A Taste of Literature

With Christmas over for another year, we must collectively try to make our gluttonous ways ease off with the new year. I think this is a very bad idea. I thrive through gluttony. I live for gluttony. We cannot let the “new year, new you” fad make us part with some of our favourite treats. As a self-confessed glutton through and through, and as someone deeply concerned by the “new year, new you” fad,  I have taken it upon myself to try out the recipes from two of our bestselling novelty Food and Drink books.

It wouldn’t be truly gluttonous unless the recipes were for truly indulgent treats, so I chose to take a look at the new baking hit Scone with the Wind and the bestselling cocktail sensation Tequila Mockingbird, just to see what all the fuss was about.

Scone with the Wind

The top recipes:

Whoopie Pies &Prejudice, For Whom the Bell Tuiles, Tart of Darkness, Banana Karenina, Don Biscotti, The Red Velveteen Rabbit, Waiting for Gateau.

Some of the highlights:

For Whom The Bell Tuiles- This sounded like one of the easiest recipes in the book, so when I came to try it out I was surprised by how fiddly it was. While it doesn’t need that many ingredients, it re20151117_124604.jpgquires an extremely steady hand. The recipe itself is really straightforward and, like the rest of the book, is explained coherently. However, the recipe calls for a bell-shaped plastic stencil to pour the mix into when it is ready and I, quite smugly, thought I could forgo this little aspect. I was wrong.

Instead of using a stencil to help keep the shape of the biscuits, I very carefully drew bell shapes all over my baking paper and then slowly filled them in with mixture. This took quite a while and the results weren’t great. I presented 12237585_457222031145711_1177850351_nthe oddly misshapen biscuits to my colleagues and they very kindly commented that, while they looked terrible, they made up for it in taste.

Presenting the Tuiles could have been really lovely if they had come out in the right shape, as the chilli-chocolate dipping sauce adds a really nice, sophisticated twist.

Banana Karenina-  This was, without a doubt, the BEST desert I have ever made. Not only was it ridiculously fun to make, but it was really straightforward and resulted in a taste experience that I would have happily paid good money for.

The Banana Karenina page began as so:

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. But happy or sad, these toffee truffle bombes will be a hit for family suppers every time. Decadently decorated to mirror the beautiful ballgowns of Anna and Kitty, they’re as tasty as a fresh faced debutante daring to dream of love, and as rich as a Russian aristocrat. The side order of bananas summons the sexuality of Vronsky himself, drizzled with the caramel of infidelity and laced illicit desire. Watch you don’t go off the rails…”

Described in the book as “Toffee Truffle Bombes with Caramelised Bananas”, I immediately thought it would be one of the hardest recipes in the book, but I was wrong. I am a worrier by nature and at no point did I lose my cool- everything was simple. It didn’t involve any particularly rare ingredients and the only element that I struggled to get was the Fromage Frais. I did, however, manage to find a pretty simple substitute and used Quark instead.20151117_164800.jpg

You start by making your own homemade toffee ice-cream, which was one of the most enjoyable kitchen experiences I have ever had. It’s incredible how easy making ice-cream really is when you get down to it, and the book’s step by step guide made it seem an absolute doddle. Once your ice-cream has solidified you line the walls of some ramekins with the mixture, and pop them back into the freezer to fix into place. You then make your own rich chocolate ganache (a great skill to have if you are a chocolate lover) and spoon it into the centre of the ice-cream 20151117_175236.jpgramekins, leaving it to freeze even further.
While that’s cooling you caramelise some bananas. When they’re ready you simply turn the ice-cream out of the ramekins and onto a plate, top with the banana and voilà, a desert of champions. It’s perfect for dinner parties or if you want to impress or treat someone special, as it looks difficult and really sophisticated while actually being really, really simple.12277602_183853091962069_166247664_n.jpg

 

I served this to my housemates and we all agreed that it was something we would eat in a restaurant and now, weeks later, I still can’t believe how easy it was. I have been raving about this recipe to everyone I know and I think I may end up just living off it entirely.

The Red Velveteen Rabbit – As my first time making Red Velvet cake, I was surprised at how normal the ingredients were. People rave about Red Velvet, but it’s made up of nearly exactly the same elements as most cakes, with some slight variances. It all came down to the method, which you have to follow properly in order to get the right taste and texture. Apart from remembering to change the way in which you mixed the ingredients, this was pretty much the same as making a normal cake, apart from the fact that the mixture was the tastiest I have ever had, and the results were pretty great. The only downside to this was the fact that I ran out of red food colouring and so, instead of making a true Red Velvet cake, I ended up with a Pinky-Beige Velvet cake instead. Yummy though. .

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Notes:

One of the best parts of this book is the small description that comes before the recipe as it not only teaches you a lot about famous literature, but it serves to set the tone for the treat that you’re about to make.

It’s brilliant, it’s fun and it genuinely adds something to the whole experience.  The book also starts off with a list of helpful baking equipment and some tips on ingredients and useful substitutes. On top of that, the recipes are split into fun categories like “Romance and Comedy” and “Children’s Classics”, with each new chapter page including a fun literary quote about food.

I adored this little book and I will definitely be using it again. It was really straightforward to use and made me laugh from all the puns – I’m never letting this out of my sight!

Tequila Mockingbird

Top Recipes:

The Count of Monte Cristal, Infinite Zest, The Wonderful Blizzard of Oz, Fahrenheit 151, Orange Julius Caesar, The Moonshine and Sixpence, Remembrance of things Pabst and A Midsummer Night’s Beam.

Some of the highlights:

Fahrenheit 151– One of my very favourites, this is a true winter recipe, perfect for curling up by the fire under a blanket at Christmas. But one of my favourite things about Fahrenheit  151 was the little description before the recipe which read:

“It ain’t about censorship, kids! Bradbury’s then-futuristic Fahrenheit 451 (the temperature at which a book burns) is about a society in which technology reigns supreme and books go bye-bye. Written in the fifties but ringing eerily true today, Fahrenheit’s world stars firemen who start the flames, setting the written word afire and snigging out pesky, law-breaking readers. Serve up a burning-hot party drink to toast the peerless printed page- hey, you don’t wanna spill rum on a kindle. Soon as this one’s ready to serve, disconnect the crock pot (and all your igadgets) and reconnect with your party.”

– A lovely, witty message that gives homage to Bradbury while emphasising the importance of sharing a human connection and not getting caught up in technology.

The ingredients were pretty simple but it’s important to keep in mind that, as this is a mulled, wintery drink it does take a little time. You pour all of the ingredients (except for the rum) into a saucepan and leave it for at least an hour to sufficiently mull the contents. It then states that “After everyone has turned off their cell phones, unplug the pot and the rum. Give it a stir and ladle away.”12276932_124245901273236_949016233_n

It’s tasty, it’s easy and it was a really lovely twist on a winter classic.

Infinite Zest- I’m a little embarrassed to say that, before making Infinite Zest, I never really understood the difference between shaking or stirring a cocktail. And let me tell you that there is a big difference.

The recipe called for Vodka, Limoncello and lemon juice. I added the ingredients together into some champagne glass11313564_1687662998182877_1534228274_nes and took a sip. It was ok, but it was just like drinking strong Limoncello. A bit dull for a recipe from Tequila Mockingbird, I thought. Then I noticed that I had forgotten to shake the mixture as per the instructions and gave it a quick go. The difference was incredible! While before shaking all I had was a glass of Limoncello that could put hairs on your chest, I was left with a beautifully sweet and delicate lemon-based drink. It was smooth. It was sugary. I have no idea how, but that one tiny task of shaking a cocktail really can make a huge difference.  What a lovely little summer drink.

The Moonshine and Sixpence– The recipe specifies that you need “cheap” whiskey, pineapple juice and coconut cream. The introduction calls to mind Tahiti, where the protagonist of Somerset Maugham’s famous novel ends up.

“Sip on this ‘moonshine’ cooler next time you need inspiration to break out of that cubicle and head to the tropics – even if only in your dreams.”

And that is exactly what this creamy cocktail does. It makes you think of palm trees swaying in the sun and hammocks where you can take a dreamy nap. While the coconut cream may not be the easiest to get a hold of, it’s worth it to be transported to a whole other world.

12256770_142915689401223_332423296_n.jpgTop Tip- When a recipe calls for “a splash” of something, as it does with the coconut cream here, stick to “a splash”. If your hand shakes and you accidentally end up tipping more into the glass then there is no going back and the results will not be as pleasant.

