Seasonal Reads : 5 Books I Associate with Summer

We have at least 35 C in Greece and I am melting without air condition while writing this. My current read is The Mad Ship by Robin Hobb, which feels closer to home than most fantasy series I can think of, and, halfway through, I am now reading through a part where the characters have to work through what looks like a heatwave. A surreal experience, to say the least. I’m probably far too used to English fantasy and all the rain and mist that comes with it.

I take mood reading to ridiculous extends, so it would not be right to say that I read specific books at specific times of the years, but certain books are still season-coded in my mind, so I thought I could share a few favourites that I associate with summer.

1. The Liveship Traders Trilogy by Robin Hobb

Never expected to fall in love with characters who are literally ships.

These books deserve a post of their own; this is how much I love them, and I’m only halfway through! It’s not just the liveships – one of the greatest inventions I’ve seen in fantasy lately – and the sea setting. The many point of view characters are absolutely fascinating and whether you like them or not, their chapters are addictive. Their wishes, dreams and fears drive them throughout in the most realistic ways, and the relationships they share makes them seem like real people.

Since reading A Wizard of the Earthsea I hadn’t come across another good sea fantasy book, and this one really exceeded my expectations. The piracy and the adventures at the sea, as well as the drama in the seaside town of the Traders, makes it an ideal read for the summer.

2. Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

Books to Read in the Summer : Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay
A Song of Arbonne is also lovely by the way.

It’s not just that Mediterranean-inspired fantasy works always remind me of summer (largely because I can imagine the characters are probably suffering from the heat just like me), it’s also that I’ve always tended to read huge fantasy books in the summer, and this one is no exception.

I think part of the reason I started ranting about books online back in 2014 is to tell every fantasy fan to read Robin Hobb and Guy Gavriel Kay, so there’s that as well, I suppose. The Summer Tree by the same author is probably an honorable mention, but since I read it it the (probably far too young) age of 14, not many memories there.

3. The Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater

Books to Read in the Summer : The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater
I guess what I did with the bees was probably rude

Also known as the book series that’s present in every single book list of mine, but hear me out: not all books in the series take place in the summer (I believe only The Dream Thieves does?) but these books are the epitome of bittersweet summer melancholy.

The YA series is all about exploration, friendship and growth, so it might remind you of your summers as a teenager. The whole atmosphere feels very summery, with all the road trips (and the terrible car radio music to go with them), the magical, nature-related things happening, so that by the end of book 4 you really get the feeling that the characters are getting out of a long summer, with all the good and the bad things this entails.

4. Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Plus, a super aesthetic covered I loved during my dark academia phase.

The odd classic in a fantasy blog, but plain ol’ English Literature was my first degree. Probably not as profound as The Great Gatsby and likely much more problematic, but very, very summery, especially at the beginning.

This was one I read mostly at the beach one summer, and while it wasn’t the most entertaining, it was still interesting to see all the drama that unfolded in a 1920s holiday in the French Riviera. Plus, the writing is absolutely beautiful.

5. Circe by Madeline Miller

Yup, it was a strong dark academia phase.

Tired of these overcrowded beaches? Reading Circe will take you on a trip to a witch’s private island for a few hours.

Having read The Song of Achilles first, I couldn’t believe that I’d love Circe any more, but I was really pleased to find that I fell in love with both in totally different ways. Circe was a wonderful feminist retelling, that I thankfully read before the pandemic, when the thought of a lonely, private island was more fun that it is now. I’d still love to reread it on a summer, but likely not this one.

Do you also season-code books? If so, what are your own favourite summer reads? Let me know in the comments below?

Tropes and Tea: Reading The Grace Year and Thoughts on YA Dystopian Tropes

I’ve been planning this post for a long time, but life happened in all shapes and sizes. I even ended up travelling for a long holiday home in this very dystopian climate, so there’s that. The book I’ll be talking about today is one I read in April – it was a buddy reading with lovely fellow Greek bookstagrammers, and many great discussions sprang from that. So, grab a mug of tea (iced if you’re suffering in the Greek heat like me) or other preferred beverage that doesn’t alliterate with “tropes” and let’s chat about YA Dystopian tropes.

As I’ve explained in the past, I like stories with very dark settings. Perhaps that’s why I’m drown to dystopian literature even now, when so many people are justifiably looking for more lighthearted reads. That being the case, I still wouldn’t have picked up The Grace Year by Kim Ligget unless my bookstagram friends had suggested it. The blurb simply sounded overdone, a bit like a mixture of The Hunger Games and Handmaid’s Tale.

As it turns out, I’m really glad I picked up this book. Sometimes, I will randomly think about it and all the feels will come back as if no time has passed. It was so effective and memorable – but oddly it didn’t start this way. The beginning was actually what caused me and another friend in the buddy reading to exchange frustrated voice messages for hours, regarding female characters and dystopian clichés. Now I know there was good reason for all that. The Grace Year takes a direction that you can’t initially predict, which only managed to be surprising because the first chapters played with reader expectations.

Not long after reading The Grace Year, I had to prepare a conference presentation on distorted environments and survival through hybrid identities in The Hunger Games. Both experiences had me consider the dystopian genre as a whole: what is it that makes such a bleak genre appealing? What tropes still work and which don’t?

There’s probably no definitive list of “good” and “bad” tropes. Most likely, there is no such thing at all – it’s more of a question of who they work for, and what writers do with them. I think that what makes the genre appealing to me personally is that is shows as exaggerated versions of what our society could become, but also hope that harmful structures can be broken. The reason I’m focusing on The Grace Year as a case study, is that it’s currently the closest I can come up with when trying to reflect on overdone YA Dystopian tropes being challenged.

The Grace Year follows Tierney, a 16-year-old girl from Garner County, a patriarchal community where every aspect of a woman’s life is policed. It isn’t quite as bleak as A Handmaid’s Tale as there are certain loopholes for female characters, but overall, women in Tierney’s world are expected to get married young and give birth to sons. Moreover, all girls are brought up to believe that they have magical powers which can do great harm to men, so, at the age of 16, they are send away to spend a year alone on an island away from the rest of their community, so that they can supposedly burn out their magic and return purified.

