Books to Warm You Up This Winter

This post started accidentally- I was trying to come up with a list of wintry reads and I got really distracted by a fantasy book *with the exact opposite vibe*. And that made me think of how much I could do with getting wrapped up in some hot and cosy reads right now- and I’m sure many of you agree! These aren’t full-on summery books, but they could add a little spice to your reading this winter 😉 So now that you’re all warmed up, let’s jump into it! Starting with the book that inspired this post…

Crown of Feathers- this book is burned into my memory. It’s classic high fantasy, with great world building, plenty of magic and phoenixes (!!!) I just want to dive back into this story as soon as possible! If you need a bit of escapism and to get all fired up, then this is the book for you this January!

Echo North– by contrast, this wintry retelling does have a more wintry vibe. However, reading it recently gave me the warm fuzzies. I loved the way family aspect, the main character and lilting tone. And the book mirrors are *exactly* what I could do with right now!  

The Secret Countess– okay, okay, I’m mentioning this book for the millionth time, so I’ll be quick! Opening in Russia and with its fairy-tale-esque style, this book has a cool and cosy feel. After all, Ibbotson is the queen of heartwarming stories.

Sense and Sensibility– nothing says cosy to me more than Austen. And to me, this is one of the cosiest examples, with a beautiful sister relationship and romances, it’s perfect to run away with this season (and even mentioning it is making me want to reread it! 😉)

Little Women– I mean, sisterhood, character growth, romance, family, *Christmas*… if these don’t warm the cockles of your heart then maybe you should try the next book on the list…

Afterlife of Holly Chase– yes that’s right: a retelling of A Christmas Carol. And I know that it’s post-Christmas, but I think we could all still do with some of that joyous spirit! I’m confident that a story all about reforming Scrooges will do the trick!

I Capture the Castle– I have to admit, this is a book I’ve shared as a summery read before, but it actually starts when things are distinctly chillier. And the mix of seasons and romantic setting all warm me up inside… making it perfect for this list. (Also, for me, it has a strong note of nostalgia!)

The Secret Garden– this is another throwback I find super cosy! Featuring the change of seasons, this will remind you that spring and summer are always just around the corner!  

Unhoneymooners– steamy romance in a hot location- need I say more?! If you need an exotic getaway right now, then this enemies-to-lovers romance will hit the spot!

From Lukov with Love– heating things up even more, let’s talk about another rivals-to-romance book (with a distinctly colder setting). Thanks to its ice skating motif and cute love story, it’ll tick all the boxes if you need to feel chilled out and hot-and-bothered at the same time!

Heartstopper– and finally, I thought I’d end with a cutesy romance. You can’t go wrong with Heartstopper if you need something light and fluffy!

And that’s all I’ve got for now! Have you read any of these? Do you have any cool and cute reads to warm me up this winter? Let me know in the comments! 😊

His Dark Materials Book Series: A Glowing Review

This series will always give me chills. Not only because of the atmosphere and the setting, but because this story quite simply stole my soul when I was a child. It was my first foray into darker fantasy and it was a gamechanger. It didn’t patronise me or give me unrealistic expectations about reality- it told the truth.

And the characters! Too often, the protagonist in MG is perfect. They have no faults and they act as a mere conduit for the action- but not so with Lyra! Lyra was not a typical child heroine- she had flaws and a seemingly paradoxical personality. She felt like someone I might actually know. And she wasn’t the only one bringing the story to life- as with the children in the story, the adult heroes and villains and parents were all morally grey and oh-so-very human. I saw then that this was a book that wasn’t prepared to talk down to its audience or treat children as stupid- the whole point of this book is to give you the freedom to think for yourself.

his dark materialsBut I’m getting ahead of myself with this reminiscing. Let’s bring this back to the present tense and what finally spurred me on to do a reread- and that’s the adaptation. As I’ve said before on this blog, I do really like the show. A lot of the acting is spot on- we have the best Mrs Coulter, Lord Asriel and Lee Scoresby we could ask for. And the style is vivid and memorable.