Remembrance of Things Pabst– The introduction read as follows:

“Proust’s narrator describes his sudden transportation back to childhood after tasting a madeleine soaked in tea. Take a journey to simpler times with a delicate summer drink that’ll have you recalling your first secret sips of beer. And pair this drink with as many cookies as your memory demands.”

While I loved the little description I was, however, confused. Earl Grey iced tea, Beer, lemon wedge. So simple, so weird. When I told my friends the recipe for this strange little beverage, I was greeted with looks of absolute horror. How on earth could that work? It wouldn’t, surely. But it did. Forget Pimms, this is going to be my new go-to summer drink of choice. I like beer anyway, but mixed with the floral notes from the Earl Grey and the touch of lemon, it was absolutely gorgeous.

Top Tip– Also try it with other variants of iced tea. I tried versions with plain iced tea, store bought lemon iced tea and Lemon Grey iced tea as well, and they were all lovely (although Earl Grey really was probably the best).

Notes:

Much like with Scone with the Wind, one of my favourite things about Tequila Mockingbird was the introductions that were given before each recipe. Not only did they help to set the atmosphere for the drink, but I found that they actually taught me a lot of fun facts about authors and novels alike. This may seem like a novelty gift designed for a bit of a giggle, and it is, but what I’ve found is that it is also a genuinely very insightful, nifty little recipe book that is both easy to use and incredibly informative. It is filled with tips on the correct glassware to use for different types of beverages, on the differences between types of liquor and why some are used for certain recipes instead of others, and it taught me to always, always follow the recipe if it asks you to shake your cocktail mixture.

I adore these two little books and have given them to friends and family alike. I now see what all the fuss was about- they aren’t just funny gifts but they’re fun too.

 

This is an extended version of a blog post I wrote for the Waterstones website.

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A Day in Hay

 

Hay-On-Wye is a quaint and cosy village nestled next to the towering bulk of the Black Mountains, just on the border between England and Wales. Now, in case you didn’t know, Hay is often described as “The National Book Town of Wales” for the fact that it quite famously has second-hand bookshops in abundance. Richard Booth is often credited with creating the world’s first “town of books” when he opened his first second hand bookshop in 1961 and subsequently opened another in 1965. Others followed suit. In fact, on April 1st 1977, he went so far as to proclaim that Hay-On-Wye was an independent Kingdom with himself as King Richard Cœur de Livre. While my French is pretty terrible, I am led to believe that this is a fun play on “Richard the Lion Heart” meaning “Richard the Paper Heart”, but please don’t quote me on that.

While Richard Booth certainly got the ball rolling as far as Hay’s reputation was concerned, it was one fateful evening around a dinner table that brought the famous festival to life. Theatre manager Norman Florence had just worked on the Globe project and wanted to create a new event. He and his wife Rhoda Lewis sat discussing how they could make a world famous event, and what they could possibly base it around. They looked no further than their own beloved village. In 1988 the first Hay Literary Festival was born.

While the festival is fantastically fun, filled with world-renowned authors and intriguing talks, the one downside to it is that you don’t get to experience the town as it truly is, which turns out to be absolutely perfect for booklovers. This may seem like an obvious statement, but I’m not simply talking about the amount of books that are readily available. Have you ever tried actually reading while a festival goes on around you? It’s quite difficult. But everyday Hay makes it so, so easy to get lost in a good book. It’s the sleepy atmosphere, the calm, fresh air that comes from being on the Wye and so perfectly perks you up when you are getting too drowsy from reading for so long. It’s the friendly locals, the pub, the ice-cream parlour. It’s the way in which the quiet is so perfectly quite. Not too quiet you see, because that could get eerie, but just quiet enough so that your book is not interrupted.

Booklovers do quite like to sit amongst beautiful scenery, absorbed in their story. Hay, out of season, is perfect for just that. Reading.

At its peak as a booklover’s paradise Hay was home to over forty bookstores, but sadly the times are changing.

It had been a couple of years since I had visited my beloved village, and when I was finally reunited with it a month ago I was surprised that some of my favourite stores had disappeared. They had turned into cafes, vintage gardening stores and clothes shops. Where was the messy bookshop on the corner of Castle Street and The Pavement, the one in which I always found a P.G. Wodehouse novel to add to the collection that I had accumulated from this very store? Where was BookEnds, the store that introduced me to the wonders of Nick Hornby? One mad rush from the beginning of Castle Street to the middle of Church Street later, I let out a sigh of relief. Both Richard Booth’s Bookshop and the Hay Cinema Bookshop were still there. All was not lost.

 

Hay, while it may be shrinking, is still the perfect destination for any booklover. Even a day trip can be totally magical in this tiny town if you know where to go, so I want to give you some advice.

Eateries:

The Blue Boar

With a real fire and candles on every table, this cosy, traditional pub lies in the very heart of Hay. The upstairs of the pub often serves as a gallery for local art, and the pub itself is covered with interesting photos of Hay in times gone by. For a real local community vibe and some friendly banter, look no further.

The Old Black Lion

What makes this pub stand out is its history, as legend has it that Oliver Cromwell himself stayed at the Inn while the Roundheads lay siege to Hay Castle. A short five minute walk from the centre of Hay, The Old Black Lions food is some of the most delicious pub grub that you will find for miles around.

The Granary

This quaint, rustic café offers gigantic portions of food in super speedy timing. While the choice is usually quite slim, you can bet that whatever is on the menu is prepared well, and I’ve never had a meal there that I didn’t enjoy.

Shepherds

Fancy trying some ice-cream made from sheep’s milk? If not, maybe you should reconsider, because the flavours here are amazing.

The Swan at Hay Hotel

This brilliant Hotel offers two different dining experiences. You can choose between the snug bistro which resembles a traditional pub in atmosphere and décor, or you can dine in the evenings in The Garden Room, a large, elegant dining room overlooking the Hotel’s picture perfect lawns. While The Swan can be quite pricey, the food is incredible and you honestly do get what you are paying for.

 

 The Bookshops:

Richard Booth’s Bookshop

The most famous by far of Hay-On-Wye’s bookstores, Richard Booth’s is probably also the one that’s the most similar to your modern day trade bookstore like Waterstones. The book genres are split over three floors, which Fiction and new rehayboothsleases taking pride of place next to the front entrance of the store. As a Waterstones employee, I have often had to suppress my instinct to separate the Fiction and Non-Fiction Hardbacks that sit snuggled together on the first table display that you meet, but it’s quite impressive how quickly Booth’s gets brand new releases into the store. My only qualm is that they don’t give any discount on ANYTHING at their front of store.

Booth’s children’s section is one of controversy as, while it is decked out in cute decorations and games, the actual range is a bit slim. However, the shop makes up for this by having super comfortable sofas and chairs strewn about each floor in a fantastic, shabby chic, cosy way. But really, one of the top selling points of this famous bookstore is the gorgeous exterior, which never fails to draw in an unsuspecting bibliophile.

I have a bit of a weird love/hate relationship with Booth’s. While it is probably the best arranged bookstore and by far the comfiest, I really strongly dislike the fact that they do not offer any discount on their core ranges. While they sell second hand books, they aren’t exactly for second hand prices. When I visited the store last I picked up a second hand copy of Angelmaker and, while it wasn’t ripped or anything like that, it quite obviously wasn’t new. It was being sold for £7.99. I felt like that was a bit cheeky, to be honest. It also grated on me that Booth’s are now selling ranges of notebooks and stationary from their till point- the very same ranges that Waterstones sell. Now, don’t get me wrong, other bookshops are allowed to stock the same things as Waterstones. No biggie. But they had the EXACT hay8same items laid out in the EXACT same way. It was a bit spooky and, as a Waterstones employee, it gave me the creeps a little bit. Are they trying to become a mainstream bookstore? Will they stop selling second hand books? What will become of Booth’s??

Top Tip: THIS IS SCI-FI HEAVEN. The lowest floor offers a mix of Crime and Sci-Fi/Fantasy, the latter of which is one of the best collections I have ever seen. The range is split between new books and second hand copies, so you can find your favourites from the high street while also browsing some long lost, hard-core sci-fi gems. There is also an extremely comfortable leather swivel chair that you can sink into directly in front of Booth’s own classic comic book display. Bliss.

 Backfold Books and Bygones

One of the smallest bookshops in Hay-On-Wye, Backfold Books and Bygones houses a large range of antique hay6hardbacks that you won’t be able to let go of once you’ve picked one up. While it can be a bit pricey, you always know that whatever you are buying it is most likely a rare, and often beautiful, copy in good overall condition. I have found multiple hardback copies of some of my favourite classical texts and if you ever want an antique hardback copy of Dickens then there really is nowhere else to go.