The girls who go away for their “Grace Year” have many dangers to face. Given the structure of their society, most of them grew up very sheltered, and find themselves unprepared for a year in the wilderness. Poachers, who live in the margins of Garner County will literally kill for a piece of the girls to sell to the black market, but it’s implied that the greatest danger for the Grace Year girls is each other.

This was one of the things I found a little troubling at first. It’s understandable that in such a misogynistic society, girls would do anything to survive and secure the best possible life for themselves. What made the first 25% of The Grace Year a bit difficult to read was the main character, Tierney. And that, because she was totally different from the girls in her year and every woman in her society, giving off an annoying “not like other girls” vibe. Unlike them, she was able to work hard in the fields, survive in the wild and fend for herself (does this remind you of someone?) all of which are cool skills to have. They are also skills that shouldn’t prevent someone from appreciating fellow women who don’t have these skills and developing meaningful relationships with them.

Too many YA Dystopias recently follow a character, usually female, who is different from the rest of her society in some way. This can be due to assuming an adult role prematurely, as is the case with The Hunger Games, or somehow being the only ‘normal’ or ‘sane’ person in a damaged society, as in Divergent. Sure, a book protagonist does have to be memorable somehow to justify why they are the best person to tell a particular story. It’s just that all these action-packed novels with girls you wouldn’t want to pick a fight with made me long for a female protagonist who isn’t the most physically capable, and is acting in a way her society would code as feminine without this being read as a weakness. Of course, femininity in such a dystopian society will always be a constructed ideal but what I mean is that I’d love to see a point of view other than the main girl who hunts, takes care of everyone and is somehow always lonely, with an attitude that sets them apart from other girls as if there is a connection between the two.

This seems to be tied to two things I’ve seen quite a lot in YA Dystopian fiction (and not only, to be fair): parents who are dead, unhelpful, or merely inconsequential for the story and a rebellion that seems like a short blast, is centred around one person and usually yields almost immediate results. I’m not saying that Tierney’s parents are the most memorable or developed, but they start off like any parents in a YA dystopia, seemingly perfectly assimilated in the bleak setting. Since they didn’t seem to be the rebellious types, I didn’t necessarily expect them to die but nor did I think we’d see them again once Tierney left for her Grace Year. I want to avoid major spoilers here, but I must say, I was really pleasantly surprised when the parents turned out to have their own lives outside of their children, that were actually quite complex and had an impact in the overall plot.

The other thing I loved in The Grace Year was the illustration of resistance. This is tied to the amazing way the writer handled my initial worry, that of the outsider main character who willfully sets herself apart from the other girls and seemed to feel a bit superior, even when she wouldn’t admit that. It was absolutely fascinating to see Tierney realising that she could not be this YA superheroine who would change the world all by herself, and I think it made her stronger, rather than less so. As the story progressed, it became apparent that Tierney needed the other girls just as much as they needed someone like her, and that many of them had been just as strong all along, including her gentle older sister.

The takeaway from the book, without giving away major spoilers, is that rebellion isn’t always a big blast. Sometimes, it takes many small-scale heroic acts by a lot of ordinary people rather than an overtly special one, and that’s something I hope to see much more often in YA dystopias in the future.

What are your favourite and least favourite YA Dystopian tropes? Let me know in the comments below!

Also read: Folklorn by Angela Mi Young Hur – Review

Folklorn by Angela Mi Young Hur – Review

Folklorn by Angela Mi Young Hur

Folklorn by Angela Mi Young Hur

Rating : 4/5 Stars

Release Date: 27th of April 2021

I received an ARC from Netgalley for an honest review.

Trigger Warnings: racism, miscarriage, domestic violence

Folklorn by Angela Mi Young Hur is hard to pin down. It defies genres and expectations, and its imagery stays with you – it is a book about memory, trauma and ghosts – it will surely haunt you. This was achingly beautiful and I am finding it difficult to gather my thoughts, so I’ll start with a short preview.

Elsa, a Korean-American post-doc physicist living in Sweden, thinks she has gotten rid of her family ghosts and all the hesitations that come with them. Despite that, it’s not long before the woman she considered to be her imaginary childhood friend comes back to haunt her all over again. Elsa’s mother -catatonic for more than 15 years – had been an avid collector of Korean folklore and had warned her daughter that women of their line are doomed to repeat narratives from said folklore in their own lives.

The story really picks up when Elsa’s mother speaks after a long time, and tragedy forces Elsa back to her childhood house, with a father and brother each fighting their own demons and one another – and, to different extends, resenting her for having gotten out of the toxic family environment. Elsa must unbury family secrets and long-suppressed ghosts if she’s to find any sort of peace.

Folklorn is one of the most multi-layered and nuanced stories I’ve read this year. Elsa’s struggle, as a woman born in America to Korean parents, now living in Sweden where’s she an outsider both due to her roots and due to her American upbringing, is portrayed in believable and realistic ways. The microaggressions she and her family faced their whole lives are heartbreaking to read about. But these things are important to read about if we are to understand our unconscious biases and misconceptions. I feel I learnt so much about the issues faced by Koreans who moved to the US in the late 20th century.

Elsa herself is an extremely conflicted character. On one hand, she’s a scientist on top of her game, logical to a fault, careful, trying to banish anything supernatural from her life. On the other, she’s a daughter of a woman she never really knew, whose secret life she only begins to make sense of when it’s too late. I really loved the way the voice of Elsa’s mother was a dominant force in the novel even though we never see her in the narrative present. Her relationship with folklore sustained a mystery that only started to fully make sense in the last few paged.

I didn’t always like Elsa’s choices or her overall behaviour, but it can’t be denied that she’s a believable, well-rounded character. At times, I was a bit bothered by the fact that she seemed to stereotype women of other backgrounds, but as a white woman, I cannot begin to understand what Elsa faced throughout her life and, nevertheless, she develops quite a lot by the end of the novel, opening up to others and recognizing some of her own misconceptions.

What I did relate with, was some of Elsa’s feelings as an academic, and an immigrant in a country she feels too loud for.

“Not like my landlord can evict what’s not there, and you can’t deport a specter, however unassimilable […] I never felt fully in my body when abroad, always jet-lagged, though more linguistically and culturally in misstep.”