… and yet it wasn’t the same. Because as much as I have talked about the darkness in the story, the flipside is that His Dark Materials also has a lightness to it, capturing the ephemeral beauty of childhood. Lyra herself is more innocent (and considerably less angsty) in the books. And Lyra’s Oxford, while having a dark underbelly, also gives off a sense of magic and wonder and enchantment. All of which felt a little lacking in the show.

For me, this highlighted some of the subtlety of the book. Critically, while there are hints that things are even darker in the story, it is often cloaked by a layer of ambiguity. The greatest horrors of the book are not described in visceral detail- but rather hinted at and glossed over and subtly worked into the prose. Fundamentally, this gives the sense you are seeing the story through a child’s eyes. And, as a child, it made the story feel all that closer to home, whilst simultaneously shielding me from the full implications. As an adult, it’s creepier and all the more shudder inducing (ironically as a child Pullman was talking a little over my head- but I didn’t know that at the time!) And, of course, I realise that the show is a different medium and perhaps it was impossible to represent this on screen- nonetheless it is a pity to be missing this element.

Oddly enough, despite what I said about the show was not as light, there were element in the book that were even darker. For instance, Lyra is dealing with a significant amount of trauma in the second book, which (in my view) turns her wilder than ever. It’s not prettied up for the reader- it’s harsh and it’s realistic. We feel just as lost as Lyra as we search for the bridge between the first and third stories. FurthermoreWill takes on the mantle of murderer more readily in the book and even threatens to kill Lyra… which she believes. And yet neither of them think of this by the end of the story, because children are prone to bursts of hyperbole. For me, there’s something about this callous honesty that really captures the childishness of the characters. Lyra and Will- for all their attempts at mimicking adulthood- don’t know what they’re doing. And this is so important to the plot.

Because the ignorance with which they act carefully draws the link with Paradise Lost– toying with the theme of original sin, the pursuit of knowledge and the fight for freewill (far bigger themes than your average children’s books). As a coming-of-age story, it’s remarkable and unique. And the deeper you get into the series, the more complex its philosophy is. The betrayal becomes not just a betrayal of others- but a betrayal of the self. Lyra loses a part of herself- and yet also undergoes a necessary trial that’s part of growing up. She acquires knowledge- and yet that knowledge comes at the cost of a new awareness. Yet this is shown to not be a bad thing at all: growing up is hard… but a wonderful (and sometimes beautiful) experience. As much as children can seem clear-eyed, the wisdom of age shines as a brighter promise. And, as Pullman identifies, anything worth having is worth working for.

Now, of course, it’s not perfect (though I would not expect that from true art 😉). It is certainly of its time, with its hints of post-modernism and militant atheism. And yet I truly respect this book for its candour. It does not moralise or deliver a utopian propagandistic conclusion- it leaves the final thoughts up to the reader.

And that’s why I keep recommending these books. And that’s why this is one of my all-time favourite series. And that’s why I’ll happily SHOUT FROM THE ROOFTOPS IT’S GOING TO BE A FUTURE CLASSIC. His Dark Materials is a glorious series.

Rating: 5/5 bananas

hand-drawn-bananahand-drawn-bananahand-drawn-bananahand-drawn-bananahand-drawn-banana 

So, have you read this series? Do you plan to? Let me know in the comments!

What even is a relatable book?

Well, it’s a subjective term for a subjective topic 😉 As much as we hear how “relatable” a book is lately by reviewers (guilty) and vaguely know it means empathising with particular experiences (also guilty), it’s actually a hard one to pin down. Soooo I guess I’m going to have to just talk about what relatable means to me 😉

Trouble is, when readers talk about relating to a book it could be any number of things. The biggest draw for the “relatable” moniker is relating to the characters or their experiences (and the coolest thing is this isn’t genre specific!). Other times, it could be as simple as relating to the setting or time period. And all of this is great, because it can be a pathway into enjoying a story. 