Hay-On-Wye Booksellers

While this iconic style bookstore isn’t the largest in Hay, it manages to fit a huge range of stock into a small space. You can find fiction, non-fiction, new, second-hand and even antiquarian books in this friendly and functional shop. The Hay-On-Wye Booksellers also buy unwanted books, so you can always contact them on their website if you have something particularly interesting to sell.

Fun Fact: The bookshop owners often keep their dogs bed in their window display, meaning that the cute canine can often be seen carefully making his way through the titles, adding to the homely, warming atmosphere of the store.

Murder and Mayhem

This very niche market bookstore is not one to be missed by any fans of a dark literary experience. Specialising in True Crime, Horror and Detective Classics, Murder and Mayhem is a store that could easily be missed by a passer-by. But if you do manage to spot it, take a moment to really take in the exterior of the building and you’ll notice the creatures painted in black along the store front, adding to the stores theatrical charm.

 

Hay Cinema Bookshop

The biggest bookstore in Hay, The Cinema Bookshop is an unending maze of towering shelving. While there are signs at every turn, it is far too easy to get lost in this labyrinth of a bookstore, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Wandering around the narrow isles in no particular direction is one of the biggest joys of this shop, as you never know where you are going to end up or what you are going to end up buying.

The Hay Cinema Bookshop has by far the most impressive range of contemporary titles, and tends to hold all of the most popular, bestselling authors. Like Booth’s it sells both new and second hand books, but the difference being that even those that are in perfect condition sell at half the price here than what they would at Booth’s. While the sections of the store are a little haphazard and, to a Waterstones employees eye, don’t make the most logical sense, you can’t help but get the feeling that the books are well looked after. While it is a little stuffy at times, like most shops in Hay, the Cinema Bookshop is surprisingly neat, clean and fresh. It is one of the neatest second hand bookstores that I have ever come across, and this makes browsing the wares a really enjoyable and easy experience.

Top Tip: Try not to stand directly under the heaters that appear every so often in the store, they get really hot and can become quite uncomfortable! Also watch out for dips in the floor.

The Honesty Bookshops

While Hay is still home to many fantastic bookstores, my true love lies with the honesty bookshops that are dotted around the little town. You never know what you might find and the idea of trust amongst booklovers somehow fills you with a heart-warming faith in humanity and the bookloverworld.hay1

There is an honesty shop situated directly in front of the Hay Cinema Bookshop which offers a huge range of titles, but which I have noticed over the years is mostly non-fiction.

Another honesty shop sits atop the hill in Hay, connected to the Castle building. This one offers not only books but a wide range of antiques as well, so you can pick up some gorgeous champagne flutes, a hat and a good Wodehouse novel all at the same time. One of my favourite sites in the whole of Hay, the cobbled pathway outside gives a lovely view of some of the other shops and adds to historic atmosphere of the place.
Once you’re done there you can follow the cobbled path round to the front of the Castle, perhaps stopping along the way at one of the new cafes which have opened, and look down upon one of the most famous honest shops in the UK. While the Castle itself used to house a wonderful bookshop, which has recently closed, the honesty shop at the foot of the Castle has one of the most beautiful settings for any booklover. Descend the old wooden stairs until you are about half way down and you will be standing in my favourite spot. In one direction you have the perfectly clipped little lawn and the rows of wooden shelving, holding a mystery of books, but turn the other way and you have the perfect view of the Castle, close enough to see the exquisite detail of the architecture but far enough away to be able to take in the whole thing at once (it’s only little, you see).
While I have so much more to say about Hay, I couldn’t possibly fit everything in. But one last thing I will say is this: Hay-On-Wye is a gorgeous, sleepy town filled with hidden nooks and crannies in which you can hide away and read. Whether it’s in the castle grounds, in one of the pubs, on a bench along the Wye or in a beautiful, rose filled garden, make the most of the peace and quiet with a good book, because that’s what makes Hay truly perfect for booklovers everywhere.

 

A final fun fact: apparently this tiny town in Wales is actually twinned with Timbuktu. Who would’ve guessed?

Hay

 

This is an edited version of an article I wrote for the Waterstones Blog, which can be found via the Waterstones website.

 

 

Proof that I am not illiterate.

It’s a new insult to me, really. Being a book-lover, bookseller and would-be book-writer (yes, I do know that the word is author, but I am going for style here).

A-name-is-just-a-name-right-3

While being a Bookseller may not be the most glamorous of jobs, I have to say that I do adore it. Not only do I get to share my passion for literature with people every day, but I get to share it with people from all walks of life, from all over the world.

There is something intrinsically human about the way in which we can bond over a shared interest. Be it stamp collecting, birdwatching or, as in this instance, reading, when you realise that you have this in common with another human being the bond that is created is truly special, if fleeting.

I have worked for my lovely big name book company for two years now, and I am still surprised by the range of customers we can get in one single day. I am still genuinely surprised by the incredible stories some of them tell, by the long, heart-felt conversations that we can often share and by, more than anything else, the way in which each and every one of them is different, in their own small way. At times it really is, at the risk of sounding too soppy and cliché, heart-warming. Humbling. Fascinating. Downright enjoyable. I have encountered people with jobs that I didn’t know existed, from places I didn’t know the locations of, with names I had never heard of before. Working in retail may not seem exciting, but if there is one thing you can say about it, it is that it definitely, definitely serves to broaden your view of the world and the people living in it.

One of the ways in which working as a Bookseller has broadened my knowledge is this: I now know that, however many ways you think there are for spelling one word, there are probably more than that. You see the thing is, as a Bookseller, I have a certain passion for reading and writing and, the more you read, the more variations of words and names and people and places you get to know. On top of this, being a Bookseller also means that you encounter new names on a day-to-day basis. There will be an author with a name so bizarre that you point it out to al your colleagues, there will be a customer that takes you by surprise when they spell out their surname, there will be characters called things too elaborate to imagine. But the thing is, once you’ve learnt a name exists, it’s quite hard to forget. It’s out there, in your brain, the knowledge of that slightly obscure name. Bookselling teaches you a lot in that way, and is a job that you don’t really go into if you don’t care about certain things. Like grammar, for instance. I’m not saying that you have to be a so-called “grammar-nazi” to work in a bookshop, but the truth of it is that, to want to work in a bookshop you would surely need to enjoy reading, and the more widely read you are the better your grammar, punctuation and spelling would be, logically speaking.

So it always comes as a surprise when your knowledge of the English language is called into question, which is exactly what happened to me today.

A customer and their wife approached me to pick up an order that they had placed, and said that their last name was Knight. I asked if they spelt it with a “K” or just with an “N”, to save time when searching.

“An ‘N’?” the customer replied, “An ‘N’? That’s not a real name! My god,” he says, turning to his wife, “did you hear that? She works in a bookshop and she’s bloody illiterate. Of course it’s with a ‘K’, the other version doesn’t exist dear.”

It’s okay. I’ve been through this before. I smile, and laugh, and explain that it’s easier to check, because we have actually had customers before that spelt it another way. I retrieve their order, and start putting it through the till.

“An ‘N’.” He says, “An ‘N’ makes it Night as in the Night-time, that isn’t a real name. How did you not know that? How long have you worked here?”

“It is rare, yes, but in my two years I’ve come across one or two that spell it that way instead of with your more traditional ‘K’.”

“No you haven’t.”

“Yes, I have. I can assure you. They were returning an item once and I got to see their signature, it was a very nice signature. Rare name, but really gorgeous signature.”

“You’re lying.” At this point, the customer seems to be getting angry.

“I’m not, really, I’m sorry. I know it’s a rare name, but I have met a few people with it. That’s the beauty of retail, you are constantly surprised by new names!” I laugh. I smile.

“No, I’m sorry, but you’re clearly lying. You’re embarrassed by what you said and now you’re trying to cover it by this elaborate story.”

“I know you don’t believe me, but it is true.”

“Right. Sure.” Eyes are rolled. I smile and shrug.

The customers wife looks at me pleadingly, letting out a nervous laugh. She seems embarrassed. They leave and I thank them, smiling. As they turn out of the door I hear the man say “Can you believe the level of English that passes for acceptable nowadays!?”

All I want to say on the matter is this: it’s a real name and, as far as surnames go, I think it’s quite a nice one.

If you’re interested in the science behind it, Mandi Johnson has written a very interesting thesis on the link between spelling and reading ability here:

https://www.nmu.edu/education/sites/DrupalEducation/files/UserFiles/Johnson_Mandi_MP.pdf

There is also a short article by the Guardian on the benefits of reading from an early age, among which it points out is the ability to develop good spelling skills.:

http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2013/sep/16/reading-improves-childrens-brains

This isn’t to say that those people who don’t enjoy reading for pleasure have poor grammar and spelling, but I do whole-heartedly believe that reading certainly helps.