This takes me to my favourite part of the book, the language and imagery. Folklorn is such a lyrical story, full of sentences I wanted to highlight and save on a journal, so insightful and memorable they were. The mundane and the scientific are juxtaposed with the magical and the spectral, making for a dreamy narrative, full of hesitation and violent beauty. Not too much happens plot-wise, but this didn’t bother me; this is a story about family, immigration and trauma and it didn’t need too eventful a plot in order to be enjoyable.

The folktales found in between chapters are an extremely powerful touch. “Enjoyable” is not the right word to describe them as these are about the violent experiences of Elsa’s ancestors – or their mirrors, but they did intensify the magical realist quality of the book. All in all, Folklorn was part dream, part catharsis, part punch in the gut, and it’ll definitely stay with me. The images this book creates are impossible to forget and while inter-generational and racial trauma are main themes, there’s also hope that some cycles can be broken – and perhaps they will.

The Briarmen by Joseph A. Chadwick

I would like to thank Crescent Swan for giving me an ARC for an honest review.

The Briarmen by Joseph A. Chadwick
My rating : 4/5 stars
Release Date: 15 April 2021

I was really excited to receive an ARC of The Briarmen by Joseph A. Chadwick. Stories about the WWII , paranormal or not, are close to my heart due to my grandmother’s narrations, and not only.

When I picked up The Briarmen, I didn’t know exactly what to expect. The premise seemed intriguing, if somewhat familiar, so I wasn’t sure if it was going to be similar to other books with fantasy elements taking place during the late 30s/early 40s. Thankfully, The Briarmen did not disappoint.

Synopsis: “When Hamish Beasly is evacuated to the quiet countryside village of Brombury he is taken in by Mrs. Platts and her daughter Penny. At first Penny is far from happy with her new house guest, but after she and Hamish discover and befriend the Briarmen, four fantastical creatures living in the forbidden Woods Beyond The Railway, they are bound together through a shared secret. Then comes the Blitz, and with it rumours of a German plane crashing into the woods. This sparks concern from the village and puts Hamish and Penny’s secret at risk, a secret they soon find out is no longer their own…

This book reminded me a bit of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Book Thief due to its historical elements, particularly the way the war influenced children’s lives. The main character, Hamish, is evacuated early in the rural Brombury which is largely untouched by the war; we therefore don’t witness gruesome details such as bombings, starvation, and ultimately death. But the shadows of the war are looming over the protagonists’ lives and often influence their actions. Penny’s father, a pilot, has gone missing before the events of The Briarmen even begin. His disappearance and her wish to protect what she has left is a major motivation for her actions, good or bad.

In general, I enjoy works that have fantastic or otherwise speculative elements, while also being firmly rooted into the historical period during which they take place, and telling stories about the human condition. The Briarmen is a book that balances this well. Bromsbury and its inhabitants felt real, and after a few chapters I could forget I was reading and think I was there with them. Small details such as the fields, the school and the pubs made this feel like a real place, so it wasn’t hard to suspend disbelief when it came to the magical aspect of the book; the mysterious woods and the peculiar inhabitants.

Of course, we’ve all read stories about cursed woods that must never be visited, but following a formula that has succeeded before isn’t bad when done well. I often felt that when the characters were in the woods, the writing style became dreamier, compared to the author’s more realistic tone when describing Brombury. This worked really well in setting the woods apart as a place of wonder, removed from the war. Time runs differently then, and the writing reflects that. Overall, I would have liked more insights about the Briarmen, their previous relationships with humans and how exactly the forest came to be so inhospitable to trespassers, but then again not describing everything added to the sense of mystery and wonder.

The Briarmen by Joseph A. Chadwick

As a whole, the writing style was very digestible, making for a quick read that becomes increasingly hard to put down as you get closer to ending. At times, you can even forget you’re reading and really be immersed in the village life and the woods. The pacing was really appropriate too; there were no dull moments but there were enough breather scenes to get to know the characters and their way of life.

My only complaint about the style is that sometimes the author’s intended point of view was a bit unclear. I got into the book thinking it would be in the third person limited, narrated through the character of Hamish, and the first few chapters seem to encourage the reader to believe that. A few chapters later, we get to other characters’ viewpoints, something I was thrilled about, as a I feel multiple point of view characters make the book richer. I just felt that the shifts were done a bit clumsily at times, with the viewpoint changing mid-chapter. This was a bit confusing and made me wonder if the author intended to write in a totally omniscient point of view, but overall, we, as readers, don’t know what the characters themselves don’t know. I would prefer the point of view to remain consistent for each chapter and change in a new one, but this didn’t happen too many times, so it only occasionally bothered me.

As for the characters, they were well-developed overall, and felt realistic. I liked the way Penny’s relationship with Hamish, Clemens, her mother and her missing father was written. Clemens, about whom I won’t say much to avoid spoiling anything, was also a pleasant surprise, reminding us that everyday people who did not necessarily approve of their countries’ atrocities, experienced the war as a tragedy, no matter where they came from.

The one character that felt a little flat was Hamish. The first chapters, with his fear of the Gap, his complex feelings regarding his mother and the home he left behind, and his interest in the woods, seemed to be going somewhere, but these elements get a bit lost in the overall plot in in other characters’ development later on.

Penny is a comparatively more proactive characters, whose choices seriously influence the novel. Sure, she’s often infuriating and profoundly flawed, often making terrible choices, but she’s also been through a lot, and the war often brings the worst out of people; the book is honest about that. She does get some significant character development later on, and overall, it felt like this was her story much more than Hamish’s. I’m not holding this against the book because I wasn’t really annoyed by Hamish. I understand that the one of the most tried ways to introduce a reader to a new world is through the eyes of a newcomer, like Hamish. I just believe the author is doing a better job writing flawed but memorable characters so this would be worth exploiting further in future works, rather than falling on the newcomer convention.

This is not to say that I didn’t find The Briarmen a very enjoyable book. The story truly transports the reader to the era during which it takes place and the magical elements will offer a respite from everyday life, as they offered the characters a respite from war. While this book can be enjoyed by children, its focus on personal responsibility, war, and the destructiveness of humans, means that it can be enjoyed by adults as well. The culmination is likely to stay with you for sometime.

How to Beat Reading Slumps Vol. 2 – Lockdown Edition

It’s been more than a year and a half since I made a post about beating reading slumps. I was a new blogger then and probably doing many things wrong, but I’m still kind of proud of that post. Many things have changed, however. There’s much more uncertainty now than there used to be back then, and at this point in the ongoing apocalypse our attention span and overall mental health suffers more than we realise.