That said, “not relatable” is becoming one of the most common forms of criticism for a book. And this, for me, seems to be where a lot of the issues come in. Look, don’t get me wrong, it’s of course fine to say you found it “unrelatable”. It gives some context as to why you didn’t enjoy it. It’s a similar catchall to “I personally didn’t connect”- and that’s fine, nothing wrong with subjectivity in reviews. However, the problem is when this subjective term is being applied “objectively”.

Because for some reason this seems to give people licence to collectively hate on a book (kind of ironic since it’s a form of *hyper individualism* to demand a book conforms to individual worldviews and experiences). And to my mind, shaming a book because it’s not #relatable seems daft. Let’s be real- it’s far from the be all and end of storytelling. Books should be about you empathising with people we don’t relate to *just as much* (or maybe *EVEN MORE*).

I’d also say that I have the issue- as a reviewer- of not often wanting to get into the specificity of why I relate. I very much leave it up to other people to *read between the lines* of why I find something relatable (usually because I don’t want to get into the nitty gritty of why I related to it). And I’d guess that a lot of other reviewers do the same, applying the term to avoid saying why a book meant SO DAMNED MUCH to us. Problem is, this can leave a person wondering, what even is relatable?

Perhaps, then, we are overusing the term. Perhaps we could attach more clarity to it when we do use it (I’m as guilty of this as the next person!) I don’t think the word is devoid of meaning, but it doesn’t have magical powers to convey meaning in the way we reviewers seem to think it does 😉

So, what do you think of the term “relatable”? Do you use the term as much as I do? Or do you think it’s best avoided? Let me know in the comments!

Book I read thanks to blogging (that I probably wouldn’t have read otherwise)

Okay, yes, this post could easily go on forever! Which is why I (mostly) decided to go with books *directly* recommended by individual bloggers- which actually makes this post a DOUBLE WHAMMY of recommendations for reviewers as well as books!! *SURPRISE!!* This was so hard to narrow down- which is why I decided in advance I’m going to need to do multiple posts on this! Watch out for those in the future! For now, let’s jump straight into it…

Red Rising– I’ve read so many books on the *spectacular* Kat @Life and Other Disasters suggestions, so much so I could have filled an entire post with just those! Nonetheless, I chose this, because I didn’t have much space in my life for sci fi before this 😉 It’s a bloodydamn brilliant series-an adult Hunger Games, with heavy Roman inspiration… in space! And in case that wasn’t enough, it’s got characters to die for! I can’t thank Kat enough for this rec!!

Prince of Thorns– the GREAT Drew @Tattooed Book Geek is another person who I could feature again and again! I had to pick this, cos I never would’ve tried grimdark if not for Drew’s regular recommendations for this book. In fact, this is one that year’s earlier I thought was not for me. AND YET, now that I’ve grown older (though perhaps not wiser) I’ve found the cleverness and weight in series like these. And I have Drew to thank for that!

Wolf in the Whale– okay, I’m going to be a bit boring and say I had multiple cool recs from the lovely Liis. However, my reason for picking this *chillingly beautiful* read is that I’ve basically never read anything else like it! And the reason I even heard about it was because of Liis’ fantastic review!

Ten Thousand Doors of January– I can’t seem to shut up about this book, because it’s an open and shut case of how good it is! And, as I’ve mentioned before, it was all thanks to the wonderful Witty and Sarcastic Book Club’s riveting review!  

Winter Rose- McKillip is an author I’d never heard of until I started blogging (perhaps she’s not very well known in the UK?) but I frequently saw her recommended on the BRILLIANT Bookstooge’s site. So much so that I simply had to check her out. And I’m so glad I did- her writing has a beautiful, dreamlike, fairy tale quality. Her stories sucked me in. She’s not the easiest author to come by across the pond, but I’m happy to go out of my way for more of these bad boys!

Neverending Story– by contrast, Neverending Story is one I’d definitely heard of! But, it was thanks to a recommendation from the *fab* Zezee that I finally adventured into the wilds of this book. And it truly was wild! This book doesn’t just take you on a journey into a fantasy world, it takes you into the very heart of books and shows us their beauty.