What shocked me the most about this situation was how angry the customer became the more I continued to smile and tell him that I was telling the truth. He was obnoxious. He was rude. He was insulting. He made me wonder: at what point is it acceptable to be rude when thinking you are in the right?

A colleague of mine commented that she hadn’t realised what he was saying because, let’s face it, unless there’s something obviously strange going on, you don’t tend to try to listen in on conversations with customers. She mentioned that I had seemed happy, that I actually seemed to be enjoying my conversation with him. But how?

There are times when somebody is rude for no given reason, and it is extremely hard to keep up the pretence that it isn’t bothering you. But this time it was simple: I knew that I was right. Therefore as he grew angrier and angrier, it made me feel a little sorry for him, knowing that when he went home to Google it he would not get the satisfaction he was hoping for, but instead a dull ache at knowing he was wrong and had made, let’s face it, a bit of a tit of himself.

But then I asked myself, if I know I am right, and it makes me calmer, then why is he so angry when, from his perspective, he knows that he is right? I don’t know if age has something to do with it, but from my experience it genuinely may do. Over the years of working in retail I have noticed an interesting trend. The larger the age gap between you, the more likely it is that the older of the two of you will get angry. Does it have something to do with the older generations lack of faith in the intelligence of the young adults of today? Does it represent a disrespect for their knowledge if we disagree with them? Does it, perhaps, make them insecure? These are just musings, but I find it very interesting.

Has anybody else ever experienced something like this? This isn’t the first time that someone has tried to argue with me over spelling or grammar in the store, but it’s certainly the first time that anybody got so angry or so personally insulted by the idea of me being so obviously wrong. Do they overreact because I work in a Bookshop and therefore I should have perfect knowledge of spelling, grammar, punctuation, all authors and all genres?

Does anyone really ever have faith in something like this, something like a rare name spelling, unless they have heard it or seen it from themselves?

One thing that I know for sure is that, however adamant about it he may have been, I am certainly not illiterate.

Google backs me up.

Joe Abercrombie- The new face of YA Fantasy?

Joe Abercrombie (aka @LordGrimdark on Twitter) is best known for his bestselling fantasy series, The First Law trilogy.

The success of his novels has shown that Abercrombie is certainly a name to remember, but his new Shattered Sea trilogy is a brave step into the YA market.

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On reading the blurb to Half A King, the first book in the series, I was instantly enthralled. On top of that, the number of positive reviews from renowned authors such as the great George R. R. Martin made me buy the hardback copy straight away. As an added bonus and an extra selling point, it was also signed.

Now, on reading Half A King, my first thought was “this is not what I expected.” I couldn’t put my finger on why. Then it hit me, it was YA fiction and, as I don’t read a lot of YA, I honestly had not expected it to be.

So, what exactly makes it YA?

  1. The content is tame compared to a lot of other Fantasy novels, including Abercrombie’s other works. Don’t get me wrong, it has glimpses of adult content- the trilogy is dotted with sex, swearing and fast-paced epic Fantasy style violence, but it is tame compared to your average Fantasy series. But this is not a bad thing as, sometimes, an implied act can be more powerful than the detailed description of one.
  2. The plot-line was not too complex, but had just enough layers to make it a well-formed and intelligent storyline. Please don’t take this the wrong way though, as this is not to say that the plot-lines of all YA novels are simple compared to works of Adult Fiction, but from my own reading experience this is often the case.
  3. Lastly, and most importantly, the writing style is younger. And yes, that does mean that it is more simple. Sorry guys, but there is no getting around it, YA is written in a more simple way than Adult Fiction. For example, here is the opening to one of the chapters in Half The World:

“Thorn pushed through a grumbling throng flooding into a temple for prayers. So many temples here, and so much crowding into them to pray.” page 263, Half The World.

While this is a fine way of introducing a scene, I can’t help but point out that, if this weren’t a YA novel, the above two sentences could have turned into a beautiful, detailed description of the hustle and the architecture. This is one of the main factors that makes this series YA and not Adult Sci-Fi Fantasy.

The romantic undertones of the books are also another way in which we can tell that it is a YA series. While you root for the characters and want them to be happy, I often felt let down at how obvious their feelings were. The way that their emotions are portrayed gives it a very high school feel, for example:

“He stood there, silent. Waiting. Looking. No bloody help at all. Just say it. How hard could it be? She’d killed men. Just say it.” page 366, Half The World.

The characters wear their hearts on their sleeves to the reader, which is both endearing one minute and frustrating the next. Throughout the series you want to be surprised by how the love stories turn out, but I’m afraid to say that I wasn’t surprised once.

The writing is furthermore simplified by Abercrombie’s use of repetitive phrases, and he is definitely a fan of repetitive phrases.

“They kept coming, battle cries a faint burble over the ringing in Raith’s ears. They kept coming, as men above stabbed with spears, flung rocks down, leant out to hack with axes. They kept coming, some kneeling with shields above their heads as steps while others clawed their way up the timbers of the makeshift wall.” page 352, Half A War.

You can definitely see what Abercrombie is trying to do here, but sadly it happens a bit too often for it to have any positive effect.

I realise that so far I’ve been quite negative about this trilogy, but the truth is that I loved it. The characters really are endearing, and the plot lines are wonderful and truly compelling, I just felt let down with the writing itself. Abercrombie created such a diverse and gripping fantasy world, similar to that of A Game of Thrones, and all I wish is that Abercrombie’s writing could have done his imagination justice, as it had the potential to be a truly epic series, on a par with A Game of Thrones itself. If only the writing had been as detailed and as complex.

What is the series similar to?

  1. Prince of Fools, by Mark Lawrence. If you’re a fan of this long fantasy series then definitely give the Shattered Sea a try. The characters that Abercrombie has created are similar to many of those in Lawrence’s novels and the writing style is of a similar YA vibe.
  2. Ink and Bone, by Rachel Caine. If you enjoyed Caine’s The Great Library series, then the writing style of Abercrombie would certainly appeal to you. He has the same way of mixing simple sentences, which are very much YA in style, with the poetic and philosophical undertones that Caine achieves wonderfully. While the Shattered Sea books are much more of an epic fantasy style than Caine’s novels, it is the writing that is extremely similar.
  3. The Queen of the Tearling, by Erika Johansen. Skara at times reminded me of Kelsea from this new series. If you liked following Kelsea coming to terms with what it takes to rule, then Abercrombie has created a very good series for you. It isn’t just Skara that bought to mind The Queen of the Tearling when I read the Shattered Sea books, but many of the characters are similar in their attitudes, traits and the way in which their thoughts are portrayed to the readers.
  4. The Rigante series, by David Gemmell. While less of a YA series in terms of content and writing style, anyone that loved the setting and plot of the Rigante books will enjoy reading about Thorn Bathu and Brand, for sure.
  5. A Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin. Ok, I firstly need to say that yes, I am aware that A Game of Thrones is certainly not, in any way, shape, or form, even close to a YA novel. The content in Abercrombie’s series is much, much tamer (which isn’t difficult, as practically all fantasy novels are tame in comparison to Martin’s works). The writing style is much, much more simple (again, given Martin’s reputation for extremely detailed writing and complex plots, this should not be a surprise). But overall the Shattered Sea books read as a YA version of A Game of Thrones. The world that Abercrombie is undeniably similar to that which Martin imagined up and made famous, so similar in fact that at times I often found myself confusing place names with those from A Game of Thrones itself. If you like the idea of an epic fantasy set in a world similar to that of A Game of Thrones, definitely read this and you will not be disappointed.

Half a King Map

One of the main reasons to read this series is the fact that the characters are both diverse and truly lovable.The main characters are as follows:

Half A King:

  • Yarvi is the main character of the first installment. He is the rightful king of Gettland, but is a cripple and therefore does not fulfill what is expected of him as the leading warrior of his country. Yarvi is the character that I felt I connected with the least throughout the series as his emotions fluctuate rapidly throughout the first book, and his goals never seem that consistent (apart from his quest for revenge). I didn’t particularly like Yarvi, but instead found him petulant and tiring.