I was quite lucky as far as my reading habits are concerned, as I was still able to find solace in books and discovered great works I might have not read yet if I didn’t spend so much time at home. This is not to say that I always found it easy to read, even when I really wanted to. My 2019 post on slumps still holds, but I’ve come up with some additional ideas for desperate times and thought I might share them in case they help someone.

1. Go back to old favourites even if you’re unsure about them now

How to beat reading slumps

My hot take is that guilty pleasures in reading shouldn’t exist. We like what we like and there’s no shame in it. Of course, we’re also growing and recognising things we loved as teens weren’t actually what we would consider great literature now and that’s ok.

My love for The Raven Cycle is not secret, no are the ways it has shaped me. Do I recognise there are some imperfect and potentially problematic things in the books? Totally. I also understand that the reason I find the series so perfect is that it came to my life the moment I needed it the most. A year earlier or later, I might have found the books different.

This was why I was so reluctant to pick up the sequel, Call Down the Hawk. What if I liked it much less because the timing was not magical anymore?

But then I realised Blue Lily Lily Blue is still my go-to when I have trouble sleeping, so if the most anxious time is not the best time to return to my favourite characters would there ever be a good time? So I picked it up last weekend, and the magic happened again (review to come when I’m done).

Adding to that, if you feel adventurous or retrospective do try something you used to love but isn’t exactly your cup of tea anymore. It’s been nearly ten years since I was really invested in anything Shadowhunters, but then I saw Chain of Gold on bookstagram and the Edwardian setting basically sold it to me. I’ve read around 100 pages and will keep going because it did wonders for my reading slump even if I consider these books a bit trashy now. We’re too far into a global pandemic to feel guilty about enjoying books (not that we should ever feel guilty).

2. Try joining a buddy reading or online book club

How to beat reading slumps

Buddy readings or book clubs can be great if you want this little extra motivation to read a couple of chapters every day. It’s a great way to use the extra time at home and even socialise a bit. There are a lot of great online book clubs that are more accessible now since no one is actually meeting person.

Of course, feeling like you have to read a book can be overwhelming at this point, so know what’s right for you. I would recommend starting with something relaxed that doesn’t require monthly commitment. Or try joining a buddy reading if you see they are going to read a book you have wanted to check out for some time. I loved reading The Cemetry Boys and then discussing it in a YA book club and I’m currently reading Girl, Woman, Other with some bookstagram friends. Reading with others might not be for anyone but I find that it helps me stay motivated and read more. The much-needed socialisation is an extra perk.

3. Read unconventional formats

How to beat reading slumps

I’m not a video games scholar so I’ll just say there are many great articles by talented people if you’re interested in discussions regarding where novels end and video games begin. For the purposes of this post, I will just say visual novels really helped with my Christmas reading slump.

Was it the prevalence of dialogue over descriptions? Was it the visual aids, such as seeing the characters and the setting? I’m not really sure, but after a week of playing visual novels I had consumed some great stories – which is an important purpose of reading anyway – and I wanted more visual novels AND more books, so it was a win-win situation.

4. Try audio books

How to beat reading slumps

There can be some degree of dread associated with doing mundane tasks at home like folding laundry, for instance. Audio books can fill that blank time, and it’s still reading.

To be honest, this is the only one in the list that doesn’t actually work for me. I’m not an auditory learner at all, and while I will fight anyone who doesn’t count audio books as reading, they don’t help me personally do much reading because I can’t concentrate for more than five minutes.

I still decided to include them in this post though, because many people have told me audio books work for them. Plus, listening to The Fellowship of the Ring, a work I already know quite well, did help me keep the dread at bay while folding laundry.

Have you experienced a reading slump lately? Let me know if any of these tips worked for you, or if you have any other ideas on the topic!

Birds of Paradise by Oliver K. Langmead – Review

Birds of Paradise

Rating : 5/5 stars

Release Date: 30th of March 

I received an Advance Reader Copy from NetGalley for an honest review. I absolutely loved the reading experience and would like to thank the author and publisher for the opportunity.

Immortal individuals or groups, making their way through different lifetimes, faking identities in the process are often encountered in fantasy. The genre likes to ask what would happen if an individual, human or not, went on living through different eras, rather than dying. Birds of Paradise, attempts to answer even harder questions: what if the first man never died? What would living not through some, but through all eras would look like? As you might have guessed from my rating, I really enjoyed finding out the answers.

In Birds of Paradise we follow Adam, the first man, still living. He works as a security guard but overall he lacks purpose. Living since the beginning of time, losing many loved ones – even ones he knew since his time in Eden – and become increasingly disenchanted with the choices of his descendants, he’s a shadow of his former self. His memories have become blurry and unreliable, and while he’s immortal, his condition is something less than living.

But Adam isn’t completely alone in his exile. Fellow residents from the Garden of Eden, such as Rook, Owl, Butterfly and other animals he named also live in the contemporary world, hiding in human form. Some are relatively content while other struggle after so many years. Each has a vibrant, unique personality with mannerisms and traits inspired from their animal form without being stereotypical. Their backstories and quirks make the reader care and root for them. Crow, Rook and Magpie were my personal favourites. In their interactions with Adam, there is humor and banter of people who have literally known each other forever, but also bitterness and nostalgia for the long lost paradise.

Things become complicated when more and more pieces of Eden start finding their way into our world. To put it mildly, humanity isn’t good at dealing with those. As Adam and his immortal companions try to find and save these pieces of paradises – with a flood of biblical proportions as a background– two things are achieved: a great plot that never gets tiring, and a powerful comment on mankind’s cruelty – often justified through the misuse of religious text and symbols.

The writing is beautiful, polished and memorable throughout, revealing just enough to keep the reader going without dwelling on unnecessary details. I particularly liked the way different locations are described. Having been to a few of the places Adam and his companions visit, such as Glasgow and Manchester, I could really feel the care put into illustrating them in accurate but fresh ways. Adam’s inner world is also impressively written, increasingly so as he came closer to his former self.

Birds of Paradise is marketed as “American Gods meets The Chronicles of Narnia.” Both are works I enjoyed, but also had some issues with. I didn’t have any significant issues with Birds of Paradise, however. The concept is unique and exciting, the prose is beautiful, the characters very endearing and the plot simple to follow and increasingly interesting the more you read.