Beowulf– another story I was (of course) aware of- and yet I was thoroughly intimidated out of reading. But I needn’t have been… thanks to the fantastic Joelendil’s suggestion of trying the Seamus Heaney’s translation. I loved every moment of this.

V for Vendetta– I never would’ve attempted graphic novels if not for the *stupendous* Lashaan @Bookidote’s personalised recs- so I owe him a great debt! And this is a stellar example of his suggestions- emotional, clever and with a unique artistic style. If you crave graphic novel suggestions (and many other books besides) you’d be a fool not to check out his reviews!

Exquisite– I had a hard time recommending just the one of the many, many books the MARVELOUS Meggy @Chocolatenwaffles got me to read! I really credit her with encouraging me to step out of my comfort zone and start me on thrillers with her exquisite reviews! And this was a real zinger- sublime writing and intriguing twists. I was hooked on this read… almost as much as I’m hooked on Meggy’s suggestions!

Bright Side– contemporary romance is another genre I didn’t read… until I came across the delightful Deanna @A Novel Glimpse’s blog!! And thanks to her glowing mentions over the years, I put this on my tbr (with a caveat that I must be prepared to be in a weepy mood). Once again, this was a book that blew me away (and made me go through a considerable number of tissues!)

Secret History– I was so reluctant to try this book, because sadly Goldfinch wasn’t for me. AND YET, I saw an inspiring review on the amazing Meltotheany’s blog and I simply had to know more about this murder mystery told in reverse. And you know what? She was right- this one’s a winner!

Huntress– I’ve had a weird relationship with historical fiction- let’s just say a writer-who-shall-not-be-named put me off for half a decade 😉 BUT thanks to the AWESOME Beware of the Reader and her suggestion on my blog, I just had to see what all the fuss was about! And gosh, this was far better than I ever could have imagined. Gripping from beginning to end, I fell in love with the characters and was *so invested* in their stories! Can’t recommend this- and the Beware of the Reader blog- highly enough!

Before I go, as a bonus, I thought I’d mention a few books that I was inspired to pick up after seeing them more generally round the blogosphere, just to give a tiny sense of how many good books you can find from blogging (in case you don’t already know):

So, have you read any of these? Did you like them as much as I did? What’s the best recommendation you’ve ever received from blogging? And do you plan to check out these lovely people? Let me know in the comments!

The Truth About Originality in Literature

Recently, I read a book where it claimed Shakespeare thought reality was false, so decided to create art because he thought he could create a better lie. Personally I find this is a rather peculiar (and very 21st century) conclusion to draw from “All the world’s a stage”. Shakespeare was holding a mirror up to the world, not calling it artifice and smashing up the whole damn universe to be more in his image. But nonsensical interpretation aside, it got me thinking about the value of truth in literature.

You see, this is not the first time I’ve seen writers portrayed as liars in art. It seems that rather than cleaving to the author’s AUTHORity, the modern writer wants to stand out as ANTI-AUTHORity. All for a desire to be original that’s truthfully becoming a bit passé.

From unexplored texts to creative claims that actually do ring true, there is certainly scope for original thinking in literature. AND YET, I would also suggest that there is a power in knowing you cannot come up with anything especially unique. It is a humbling experience to know that great thinkers have gone before us; it is freeing to worry less about being the GOAT! 😉 And, as fun as it is to view ourselves through the lens of the “Death of the Author”, we need to be wary of viewing ourselves with too much importance and making spurious claims. It does not improve our scholarship or artistic endeavours. In my experience, it transparently shows we’re more interested in our own self-aggrandisement. Much like reading between the lines or just plain making things up, these claims may gain notoriety, but they are fundamentally flawed. And, as with so many fictional writers being liars, in a “unique” subversion on authorship, uniqueness may actually be more common than we realise. There is, after all, nothing new under the sun- it is only how we shine a light on things from a different angle that gives it a fresh perspective. That is why, rather than trying to be original, we should be trying to be truthful.