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Half The World:

  • Thorn Bathu is one of the best female protagonists that I have ever encountered. We first meet her in training on the shore, eager to become a warrior and I immediately fell in love with her. Hard-headed, stubborn and completely defiant, for want of a better phrase, she’s pretty bad-ass. But it isn’t just that which makes me love her. It’s the fact that she is an underdog, right from the start. Her peers don’t respect her and deem her unfit to be a warrior because she is a female, doing everything they can to prove that she is not their equal. On top of that (SPOILER ALERT), Thorn’s trainer, Master Hunnan, forces her to fight three fellow trainees at once, meaning almost certain death for her. When Thorn ends up accidentally killing one of the trainees, Master Hunnan proclaims her a murderer, which is punishable by death. Thankfully for the story, she isn’t put to death, and we get to see her progress.

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We watch as she joins a crew and sails halfway around the world alongside Brand, a fellow trainee who lost his place as a warrior when he stood up for Thorn, trying to save her life. We watch as she trains to fight under the guidance of the mysterious witch Skifr, and as she defends the Empress Vialine, ruler of Skekenhouse, the most powerful city known, against five attackers at once. We watch as she becomes the Chosen Shield of Queen Laithlin, husband to the King of Gettland and Yarvi’s mother. We also watch as she comes face to face with Grom-gil-Gorm, a warrior who has been told that no man can kill him.

Thorn is passionate and feisty but she also has a lot of heart, which is shown through her feelings for Brand. The Thorn-Brand relationship is at times frustrating due to the lack of imaginative writing on Abercrombie’s part. For example, these inner dialogues with herself can be particularly trying:

“What do you mean like? Like, like like?” page 265, Half The World.

“Do you…like me? Like? Like?” page 266, Half The World.

It is this type of writing that makes the series distinctively YA. I understand why Abercrombie wrote scenes this way, as it does help to show a younger, more vulnerable side to Thorn and helps you to understand her insecurities. However, it gets a bit too teen angsty at times.

  • The story is also told from the perspective of Brand, who is one of the most lovable characters throughout the entire series. Brand is fair. Brand is righteous. Most of all Brand is kind. We love him from the start of the book, which is told through his eyes. He describes how unfairly Thorn is treated in training and you know immediately that there will be a romantic story arc involving the two of them. It’s obvious, but in a tantalizing, good way. Brand was told by his mother before she died to “stand in the light”, which he interprets as doing good wherever possible. He refers to his mother and his sister, Rin, a lot throughout their journey, and we soon learn about his extremely difficult past. For this we love him even more. The best way I can put it right now is that, all in all, Brand is a hero through and through.

I also adored reading his perspective when it came to his relationship with Thorn. While Thorn is nervous and naive in the way she thought about herself and Brand, he is simply very endearing. He is more down to earth in his thoughts and more open to the reader about how he feels. He loves and admires Thorn and his inner dialogue openly admits this throughout, whereas Thorn’s inner dialogue seemed to often not trust itself.

Half A War:

  • Koll, a young boy in Half the World, is now one of the main protagonists, and is a breath of fresh air. I liked Koll, and mostly due to the fact that he was openly fickle and a little selfish. I found the fact that he seemed so worried about his future very endearing and at times very, very funny. Koll is torn between marrying Rin, whom he has been sleeping with, and becoming a Minister like Yarvi (and thus swearing off women). As you watch his relationship with Rin become more and more complicated, you can’t help but feel for the young teen and the hard choices he has to make. But it’s the way he interacts with the other characters that is extremely entertaining. He is questioned often about which choice he may make and his responses are often blunt, lovably awkward or, and we know this thanks to his inner dialogue, flat-out lies.
  • Princess Skara of Throvenland is truly the main character of the third instalment in the series, and we meet her when she flees her home after it is taken by a warrior named Bright Yilling, the most honoured warrior of the High King. I’ll admit that, at first, I greatly disliked Skara. Compared to Thorn in the previous book, she seemed too timid and too naive. But soon Skara comes into her own as she is forced to make some difficult decisions and play the political game, all the while falling for her closest warrior, Raith. As Skara learns more and more about what it takes to become a Queen, she becomes truly cunning and sly and you watch as she gains the skills to use her enemies against each other. It kills me to say it, but (again, SPOILER ALERT) I found the love story between Skara and Raith very disappointing. Throughout the book it was probably the most well written romantic story arc in the whole series, as the reader is kept guessing in a true will-they won’t-they manner, but with just enough hints at a romantic outcome to keep you completely hooked. Their feelings for each other are also the most eloquently described and their inner dialogues about one another are at times quite beautifully poetic. But it leads to an anti-climax (again, if you haven’t paid attention to my warnings already SPOILER ALERT, SPOILER ALERT). Raith and Skara do not end up together. They almost do, but the story ends with Skara firmly telling Raith that she cannot marry him as, for the good of Throvenland, she should arrange a politically convenient marriage for herself. Joe Abercrombie HOW COULD YOU. There was not a love story in this series more believable than that of Skara and Raith and you have cheated your readers by ending it there. For shame!

Keep in mind that these are just the main characters and that there is a large and dynamic cast of others as well.

While at times the series felt a little too similar to A Game of Thrones for my liking, there was one main aspect in which it truly stood out, and that was the creation of elf magic. Throughout the series we learn that many thousands of years previous to the time in which it is set, elves walked the earth. The elves were extremely advanced, physically, socially and culturally. They used magic to create the strongest machinery, to create the most beautiful buildings that could withstand any type of attack and to forge magical weapons that could destroy any enemy. The legend in the series goes that there came a time when the elves waged war on the one true god, using their advanced and magical weaponry. In this war they broke the god, forming the Tall Gods which the likes of Yarvi and Thorn come to worship. However in the breaking of god, they also broke themselves, as they were wiped out entirely in this one act of defiance.

This concept of one god being split into many is another way in which the Shattered Sea books hold similarities with A Game of Thrones, as is the description of the elf ruins at Strokom, which certainly brought Valyria from A Game of Thrones to mind.

However, Abercrombie has done something quite ingenious with his elves of legend.

(Really, very seriously, SPOILER ALERT)

You see, when a company including Father Yarvi and Koll set out to the ruins of Stokrom in Half A War, they intend to uncover the elf weapons that had been there since the breaking of god. Elf weapons, they are told, that are magic and can kill any living being within seconds. Some people think that the use of elf magic is too dangerous, and warn the crew that the elves died for their advancement, as they got too far ahead of themselves and suffered the consequences. The crew are told to heed the fact that history often repeats itself and that having an advanced knowledge of weaponry, before people have had the chance to come to terms with it and the questions of morality surrounding it, could be fatal.

When they arrive at the ruined city and begin their search, Koll is in awe of what he sees and, as Abercrombie describes it to the reader, some interesting notes begin to strike a chord. Abercrombie first mentions extremely tall buildings made almost entirely from glass, which put me in mind of the modern-day skyscraper. Little things here and there reminded me of modern sliding doors and courtyards, and then he mentions paper. Paper is strewn across the floor, still there from when the elves vanished, still showing the elf writing on them. Paper rests on and inside a table, much like a modern-day desk. That is when it starts to creep up on you, the elves were modern human beings as we, the reader, know them. It hits home when they find the elf weapons which are described as long and thin, with a segment on one end as if to hold it out by your hand in front of you, with a small rotating drum and a barrel which fire shoots out of. They are guns. The elf relics are modern guns. 

This realisation blew me away, and I hadn’t seen it coming for a single minute. It changed the way in which I viewed Abercrombie’s world entirely and made the argument that history repeats itself really strike home. Is this what Abercrombie wanted us to think about? Is this perhaps a warning that modern-day humans are becoming too advanced too quickly, before having the awareness and understanding to use our knowledge safely? Is it a critique on the way in which weaponry has advanced over the previous years?

You could view it in any or all of these ways, but I found this subtly commentary on human nature extremely moving and very profound.

I know that I’ve been a little harsh on Abercrombie’s writing style, but at times he came out with some wonderfully touching and profound words of wisdom.

As an ending note, one of my favourite quotes is from Skifr in Half a War:

“Rejoice in what you have. Power, wealth, fame, they are ghosts! They are like the breeze, impossible to hold. There is no grand destination. Every path ends at the Last Door. Revel in the sparks one person strikes from another…They are the only light in the darkness of time.”  page 416, Half A War.

To conclude, Joe Abercrombie has created a great little YA fantasy series. One which shows his prowess in the YA world, and clearly demonstrates that he could easily become a master of romantic fantasy.

Good job, Joe.

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Judging a book by its cover

http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2015/jun/26/cross-dressing-covers-paperbacks-sexed-up-summer

This really interesting article explores the way in which books are marketed towards certain people at different times of the year. While it is a valid point, I feel like I must point out some flaws in its argument.