One of my complaints regarding American Gods, was that Shadow wasn’t proactive enough, for the most part simply allowing things to happen to him. Adam might also seem like an odd protagonist at first. After all, he’s taken a backseat in his own life and leaves other characters make choices for him for a large part of the novel. However, in Birds of Paradise, this seemed like a deliberate decision from the author’s part and felt justified. When Adam starts retrieving lost memories and finds something worth fighting for, the difference is all the more poignant because of his initial passive stance. I can’t really talk about the ending without spoiling anything, but I have to say, it was a punch, and I will remember it for a long time.

Finishing the book, I wanted more. More interactions between the characters, more immortal animals in human form, more information on Adam’s complicated feelings about humanity. But I also felt this book is complete, every scene mattered and everything happened as it should. The best books finish at the right time, but also suggest their world and characters will live on – here quite literally – and this is definitely the case with Birds of Paradise.

All in all, I can’t recommend Birds of Paradise enough. It’s a remarkable achievement, tender and violent at once, about the possibility of keeping a piece of paradise in the contemporary world.

The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman – Review

This review was originally written for The Nerd Daily. Please check out the contributors’ amazing work!

The Secret Commonwealth Rating: 4/5 stars or 8.5/10

Released two years after the first instalment of the new The Book of Dust trilogy and almost two decades after His Dark Materials trilogy, The Secret Commonwealth might be the most complex addition to Lyra’s world so far.

In The Amber Spyglass, we saw a chapter in Lyra’s life coming to an end. It was a satisfying, justified, if heart-breaking conclusion. One thing, however, was clear; while a circle closed for Lyra, a new season was beginning, full of learning, inspired by her wish to lead a fulfilling life and inspire others to do the same.  Such an ending is full of possibilities, leaving the reader with the impression that the characters live on after the book.

As is the case with most beloved book series, many fans craved yet another book about Lyra. While Pullman did release a short story called Lyra’s Oxford (2003), and another one, Serpentine, in 2020 as we wait for the third Book of Dust instalment, The Secret Commonwealth is the first full-length book about Lyra since The Amber Spyglass. With La Belle Sauvage (2017) focusing on a new character, Malcolm, who embarked on a perilous journey to protect Lyra when she was a baby, we had to wait a long time to find out more about Lyra’s future. As it turns out, The Secret Commonwealth was worth the wait.

As early as chapter 1, we are re-introduced to twenty-year old Lyra, now a university student. Clearly, she has grown in many ways. While she started His Dark Materials without close female friends and resistant to the influence of women in her life, the adult Lyra attends a girls’ college, is friendly with her old caretaker, Alice Lonsdale, and studies to the alethiometer under the tutelage of Hannah Relf. The core aspects that made her unique, such as her adventurous spirit, her creativity and curiosity are initially toned down. But the biggest change is her relationship with her daemon, Pan. While The Amber Spyglass left them in relatively good terms, Lyra’s choices have changed their dynamic forever. In stark contrast to the comfort and warmth they once shared, most of their interactions in The Secret Commonwealth are forced and awkward. They no longer truly listen to each other, and Pan doesn’t like the woman Lyra is becoming as he thinks she has lost her imagination, and sense of wonder.

Pan is not completely wrong. The almost ten-year lapse has changed Lyra. She is no longer the girl who found joy in every aspect of her journey. She has grown serious, melancholic and firmly grounded in the non-magical aspects of her world. The magic and wonder she once took for granted are questioned and replaced by obscure philosophical ideas that Pan hates. But the unimaginative books that make Lyra a sceptic – while deepening her rift with Pan – are far from their only problem. As a child, Lyra altered the fate of all worlds and survived the theocratic Magisterium’s deathly plots against her. This doesn’t mean she’s safe. The murder she and Pan witness early on shows that the stakes are high as ever. People are still persecuted, and the world has taken a sudden interest in a type of rose that grows in the deserts of Lop Nor and is rumoured to be associated with the Dust, a central concept in His Dark Materials. Once more, Pullman has crafted an interesting, well-written mystery that combines science (in this case botany) with the fantastic. Prosecuted and increasingly entangled in incomprehensible mysteries, Lyra must once again rely on her inventiveness to survive. Following her in her dangerous journey, we discover new aspects of her world – one that is parallel but different to our own.

This world, already complete and full of wonder in His Dark Materials is greatly expanded. We visit different locations, from Prague to Asia Minor and meet characters from different backgrounds, adding diversity compared to the previous books’ focus on England and the North. Moreover, The Secret Commonwealth focuses on a previously unseen group of people: those who have been separated from their demons, forcibly or voluntarily, but are still functional, though rejected by society at large. This condition, more common than His Dark Materials would have us think, is used to explore real-life issues such as mental illness, exclusion and fear of the unknown. The backstories of minor characters who are afflicted in this way adds a nice touch to the main plot.

At over 650 pages, The Secret Commonwealth might be a slow read for some, especially since the many point-of-view characters, ranging from mains we already know, such as Lyra, Pan and Malcolm, to minor characters, might initially be confusing. This is particularly true since the main villains, who also get point-of-view passages, can read a bit as interchangeable and decidedly less memorable compared to the terrifying Mrs Coulter and the ambiguous Lord Asriel.

Still, the constant suspense and dangers Lyra and Malcolm navigate make the book increasingly hard to put down. The writing is beautiful, and concepts such as imagination and scepticism are explored in poetic yet digestible ways. The one possible drawback is that while His Dark Materials had its dark moments, the narrative was riddled with the joy Lyra derived from her travels. This, and Pullman’s subtlety, meant that younger readers could still enjoy the trilogy and simply understand any age-inappropriate parts when older. In comparison, the mood of The Secret Commonwealth is more sombre, influenced by the adult Lyra’s struggles. Of course, as a main character grows, their problems are likely to become increasingly mature, and given all that Lyra’s gone through, her anguish is very believable. It should be noted, however, that this book is definitely not suitable for children. Apart from sexuality, discussed subtly but still more explicitly than in His Dark Materials, the book also contains triggering scenes including sexual assault. The hints of a possible romance between two characters with a big age difference might also be disturbing to some. This is not yet explicit, but it does seem a bit unnecessary so far, so we can only wait and see how this is going to unfold in book 3.