And yes, our society values achievement in a very Roman sense. We want to see our names up in *BIG SPARKLY LIGHTS*- because that’s what we’ve been taught is meaningful. That’s why we fight so hard to be original. The problem is, we don’t realise the way to that goal is not as straightforward as it seems. In typical quest fashion, we must really go east in order to go west. We must take a round-about route to our goals. And it’s not just fools who fail to recognise the true path- (sorry to get all fantasy nerd on you) it’s also villains! Villains are the ones who take shortcuts. But there are no real shortcuts in life or art. And a hero must be prepared to forfeit their dreams, because, somewhat paradoxically, that’s how you win. Likewise, the path to true wisdom is not by wildly believing in yourself, but by letting go and believing in the people that came before.

Originality is often accidental consequence of good craftsmanship. While I believe everyone has the potential to craft some aspects of their art with originality, that is not what makes a piece powerful: success comes from how much a piece rings out with truth and beauty. Perhaps it is naïve, yet I think if you focus on those aspects, you may well come up with something honestly original. If you focus on originality, the result is frequently nonsensical and meaningless. Grinding misplaced innovation into a work won’t do any good. One must have a command of the tools that already exist.

Just something I’ve been mulling over. But what do you think? Should there be a line between truth and fiction? How important is it to be original? Let me know what you think about this topic in the comments!

The Freedom to Fail

The internet is amazing. It’s how I’m here talking to you today. It has opened up the world to information in a way that barely seems possible, it has allowed us to remain connected with our loved ones and it has given us the opportunity to form friendships across oceans. And yet, no one can deny that there are downsides. Not least for creatives.

Nowadays, it can be nigh on impossible to switch off from the constant noise. And, as great as it is to have so much knowledge at your fingertips, the never-ending advice can be overwhelming. And then, of course, not to sound out the broken record, there is the din coming from the cancel culture mob. Even as private citizens, we can feel like we’re always under the microscope- and that scrutiny only seems to intensify if we dare to do something different. It’s hard pill to swallow, especially when, let’s face it: that’s what being creative is all about.

Not that I think people should be free from criticism (obviously). Nor do I want to offer banal advice to just get offline (especially when so many people’s incomes depend on being online in some capacity). But I do want to offer a glimmer of positivity.

Because, in order to achieve anything, we have to be prepared to fail. As writers, we have to remember: we can’t write to suit other people, we can only write the best version of our own story. There’s no concept of perfection, no possibility of pleasing everyone and no way of coming out of the process unscathed (even if we just take a beating from our inner critic). We will most certainly fall down and get a few scraped knees- we just have to learn to pick ourselves up again.

Creativity has always been about being brave. I imagine every creative individual feels like they’ve got Daedalus’ wings strapped to their backs, not sure if they’ll make it without flying too close to the sun. Not sure if they’ll tumble down into the glinting sea. It’s a dangerous business- yet if we don’t take that leap, we’ll be imprisoned forever.

And, above all, we’ve got to focus on our own flying, not getting distracted by what others are doing. It doesn’t matter if they’re freewheeling and showing off; it doesn’t make a difference if you think they’re flight plan is way off. Ultimately, we’ve got to make sure our own life jacket’s on before we assist others 😉 Then, and only then, can we be free to make our own mistakes.

Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes Wasn’t Quite Harmonious, But Held a Tune!

Well this is an odd one to talk about.

ballads of songbirds and snakesAs many of you will know, this is the Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is the Hunger Games prequel, focusing on (future evil President) Coriolanus Snow’s role in the tenth Hunger Games. As you can imagine, telling the story from the future baddie’s point of view caused a bit of a stir: would we lose his character in a bid for sympathy? Would this attempt to redeem an irredeemable character? I had my own reservations when I heard about it and was consequently less enthused to pick it up. And the verdict? Pretty mixed if I’m honest.

Despite all the pre-publication controversy, there was no need to fear him being turned into a hero. I read him as a straight-up anti-hero. He’s just as unsympathetic as a protagonist as he was an antagonist… which isn’t necessarily a good thing. Mildly sociopathic and manipulative, he’s the same old Snow we know and hate. As much as it was a bold choice to tell the story from Snow’s perspective, I’m not sure it paid off. No matter what hardship he was facing, I found it impossible to relate or root for him (in fact, I just kept thinking he kinda deserved it).