For starters, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North was published in paperback in March 2015. Now, while it’s a bit of a known fact that shops start preparing for seasons long before they are actually upon us, Christmas being the prime example. However, while Christmas is indeed the most important season for retail workers, I’m afraid the rest of the year is not factored on quite the same scale. While we do prepare in advance for all of the major Bank Holidays and dates such as Valentines Day, these preparations don’t begin as early as when we are in the build up for Christmas.

Because of this the cover of The Narrow Road to the Deep North being altered for a March release does not particularly signify a build up to summer, but instead perhaps a shift in the target market in the book. In short, I believe that the covers for the books mentioned in the above article were changed not due to the season, but due to the fact that the publishers wanted to make sure they appealed to both men and women alike, whereas (and this is purely from my own observations) the starker, more symbolic covers tended to be more appealing to a higher market or male customers.

The article does beg the question which has been asked for years- Do we judge a book by its cover?

It’s an age old cliché that we really shouldn’t, but the reality of the situation is that yes, we do. Or at least we tend to more often than not.

Why would a woman on the cover of The Narrow Road to the Deep North make it seem more appealing to women? It’s simple- a woman on the cover has a tenancy to imply that there is a strong love story in the novel. And, I hate to say it, but romance stories do tend to be more popular with women than novels without a hint of it.

As for the comment: “…if jackets show women’s whole faces or bodies they repel readers…” I very strongly disagree. The article points out that Ali Smith’s How to be Both is the only book out at the moment that shows women face-on, but this simply isn’t true. While there aren’t many, there are definitely more than the one. For example there is Alison Weir’s The Marriage Game, Winston Graham’s Demelza Poldark, Nick Hornby’s Funny Girl  and Fannie Flagg’s The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion all have women looking directly at the reader, have all been published in the last couple of months and have all been selling steadily.

Sorry Guardian, but putting a sultry woman on the cover of a book doesn’t sex it up for summer, and it certainly doesn’t mean that putting a woman face-on on a cover wouldn’t work. The basic truth is that publishers and authors alike want their novels to seem mysterious, to draw people into reading them. The half turn/half glance sultry look isn’t trying to be sexy, it’s trying to show that there is some type of mystery to be unveiled or secret to come out. And that is what draws in readers- people love a good mystery, even if it’s simply “Why does she look unhappy?”

Longbourn

The blurb of Longbourn reads thus:

‘If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats,’ Sarah thought, ‘she would be more careful not to tramp through muddy fields.’

It is wash-day for the housemaids at Longbourn House, and Sarah’s hands are chapped and raw. Domestic life below stairs, ruled with a tender heart and an iron will by Mrs Hill the housekeeper, is about to be disturbed by the arrival of a new footman, bearing secrets and the scent of the sea…”

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Jo Baker, if you are ever to read this, then I am deeply sorry. I truly am.

I did not like your book.

Longbourn starts off in a really promising way. If you’ve ever seen the TV series Downton Abbey, then you know that tales from the servants perspective often start off slow but with a hint of tension, and Longbourn does just that. You are introduced to Sarah, the main protagonist, as she prepares for Wash-day, one of the most straining times for the servants of the household. We read as Sarah and Polly, a much younger maid, hang out the laundry to dry in the Paddock. Sarah thinks she sees a man, and instantly our interest peaks.

That’s fine. That’s great. That’s the way it’s done, Baker has inserted a mystery. Who was the man? What does he want? Is it significant that Sarah is the only one that saw him? Was there anyone actually there at all?

But, for all it’s worth, I had already lost all respect for this book and we’re only really on page sixteen.

I disliked the novel from the outset, and I’ll tell you why. It may have been an editing issue and absolutely nothing to do with Jo Baker herself, but the blurb misquoted the book itself. The above quote from the blurb is there for you to see, but then when the actual passage that it is taken from appears, it has a number of minor differences. The actual passage reads:

“If Elizabeth had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them.”

How does such a difference happen?!

Sloppy editing ruined this novel for me from the start, but I’m afraid the plot nor the writing style saved it.

Obviously when reading a book based on an older novel, there are some aspects of the two that you will assume to be similar. I’m afraid that, in the case of Longbourn, very little of the original Pride and Prejudice story or feel remained. The very (and I mean very) basic plot ran in the background. Bingley and Darcy come to Hertfordshire. The house is all of a dither. The militia arrive in Meryton. Mr Collins proposes to Elizabeth, allowing her to reject him. Lydia elopes with Mr Wickham. The search for them is frantic.

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However, I had assumed that there would be much more emphasis on the original story, while in reality the goings on of the Bennets’ was only mentioned every once in a while. Not only this but, I am sad to say, Jo Baker took some overly large liberties in altering the original story in order to make her novel more exciting.

True Jane Austen fans who do not want the original characters to be sullied or altered in their minds, I really suggest that you stop reading here. As a lover of Pride and Prejudice, I was appalled by some of the ways in which Jo Baker added to the personalities and backgrounds of the characters.

And if you want to avoid spoilers, I’m afraid that you should also look away now, because there is no getting away from them.

Ok, deep breaths, here goes.

Jo Baker elaborates on the personal lives of many of the characters, which I wasn’t altogether fond of to begin with, but then she really took the biscuit.

You see, the man that Sarah spots at the beginning of the book is one James Smith, who is hired by Mr Bennet as a footman for the house. James has a mysterious past which is thrust upon the reader like a child at school saying “Ohh I know a secret! But I can’t tell you what it is.” – It is obvious from the get go that his past will be a dramatic one, but I’m afraid that Baker’s writing did nothing to make this exciting or even that mysterious.

It is also obvious from the start that Sarah and James will provide a romantic thread throughout the book, but of course there has to be an obstacle to put in between the young lovers, and this takes the form of Mr Wickham, who is all too aware of James’ mysterious past life. James flees. Sarah is heartbroken. At this point in the novel I was so detached from the characters that I felt myself thinking, in a very sarcastic tone I might add, “Oh no, what a shame. The horror. Oh however will they end up together now.”

As James’ secret life comes under scrutiny, his past is revealed to the readers. He is a deserter from the army. At the time this was punishable by death, so it explained why he ran away once Mr Wickham had figured out who he was.

Now, James’ past was probably the only thing that gripped me about this slow, agonising read. I had to know where he came from, what he did, why he abandoned the militia and ultimately, how he came to be at Longbourn. But no, that didn’t live up to it’s potential either.

As it turns out, James is the secret love-child of Mrs Hill, the housekeeper, and Mr Bennet, long before he married Mrs Bennet. Given to a nearby farmer and his wife, James grew up impoverished, unloved and very rebellious. He flees home to join the army and gets lost from his troops. He is declared a deserter and sentenced to death, but manages to escape. He eventually finds his way to England where he has fond memories of Mr Bennet, who would occassionaly come by the farm and inquire after his health. Because of this he confides in the kindly old man and asks his assistance, ignorant to the fact that he is actually confiding in his biological father.

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“But this is incredibly exciting!” I hear you cry and yes, yes it is. If this was an original novel there is a chance that this revelation would have saved the storyline. But it isn’t an original novel, it is based on a classic. And, if there is one thing that I’ve learnt from working in a bookshop, it is that you can’t go around adding in dramatic background stories to classic novels without receiving a bit of hate, and rightly so.

I’m sorry Jo, you just can’t give Mr Bennet an illegitimate child with his house keeper, changing our opinion on his good manner altogether, without making sure that it is written seamlessly and in keeping with Jane Austen’s style. If the Bennet/Hill affair was in line with Austen’s beautifully detailed and witty prose, then I may have forgiven you for tarnishing the character of Mr B, but it wasn’t in the same league at all.

And, to add insult to injury, Baker also brought the idyllic relationship between Mr Darcy and Miss Elizabeth, which every girl dreams of managing to experience one day, crashing down.

You see, Longbourn continues on after Miss Elizabeth is married and becomes Mrs Darcy and, luckily for Sarah, Elizabeth is in need of a maid to bring to Pemberly when she moves there. All well and good, yes, but NO! Not when Baker has Elizabeth telling Sarah about all of her doubts. She has fears about her marriage, worries about how well suited the two of them are, about how happy she may really be at Pemberly. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how in one fell swoop Baker ruined Pride and Prejudice for me for good. I cannot read it now without wondering “But was Elizabeth truly happy with Darcy?”, whereas before reading Longbourn I would have devoured the original, blissfully content in finding a book that was both intelligent and ever so romantic.

Austen’s writing is richly detailed, atmospheric and has long, beautiful descriptions of individual characteristics of both people and places alike. In some scenes Pride and Prejudice is slow and hard-going, while in other parts, where the drama builds, it is fast paced, gripping and very, very cleverly written. The plot is so intricate that you have to concentrate all the way through and, if you do so, you will pick up on the tiniest details in Austen’s writing which demonstrates her true skill and intelligence.