Speaking of which, for those enjoyed The Secret Commonwealth, book 3 – which doesn’t have a release date yet – can’t come out soon enough. In true Subtle Knife fashion (also a second book!) the ending of The Secret Commonwealth is ambiguous and little is resolved. Hopefully, the final instalment will give us a satisfying conclusion. Be prepared, though. Since this is Philip Pullman we are talking about, some heartbreak might as well be expected.

Although it has its pitfalls and lacks much of the original trilogy’s playfulness, The Secret Commonwealth is a highly imaginative, memorable book that expands Lyra’s world in believable ways. It might be a more enjoyable read for people who already loved Pullman’s work and eagerly awaited any new content, but even on its own, The Secret Commonwealth is an impressive literary achievement that leaves the reader wanting more.

Honeycomb by Joanne M. Harris, Book review

Honeycomb by Joanne Harris

I would like to thank NetGalley and the publisher, author and illustrator for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars or 7/1o

Release Date: May 25th 2021

I was very excited to receive a copy of Honeycomb as I love Joanne Harris’ other books live Chocolat and The Gospel of Loki. Honeycomb was different from Harris’ other works, of course, but it was magical in its own right.

Within the span of more than 400 pages, the author weaves (pun intended), one hundred dark fairytales, some of them loose retellings or last-minute twists to stories we think we know, some distinctly her own. From main characters that consistently appear in most of the tales, like the Lacewing King, to those who only make a few appearances in-between stories, like the wayward princess with her clockwork tiger, Honeycomb is an intricate tapestry of memorable portraits, each of whom stirs different images and feelings.

What makes the tales of Honeycomb stand out is, first and foremost, its language. Poetic and lyrical yet very readable, the writing style gives birth to visual and auditory imagery readers are likely to remember long after closing the book. Through strategic repetitions – which however bear slight but important changes – the author creates a haunting, dark atmosphere. But not one without hope.

While many of the chapters are self-contained, structured almost as traditional fairytales meant to teach a moral or comment on society, Honeycomb has an overreaching plot that ties most tales through a delicate thread: the first part is largely concerned with the Lacewing King, a type of faerie king who starts off as an adventurous but cold and cruel character, prepared to steal and murder to get what he wants. While it takes a bit for his atrocities to catch up with him, the Lacewing King makes many powerful enemies but also – surprisingly – some friends. And when, in the middle of the book, the reader feels they have grasped Harris’ pattern and what the book is about, everything changes in a violent twist that forces us to see the story in a new light. Could there ever be any kind of redemption for a character like the Lacewing King? And if traditional fairytale villains get what they deserve, what can be said about a villain protagonist in a modern fairytale, who tumbles between pure villainy, anti-heroism and anti-villainy? Honeycomb attempts to provide some answers.

The writing is beautiful throughout, but perhaps a little difficult to get used to at first, largely due to the particularities of the Lacewing King. After a few chapters, I was tired of reading about him doing mean things, with the occasional one-shot fairytale interlude, but as more layers were added to his character I found myself compelled, not to forgive him but to keep reading, especially when his ward became an important character in her own right. I particularly liked the way Harris played with the readers’ expectations about a fairytale atmosphere, to eventually create one that is very much her own. The steampunk elements that became increasingly prominent as the story went on, were an unexpected addition, giving the fairy realm a unique flavour. As we got to know the main characters more, a few of the single-chapter tales felt a bit distracting, as they were similar to ones narrated before, and I found myself wanting to read them quickly, to see the main plot’s culmination.

Was that culmination satisfying? Yes and no. After such a long, intricate story I had expected something more. Some characters’ fates could be explored a little further, but given the conventions of the fairytale, from which Honeycomb borrows, even if just to twist it, perhaps the ending was just what it was meant to be.

And of course, I can’t finish this review without commenting on the illustrations by Charles Vess. They are a very beautiful addition that really enhances the reading experience and fits the atmosphere perfectly.

Overall, I enjoyed reading Honeycomb. I didn’t like all 100 stories equally, but a lot of them were surprisingly insightful, even moving. I would recommend it to readers who enjoy dark, adult fairytales with interesting twists. The pacing was a bit distracting at times, but overall, the fairytales are woven in an interesting, memorable pattern that stays with the reader after the last page.

Finishing drafts, not feeling like writing and other sad stories

Much has been written about the ways the ongoing apocalypse has influenced our productivity. I don’t think I have anything new to add. At this point, and at any point, simply surviving for a while is perfectly valid. But what happens for those of us who associate our quality of life with creativity? It might be an overstatement to say that writing has helped me survive, but in many ways it has. When creativity is what gives us joy and comfort and still writer’s block hits, pretty much any situation feels worse than it already is.

NaNoWriMo has come and gone and, once again, I didn’t hit 50k, though I only missed it by about 5k, which makes it a huge success for me. I didn’t write many inspirational writing posts as I had planned, though. It didn’t feel right, as I thought that to help or uplift others I should find joy in my own writing first. For the longest time, I couldn’t find this joy anywhere. Not in a new project I attempted to start (and gave up on day 1 since some sort of planning is necessary even for me to produce the amount NaNoWriMo requires), not in an old story that doesn’t work anymore (and yet I desperately want it to).

Then, 2021 came and two things happened. First; I finished draft 3.1 of my story (essentially just draft 3, fully proofread and corrected). Second; I decided to make 2021 a writing year. Now, I know that these New Year Resolution attempts hardly ever work. We are only human and a year change is first and foremost mental, rather than a solid change of circumstances. The same barriers that kept us from our goals last year still apply. And yet we hope. Thinking of the many works of fantasy – and not only – that have given me hope over the years, I decided to cling to that hope and see what happens.

Even though I currently work, I decided to still prioritise writing during my time off, something I had never managed to balance while a student – and set clear goals. I knew I could fail since day 1, but fortunately, something clicked. Things are still far from perfect of course (and when has any writer felt things are “perfect” where their work is concerned?) Nor can I say I will never feel blocked again. But after months of struggling, I finally feel I’m going somewhere with my writing. Not sure where, but finally thrilled to find out. So, I wanted to share some insights, in no particular order, hoping they might help others too.