Still there were parts I really did like- especially how it showed the games being developed. When I heard it was about the tenth hunger games, I had my reservations, because I thought that it would just be a rehash of the games Suzanne Collins had already written about. Not so. At this stage of Panem, with the Capital and Districts very much in the shadow of the civil war, the games (and the concepts behind them) are a work in progress. It’s not just interesting to see Snow play his part, it’s fascinating to see the theories that go into it (not sure it makes a whole lot of sense to have your underclass in a constant state of conflict rather than making them think they’re at peace, but I’ll let that slide, cos I don’t think evil masterminds always come up with the best policies for running a country). I did like that the timeline meant it raised moral questions for the organisers- like the fact that this was the children of rebels rather than rebels themselves. I also liked how it hinted, rather than showed, future developments. The subtler nods to the original made it feel more like its own story. The one part I wasn’t super keen on was how only 2/3 of the book were about the games- it just felt a little jarring when that stopped.

That said, even with the issues I had with the structure, the writing was strong. And I also liked the side characters. Though I wasn’t much taken my Coriolanus or the not-very-fleshed-out Tigress, Lucy Gray had an edge to her and I loved the Grandma’am.

All these elements left me satisfied enough with this Hunger Games prequel, so I’ll feed it:

Rating: 3½/5 bananas

hand-drawn-bananahand-drawn-bananahand-drawn-banana half-a-hand-drawn-banana 

Have you read Ballads of Songbirds and Snakes? Do you plan to? Let me know in the comments!

My Harshest Unhaul Yet…

monkey unhaul

Being cooped up indoors for much of this year has made me re-evaluate some things: specifically my book collection. Maybe it’s a bizarro cabin fever, but I’ve been looking for things to unhaul and so decided to prune my books. Let’s jump into what I’ve decided to get rid of:

Recent-ish reads:

recentish reads unhaul

City of Ghosts– a bit disappointing for me personally, but a Middle Grade that younger children might enjoy.

Grace and Fury– I was so disappointed with the sequel, I just didn’t want the first one in my collection (no matter how pretty it looks).

Kingdom of Ash– this one’s a bit of a *shocker*, especially cos it’s signed, but I was left underwhelmed by the ending and won’t be rereading the series.

A random assortment of books:

random assortment unhaul

Milkweed– I remember it being fine… but not much else. Besides, it’s a holocaust book, so I won’t read it again.

Danny Abse poetry– not really for me.

The Promise– I liked this, but I won’t reread it.

Sociopath Next Door– another one I actually liked (you can check out my review here) but I don’t need a copy and won’t pick it up in the future.

Old childhood books:

cherub unhaul

Cherub– I haven’t even put this in the right order, cos I couldn’t remember it and don’t care enough to check. I never owned the first two as well- which would make rereading a problem (not that I plan to). Some of these aren’t so memorable and the ones that are I remember well enough to know I enjoyed them at the time. Now it’s time to let go.

childhood books unhaul

Snakehead– I didn’t ever finish the Alex Rider series and wasn’t a fan of the later ones- so it’s kind of a no brainer.

Apocalypse– this is a shame cos I like Bowler’s other books, but really didn’t like this (and this is the one I had signed :/ which is the only reason I held onto it for this long)

Series of Unfortunate Events– I was never a superfan, didn’t get through the series and outgrew this a long time ago.

Blood Bones and Body Bits– ditto. Not much to say about it.

Deenie– ah I liked Judy Blume back in the day… but also this one makes me feel lowkey queasy.

And ones I’m unsure about:

unsure nemesis unhaul

Nemesis series– this is the one I’m on the fence about. Like the Cherub series, it’s incomplete. But unlike the Cherub series, I really loved it. That said, I’m not going to read it again- so not sure I should hold onto it…

Which is why I’ve decided to put this one to the vote? What do you think I should do with the series? And what do you think of my unhaul? Let me know in the comments!