Jo Baker wrote a quick read Romance novel, and I’m afraid that’s all. It had none of the charm, atmosphere or intelligence of the original. It was not witty, but instead filled with one-liners and sarcastic comments from characters which were clearly meant to provide comedy, but just seemed too try-hard to genuinely be entertaining.

I really tried to like this novel, I really, truly did. I just couldn’t.

I came so close to giving up on it on a number of occasions, and to me that really says it all. If you want a quick, escapist romance with a predictable ending, try Longbourn.

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13 Tips for Cozy Mystery Writers

This is a great little guide if you are thinking of dabbling into cozy, classic crime writing. One thing that I would emphasise is that it helps to read some cozy crime novels first to get the feel of how it is done badly and how it is done well. I recommend trying out a few Agatha Christie novels along with some Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Georges Simenon. As an extra I would also recommend trying out a few books from the range of British Library Crime Classics.

https://www.waterstones.com/books/search/term/british+library

WordDreams...

cozy mysteryThis is another in my series on Genre Writing Tips. I hadn’t really thought about cozy mysteries as I worked through from Children’s Books to Steampunk. A member of my critique group reminded me because that’s what she writes. Cozy mysteries, in the style of Murder She Wrote–tricky but non-gory plots with eminantly cheerful characters that you’d like for a best friend.

That’s about all I knew about them, so I polled my PLN and Tweeple and anyone I could find about what the characteristics of ‘cozy mysteries’ were. Here’s what I got:

  1. The mystery is not bloody or ghoulish. It’s softened, the gory parts alluded to rather than spelled out.
  2. The lead character is likely to be an amateur detective, akin to Murder She Wrote, rather than seasoned as you’d find in a detective mystery.
  3. The reader likely will identify with the main character so s/he…

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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Written by Karen Joy Fowler.

Winner of the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

Short-listed for the 2014 Man Booker Prize.

This book interested me from the get go, why wouldn’t it? Not only does it have a pretty memorable title, but the blurb is intriguing:

“What if you grew up to realise that your father had used your childhood as an experiment?”

“Rosemary doesn’t talk very much, and about certain things she’s silent. She had a sister, Fern, her whirlwind other half, who vanished from her life in circumstances she wishes she could forget. And it’s been ten years since she last saw her beloved older brother Lowell. Now at college, Rosemary starts to see that she can’t go forward without going back, back to the time when, aged five, she was sent away from home to her grandparents and returned to find fern gone.”

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Blimey. On first impressions, this seems like it has the potential to be a chilling thriller of the highest calibre. A brilliant mystery.

Customers kept on bounding into the store shortly after the book was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, asking if any of us had read it. We hadn’t. Aghast, they would say that it was absolutely vital for one of us to read it. They would say that it was exceptional, extraordinary, unique and utterly unforgettable.

They were right, it was unforgettable. I actually read this controversial novel a year ago, and I certainly haven’t forgotten one thing about it. But that isn’t to say I enjoyed it.

If truth be told, I just didn’t get it.

I still don’t.

I rarely genuinely struggle through a novel, but to me this short tale was far too much hard work for very little reward. I disliked it from the get-go, as Fowler’s writing style is filled with modern slang and lots of Americanisms that I found made the writing seem lazy. It was as if she was trying to sound “cool” and modern, but it grated on me. There were basic grammatical errors that got under my skin. On top of that, I disliked the way in which it was told from Rosemary’s perspective. Now, before you think to “Whoa! A bookseller hating first person perspectives? Surely not! That writes off so many wonderful novels” – I like first person writing as a general rule, but not when it is done in such a lazy way.

A book I reviewed a short while ago- My Sunshine Away- was told in the first person, if you recall, and I adored it. First person writing is good when it is done slyly. When, even though you have access to the characters thoughts and feelings, you are still left guessing. Fowler didn’t give me that. She literally had Rosemary listing her feelings at one point in the novel- the character shouldn’t just tell the reader how they feel (unless it is done very, very well), but the reader should sense it from what else the character is saying.

“I felt guilty because I had owned the journals less than a day and already lost them…Mostly I felt tired.”

I hated Rosemary. I found her obnoxious and self-righteous and oh, so irritating. To dislike the protagonist in a story is unpleasant enough, but I didn’t relate or empathise with any of the background characters either. The Cooke parents have far too many flaws to list, Lowell is unstable, sanctimonious and thoughtless. Fern’s only friend mentioned, Harlow, is a train-wreck.

Now, I can’t talk about this book without mentioning the very large plot twist. To give Fowler credit, it is one of the most surprising plot twists I have ever read. I never saw it coming, as much as I would like to say that I did. Looking back, there are hints at it, but it was done so subtly that I would not have guessed it.

If you don’t want the twist spoilt for you, you had probably look away now.

Throughout the book Fern’s departure is described as extremely traumatic, and Rosemary has clearly tried to bury the memories of why Fern left deep inside her mind.

While reading, ideas spun through my mind. What happened to Fern? It is mentioned that Rosemary’s father used the girls as an experiment. Did something go wrong and Fern died as a result? Or had to be thereafter taken care of in a home? Did Rosemary harm Fern? Did one of the research students that lived with the family?

As it turns out, Fern is a chimp.

Rosemary’s father convinced her mother to bring up Fern alongside Rosemary, treating them exactly the same in order to access their development and whether or not Nature or Nurture has the greater effect on behaviour.

Once this bizarre revelation takes place, we are given more details on Rosemary’s upbringing. Rosemary explains some of the experiments she had to take part in a she grew up. At times it becomes disturbing, as you see the extent to which Rosemary and Fern were treated as equals.

I’ll give Fowler this as well- the book certainly taught me an awful lot about animal rights. As the book continues you discover that Lowell, Rosemary’s older brother, is an animal rights activist and as such was often in hiding after taking drastic measures to set lab animals free or destroy the bases where they would be tested. When Rosemary comes back into contact with him, she learns about the conditions in which Fern now lives and starts to sympathise with Lowell’s behaviour. Added to this is an extreme sense of guilt. We know from early on in the novel that Rosemary played a part in Fern being sent away, but it isn’t until much later on in the book that we see how large a part it was.

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Rosemary had found kittens. Fern had been playing with them, and had hurt one of them, which upset Rosemary. Rosemary ended up telling her mother that she was scared of Fern, and that is what got her sent away. Rosemary’s memory is hazy when it comes to the facts of whether or not she made up the story about Fern killing the kitten. She claims that Lowell thought she had made it up, as there was no dead cat to be found.

This section of the book is by far the most well-written. The unsure nature of Rosemary’s memory and the guilt she feels either way makes it an emotional and haunting read. It certainly made the rest of the book come to life a little.

But I’m afraid even this wonderfully creepy section does not save the book in my eyes as, sadly, it is over in a few short pages. After this deeper look into Rosemary’s past, her guilt and how it has effected the way in which her memories have formed, the story goes on in a fairly predictable manner.

They search for Fern, and locate her at a nearby lab. They want to save her and put her into better care. They manage to. They visit her often.

The only other positive about the plot was that, while Rosemary and her mother visit Fern on a regular basis at the end of the story, it is made clear that they cannot tell whether or not Fern recognises them, or remembers any of the events from their lives together, and this I found truly heartbreaking. Not the fact that she may remember the pain of being forced to leave them, and not the fact that she may not remember, but the fact that they will never know. To feel as if you have a connection with another living being, and to be unsure as to whether or not they feel this connection too, it heart-wrenching. As is often the hardest part, it is the characters not knowing which is the saddest.

All in all, I felt very disappointed with this book, given the hype that surrounded it being short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. For so many people to recommend it to me, I thought it was bound to be one for the record books, one for my list of top reads, one I would recommend to everyone and anyone. Maybe I am genuinely just missing something. Maybe there is some part of it I missed, some secret aspect I didn’t quite catch.

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One thing I will say about this book is that it most definitely sparks debate, so its controversial nature and themes make it the perfect Book Club read. If you have a book club, suggest this, it will definitely get people talking.

Theatre of the Gods

“A MAD BASTARD OF A BOOK” – TOR

Never has a more perfect description been written.

This is a mad bastard of a book, the likes of which I have never encountered before, or really expect to again.