Starting small can help

If you feel like writing 4,000 words in one sitting, by all means do. I know some writers can do that and I’m very, very jealous. But if you are starting now, or getting back after a long block, setting an intimidating goal might put you off before you even start.

On the first days of November, I didn’t do NaNoWriMo writing at all due to a conference (perhaps I should do a conference post at some point?) Being too harsh on myself, as I’m sometimes prone to be, I did some maths (very badly because I am that writer who can’t do math) and ended up with a schedule that required at least 3,500 words for some days.

Now, this might be perfectly reasonable for some, but it wasn’t for me. Not after a Masters, an exhausting job hunt and the world outside being so scary. I often found myself spending the whole day on the sofa or my desk, literally dragging myself through words that could have been written in 4 hours or so. I don’t regret writing those words. I hardly remember some of them, and I’m always curious to see writing that I don’t remember well. Surely, if these words don’t amount to much, they will at some point. But at that point, I was losing whole days, and even when I did manage to meet the desired wordcount, it didn’t feel like a win anymore.

This is why I made the difficult decision to take a step back from NaNo even though I was so close. I spent December editing my draft and some stories to submit to journals. Editing was a much better choice for me right then, because it reminded me that I can produce words and make them matter. It’s too easy to forget that during a block. During the holidays, I focused on reading as much as I could from writers I admired.

And then, on day 1 of 2021 I decided that this is the year I’m finalising my book draft AND writing 1,000 words every single day.

Now, after two literature degrees and writing for 10 years, I’ve reached that point where 1,000 is too little for me. If I’m really focused, I can do that in half an hour or so. But 1,000 words is 365,000 in a year. This is much more than your average novel, so it feels like a doable, modest goal that is still huge in terms of impact. Make it 438,000, since I often find myself writing 1,200 without even noticing. And if I miss a day, well, it doesn’t feel like much was lost, and it’s easier to do just a little bit more whenever I can.

So, if you feel intimidated now, don’t be afraid to start small, as long you just start. Whatever you manage to produce might be more than you think.

Sticking to a project is advisable, but don’t be afraid to experiment first

We often see advice along the lines of “you can’t jump between projects” and “you have to stick one, because all projects will feel equally interesting so whatever you choose is as good as any.” That’s an understandable sentiment, but one many art blocked creators won’t appreciate. Sure, starting projects and abandoning them in a day has to stop eventually, but you shouldn’t let your own creative work restrict you. You created it, after all.

As I’ve already mentioned, I started a novel on my first day of NaNoWriMo. I even managed 1,700 words, or whatever it is you are supposed to produce when you write every single November day I told you I can’t do the math. Then I hit a wall. Sure, I’ve always wanted to try a steampunk project, and I still might one day, but I had not thought that one through. We’ve heard George R. R. Martin’s metaphor about architect writers (the planners) and gardener writers (those who just produce words and see what happens) many times. I very much belong to the latter category, but at that point it wasn’t working. I didn’t know who these character were. To find out would require some writer things I love doing, that have helped me better understand my characters and setting many a time – but that wouldn’t be writing and I still wanted to give NaNoWriMo another chance.

So I shifted to my first ever story, that has changed and changed over years. Many writers I know have this baby project and sadly, it doesn’t always work out. At least, the shift allowed me to produce a huge amount of words at a short notice and I never regret exercising those writing muscles… Until the whole thing took a toll on my creativity and well-being as I’ve described above. That’s when I dropped NaNo and focused on editing.

New Year’s found me adding random 1,000 words to the baby project again, but only for two days. It was at that point that I decided to do some serious brainstorming about that initial steampunk project and another one that is basically Fantasy inspired by my culture (I wouldn’t have felt brave enough to even contemplate attempting this a year ago, but that’s stuff for another post). Eventually, the latter clicked. It’s very much new, and I can’t promise anything, but I did write 8,300 words already if that means anything. For the time being, I’m happy to have this as my main writing project, while editing and scribbling some shorts on the side. I really, really want this enthusiasm to last but I’m also glad to have felt it again at all, because writer’s block (not unlike reading slumps for bookworms) can persuade you that you are never feeling that joy again.

So, while there is some wisdom about the advice to stick to a project, I won’t begrudge the experimentation and shifts it took to get me excited about writing again – and neither should you.

A change of focus can help

For a person who doesn’t like numbers, I was too focused on the word count. This is normal, especially when you really don’t feel like working or when you have a specific amount to produce. You want the word count to hit the day’s goal so that you can stop… only, in my case, the wordcount was increasing so slowly it hurt. So, in 2021, I tried something different.

I mentioned above that I can write 1k in half an hour, but let me tell you, the writing (mis)adventures of last November had wiped that information out of my memory. Last weekend, I set my timer to 30 minutes – a modest, non-intimidating amount of time – shut down all Google Chrome tabs and just dove into writing. At 15 minutes, I was surprised to see the wordcount was already 450+. So I went on even faster, and hit 1k just before time was up. Writing “for x minutes” as opposed to writing “x words” produced the same effect but it was relatively stress-free and reminded me what I can do when I put my mind to it.

Another thing I found useful back when I tried NaNoWriMo in 2019, was focusing on finishing the chapter, as opposed to telling myself I’d stop at x words. Writing with the goal in mind can provide a much needed change of perspective. So if you think that whatever you are doing to measure your writing isn’t serving you anymore, the problem might be this- not you or your writing.

Accept that writing, editing and research are different skills and know what you’re doing when combining them.

This one took me ages to fully understand and I’m still not perfect at it, but I’m slowly getting there. When you start a new project it’s very tempting to just go back and correct what you already have, especially since what you have is so little. Research is also very tempting, especially when the information you lack about the culture or historical period you’re writing about keeps you from writing what you want. But please, hear me out.

For the longest time, I’ve ignored any advice along the lines of “never look back, just power through until you have a draft and then edit.” My brain just refuses to work that way. If I don’t occasionally review my writing, I might forget plot points I meant to expand on. Plus, exercising those editing muscles is not contrary to writing. And of course, you can’t write the draft without any research, while doing all the research first might delay you a lot.

I’ve discovered that it’s quite easy to find time to Google things, or purposelessly reread your draft, editing the odd typo and being surprised at what you wrote than one time at 4 am. Allocating time to tackle the dreaded blank page is trickier. And please, don’t be tempted to think that you’ll just Google a single thing you need to know. Unfortunately, the internet doesn’t work that way.

