copy. However, I never got a request email for all the time that my ebook was published. It was only when I did a paperback version that the system kicked in. Perhaps it’s just the case that they do not enforce their right to digital content. But if you have your book in print and digital, they want the print version. They won’t accept digital if you have it in print. I guess this is one of those situations where large institutions are twenty years behind the rest of us. It’s a bit crazy, if you ask me, because if you could just deposit electronic copies, they wouldn’t need so much real estate to store physical copies and we penniless writers wouldn’t need to spend so much cash getting the books to them, but there you go. What do I know?

If you want to know more, here are the relevant websites:

The Agency for the Legal Deposit Libraries

The British Library

 

Review: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

norse-mythology-cover

Title: Norse Mythology

Author: Neil Gaiman

Pages: 304

Goodreads link

My rating: 5/5

I’m a huge fan of old stories from bygone civilisations. There’s a lot of information to be gathered about old peoples from artefacts, architecture and old bones, but I think that stories really give an deep insight into the psyche of those who came before. When you read something like Beowulf or The Metamorphoses or The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, you’re really investigating the human condition and psychology of the time these works come from. I’m not much of a history buff, but I am a psychology buff and a student of human thought and behaviour, so these stories have great appeal for me.

I’d had Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology on my reading list for quite some time, but somehow couldn’t get around to actually obtaining a copy. But then two fortuitous events collided: my birthday and the release of the new God of War game. I wanted to brush up on my norse mythology before playing the game, and it just so happened that my mum bought me this book for my birthday. So I got straight on it!

Neil Gaiman is, of course, a very accomplished writer, but what really impressed me about this book was the careful research and curation that has gone into it. Gaiman has done all the hard work, poring through the various sources of Norse history and mythology to extract and stitch together a string of tales that are both fascinating and amusing, just as a fireside story should be. If you’ve ever read the Poetic Edda or the Prose Edda, you’ll know it can be a bit treacly to read, perhaps something to do with the translations, but this is a book that caters to the modern reader. It reads easily and flows nicely like a book of collected stories, only the stories all relate to each other. The order of the tales is such that it takes you on a mythological journey from the Norse version of the creation, and the birth of the gods, all the way to Ragnarok, and the death of the gods (I just love that the Norse predicted the downfall of their own gods!). So although it’s a collection of individual stories, they all blend together into an overarching narrative, which makes it a satisfying experience as a book.

Oh, and forget what you think you know about Thor and Odin from the MCU, these guys were proper jerks! In fact, almost all the gods that feature have some serious personality flaws, particularly anger management issues. But I think herein lies the insight into Norse life. The gods were harsh and indiscriminate in their wrath because the Norse people’s environment was harsh and indiscriminate. It was a dangerous place to live and a dangerous time to live in, and death was meted out just as indiscriminately as the gods meted it out. The gods dealt in treachery and war and deceit and greed, all of which were a reality to the people who created them.

I think it’s also interesting to note that the Norse version of hell, Helheim, is a frozen wasteland, which of course, was a very real and dangerous environment for the Norse. Meanwhile, the vision of hell that was created in the Middle East and Mediterranean is a fiery furnace, and of course, extreme heat and drought was a serious concern for those peoples. Each hell represents the extremes of climate, and the dangers and fears associated with them, relative to each group of people. This is purely my own speculation, of course, but I think it’s rather neat all the same, and again, it lends a certain insight into the minds of those we cannot question.

Personal ponderings aside, Norse Mythology is an excellent example of engaging writing nested in considerate curation. It’s got all the characters you’ve heard of, and then plenty more besides. There are lessons to be learnt (although I’d advise against Thor’s philosophy of just bashing everyone’s head in to solve all your problems!) and great insight to be had. I’d be surprised if anyone was disappointed by this book.