Theatre of The Gods has soared straight to my list of favourite novels, and now has pride of place on my already overflowing bookcase. There are a few main points I want to get across:

  1. It’s brilliantly funny. In a dark, slightly sadistic type of way. The main character, M. Francisco Fabrigas, reminded me a lot of Terry Pratchett’s Rincewind the wizard. Seemingly hopeless but actually superbly quick-thinking (or simply very lucky), they both exude  a certain charm that comes with being cynical to the point of paranoid.
  2. It is a fantastic adventure story. Not only does it involve travelling through multi-universes, but it’s fast pace and nautical theme (space ships are quite literally ships) add to its nostalgic sense of swashbuckling adventure.
  3. It is set in an intriguing new sci-fi world.                                                                                                                   Matt Suddain’s imagination ran wild when he conjured up the dynamics of his universe. It is a world in which man-made spheres float alongside planets. Whole spheres are often dedicated to cities, or in some cases one district is spread out a number of different spheres. On one occasion the palace of the Queen is described as being spread out over a number of different spheres, with smaller ones purely dedicated to the palace gardens. The actual Physics of how the spheres stay in place is never explained, but I will forgive Suddain this because, after all, he did manage to create a world which makes little sense to me but that I feel could be completely and totally real. Suddain has said that a sequel is not yet on the cards, but I certainly hope we get another novel from him set in this wonderfully interesting world.
  4. It’s steam-punk at its finest. While other novels of the same ilk are often much grittier and more morbid than Theatre of the Gods, this is a lighter take on the steam-punk genre and could be a good starting point for someone who would like to give it a go.
  5. The characters are just. so. lovable.                                                                                                                      In spite of all their flaws (and there are many). There’s the perfect mix, although the only downside to them is that they often seem unpredictable- their personalities don’t seem coherent throughout the story. You have Fabrigas, who is Rincewind incarnate (although actually intelligent instead of simply lucky). Lenore, the green girl from another world or another time (we’re never quite sure), who can’t grasp human grammar and depends entirely on her nose and a deaf boy named Roberto. Lenore is often depicted as fragile, innocent and to a point, naive. However towards the end of the book you see her slightly darker side, which is both empowering but confusing to boot. Then there is the Necronaut, a swaggering teenage drunk and captain of the unlikely crew. The Necronaut is one of my favourite characters in the book, probably emphasised by the fact that Lenore favours him above the others as well. My only quibble is that, sadly, annoyingly, his accent sometimes disappears, and at other times is exaggerated to the point of it being a caricature.- These are merely the main contenders in the book, but I want to explain that even the smaller characters have great heart.

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It’s author is Matt Suddain, but from the very first page of the book (and I do mean the very first page ), it is decsribed as being written by the mysterious author Volcannon. Volcannon, it explains in the publisher and author notes, spent years tracking down the famous explorer M. Francisco Fabrigas. Finally finding the old man on an orphaned moon, Volcannon then slowly extracts the story of his incredible life, which he then turns into this memoir.Throughout the book “Volcannon” himself interjects his own opinions and talks to the reader directly, often apologising for having to go off on a tangent in the middle of a dramatic episode.

In relation to dramatic moments, one of my favourite things about this extraordinary novel is this; Whenever the pace speeds up and the tension builds, or when we are left on a large cliff-hanger at the end of a chapter, the author directs you to page 620, the “little page of calmness”.

The little page of calmness is filled with calming things. It encourages you to take deep breaths and picture kittens: “Unless you are afraid of kittens. You should not be afraid of kittens. Of all the creatures in the universe to be afraid of, the kitten should not be the main one. They cannot even hold a gun! Imagine. A kitten trying to hold a gun in its tiny paws. Is that not adorable?”

These quirky interjections by the author make the story come to life, giving it a magical reality that may not have been achieved without his involvement. The author “Volcannon” also stops on occasion to explain how difficult certain pieces of information were to get out of Fabrigas, or the look of fear or nostalgia that crossed the old man’s face as he retold certain aspects of his life. I know that a lot of people do not like this type of interjection, but I for one adore it as long as it is done either smoothly or in good comic timing. I never needed to use the little page of calmness, but I must say that it was reassuring to know that it was there.

Things happen in this book. Dramatic things. Sad things. Brilliant things. I obviously can’t divulge too much, but know this- it may be filled with wit similar to the likes of Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams, and it may have mindbogglingly bizarre quirks like the little page of calmness or Volcannon’s interjections, but it is also filled with heart. Worry will fill your heart at times, and there are moments when the characters are so touching that you may, like me, sob unashamedly because it’s just so damn heart-warming.

Matt Suddain, I have a message for you-

The world needs to know what happens. It just does. I’m sorry, I know you have said that there isn’t a sequel coming any time soon, but I just can’t accept that. I loved this book so much that I cracked the spine really early on. It’s so used, so warn, because no matter where I was I had to read it.

The ending to Theatre of the Gods was, fair play, superb as far as endings go. But it has to carry on. I have to know. We all need to know.

Also, homunculus.

Ok? ok. Deal.

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My Sunshine Away

My Sunshine Away is a harrowing coming of age novel about the rape of fifteen-year-old Lindy Simpson, told from the perspective of her younger neighbour who has been in love with her since the tender age of eleven.

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Set in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the story immediately called to mind a modern day To Kill A Mockingbird. It mainly follows the year of the rape, 1991, and the year after, 1992.

The narrator extremely naive, as admitted by himself when he looks back at his own thoughts and feelings years after the assault was committed. One of the most heart-breaking moments is when his mother explains to him that Lindy has been raped, and he makes it clear that he is unaware of what the word truly means.

But this endearing quality to the narrator also makes for a very confusing read, and as you work your way through the novel your emotions towards him change regularly. Yes, he is sweet, young and naive, protected from much that is bad in the world. However, as he grows up, you watch him discover his sexuality and his obsession with Lindy becomes perverse. You learn the narrators innermost thoughts and feelings, which at times are so personal that you feel like you are an intruder in his mind, like you should not be party to it. .

Throughout the book you wonder to yourself “Did HE do it?”. He admits from the start that he is a suspect in the rape, but your opinion of him will jump back and for during the tale. Obviously I will not reveal the truth here, as it will ruin this fantastic thriller for potential readers. I would simply like to mention that I found the revelation of the identity of the rapist disappointing.

This was an absorbing and heart-wrenching read. The characters have a brilliant depth which is not often easily found, and the plot itself is filled with twists that will knock you sideways. But I felt as if all of the suspense was built up for an anti-climax. If Walsh had altered the last three pages or so, it would have been an all-round knock-out.

Although I was slightly annoyed with the ending, I can’t get over the depth of character created throughout the novel.

Lindy herself is an outstandingly complex character, which is made all the more interesting by the fact that she is explained through the eyes of the naive narrator. When he sees Lindy rebelling against society and becoming strangely recluse, you as the reader understand what inner turmoil she must be going through. The narrator is too young, too innocent to understand why Lindy has changed so much since her assault, but the way in which he describes her changes tells us how broken she is, how much of a danger she is to herself. You see her suffering when he does not.

You read as slowly the narrator catches on to the gravity of what has happened to Lindy, as he realises the physical, emotional and mental torture that she carries around with her since the event. You watch as the narrator is hit with the brutal reality of rape and it’s consequences. You see him starting to understand that growing up means understanding how harsh the world can be, and how terrible things change people deeply inside.

For example there is also his mother, who was left by his father a few years before the rape occurred. Throughout the story you realise that his mother still pines for his father, you see how lonely and how depressed she has become, even though he doesn’t see it himself.

That is one of the most incredible things about this tense novel- through the narrators descriptions of other peoples behaviour you can clearly see that they are struggling and you can guess why, while all along the narrator himself simply does not understand.It is that harsh reality of life being told through the blissfully ignorant voice of the narrator which creates such an emotive, engrossing and disconcerting mystery.

Taboo and controversial topics are told through his innocent eyes, and he doesn’t understand the gravity of many of the things he hears and sees. Rape, abusive marriages, drugging, cheating and even paedophilia are examined within the book, but they are discussed subtly. We the readers know why we are disturbed by the idea of someone raping a fifteen-year-old, of someone keeping photos taken of children walking down the street without them knowing. The narrator is distressed by these, but he cannot put his feeling on why he is uneasy. It is only once that he has hit puberty and becomes aware of his own sexuality that he sees the gravity of what these perverse things could mean.

This book examines some of the most horrifying tragedies that can happen to anyone, and some of the most debilitating fears that can take over someone’s life.

These saddening and disconcerting issues are dealt with sensitively, in a prose which relays the weight of them so subtly that it will break your heart.

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A book hasn’t made me this uncomfortable, this disturbed in months. But while it was uncomfortable to read it was also incredible. The way in which Walsh has handled such delicate situations is like nothing I have seen before. The depth of character and scale of the novel is very, very impressive. I have a feeling this will be big when it’s published in the UK.