My advice, then, is to set time to actually write, as often as you can, and be very vigilant about it. If you find something you need to look up, make a note. Don’t think you won’t have time for research or editing later, you know you will. Mix them up if it works for you, but don’t be tempted to give them some of your actual writing time. This is the hardest to get back. I’m by no means an expert in writing this way, but during my last 2-3 writing sessions I fought the urge to Google stuff, and I promise you they were some of the best writing sessions.

Ladyofbooklot

A cosy image of a laptop, a bullet journal, coffee and cookies.

Finishing drafts is a wonderful thing but some complicated feelings are to be expected

So far, I’ve mostly talked about failed projects, finding the will to write, and focus. I haven’t talked about my finished draft. I might do a post on finishing drafts at some point for what it’s worth, but this is a post about writing struggles and, to be honest, while I’m really proud of this draft some dread it there.

Writing advice websites will tell you that no matter what you do, you need to finish your draft. I totally agree. Reading and rewriting something that is complete, finding themes you hadn’t even realised you put there, seeing your characters come full circle – these are all wonderful feelings and I want you to have them too.

Relatively fewer articles focus on the grief involved in the process, which is fair, because it’s a very positive process that should fill us with joy and pride. But some sadness can be there. It’s normal to already miss these characters you spent so long with. In some ways, I like editing my work more than writing it because I associate it with more confidence in my skills, but I do miss having late night epiphanies about character motivations, or listening to that one song that was just like a plot point I had in mind.

And, of course, after you finish a couple of drafts, if you intend to do anything with your story, you have to take the next step and show it to the world somehow. In a sense, this can feel like letting go of complete control over the story. Then, there’s the fear of rejection, and that little voice that keeps telling you you could have done more, handled things differently, crafted something better.

I have many tips on how to write, and a few on finishing drafts. I’m very much still figuring out what to do after that. So, if you have completed a draft and are in a similar position, my only real advice is to be proud of what you achieved, accept all feelings as valid and take your time to figure it out, taking all the help you can from those around you. This is all very new and, for now, I’m taking tiny steps. When I despair I remember why I started writing, and I think that this too will be worth it.

This ended up being much longer and more emotional than I expected. In any case I’d love to know if any of my thoughts helped you, or if there are other writing issues you want me to tackle next!

Do you have any other ideas about navigating writing struggles? Let me know in the comments!

Lore and Order by Steve K. Peacock – Review

Lore and Order by Steve Peacock

I would like to thank the author for sending me a copy of his book for an honest review. I really enjoyed reading and reviewing it!

There are some character-driven books that you enjoy because you really love the characters to the point that you would hang out with them. And there are character-driven books you read because the characters are the opposite of the people you would be friends with in real life, but they are consistent and three-dimensional, with a voice that stands out and compels you to read on. For me, Lore and Order belongs to the second category.

From the Goodreads description:

“Humberside City, nestled in the north of Britain, is on fire, and it has taken a few weeks for anyone to really notice. The fire brigade have been doing their best, as have the other emergency services, but whoever is behind the fires has been systematically running them ragged. Whitehall is worried. Something doesn’t add up, so they’ve dispatched a warlock – a former illegal mage, pressed into service of the government to deal with matters of the arcane – to look things over.

Jameson Parker is that warlock, and he’s pretty okay with that. His freedoms might be heavily restricted, and any unauthorised use of magic means he’ll be struck down dead instantly, but it could be worse. He gets more or less free rein to swan around Humberside like the big I am, and it gives him a way to atone for his less than stellar past. He’s better off without magic, and he knows it.

But is magic better off without him? The warlocks of Humberside don’t seem to think so, and there are rumblings that, as well as the fires, something big is about to go down. Jameson is not best pleased.”

Lore and Order was a very interesting book. A lot of thought has been put into the magic system and what one can do with magic. At the same time, what the readers think they know is constantly challenged and – refreshingly – the narrative does seem to question whether systematising magic does more harm than good. I often felt annoyed on the characters’ behalf by Whitehall’s bureaucratic approach to magic, and I felt that was intentional. Interestingly, it was often stressed that magic cannot solve all problems, and I really like it when fantasy novels do that, as they feel much more relatable.

For all the bureaucracy Jameson suffers from, however, misadventures always seem to find him and challenge his resolution to do away with magic. The book is action-packed with a quick succession of twists that leaves the reader feeling constantly on edge. If things seemed to be going smoothly, well, that was an indication that they weren’t staying that way. I might have liked a few more “breather” chapters to get to know characters besides the protagonist a bit better and understand their backgrounds, motivations and everyday lives apart from their involvement with magic, but perhaps this is just a matter of personal taste. Overall, the plot was engaging and took some directions I had not suspected. I particularly liked the conflict between compliant warlocks who were content enforcing order and those who wanted to rebel and be free.

I haven’t read a tone of urban fantasy, but most such works I’m aware of take place in major American cities or big capitals, so I really like the fact that Lore and Order was situated in North England instead (shhh, let’s pretend that I don’t have a soft spot for this since my draft is also set in North England). More than that, the narrator often drops interesting hints, suggesting there are more about the setting than meets the eye. I would be interested in seeing if the next book takes place in America – and if it’s really ruled by vampires

And now, let’s talk about the part that is always my favourite; characterisation. As I have already mentioned, the main character had a very distinct voice that was fun and easy to follow. At first, I thought I would be very annoyed with him throughout, as I’m usually not impressed by overconfident magicians (got too badly burnt by Kvothe from The Name of the Wind – sorry Rothfuss fans). And while I still don’t think Jameson is someone I would hang out with in real life, I appreciate that he is well-written and consistent, and the book is what it is because of his sardonic narration. I like spending time in the heads of deeply flawed characters that are well-written, whether I conventionally ‘like’ them or not. More than that, Jameson seemed fully aware of said flaws in ways other characters with similar personalities are not:

“It’s an easy thing to convince yourself when you are completely aware of what horrors you are capable.”

I would have liked to know a bit more about the backgrounds and personalities of other characters such as Ania and Kaitlyn, but I found his Jameson’s relationship with Charlie quite heart-warming.

As a whole, Lord and Order was a very interesting read that I would recommend to those who like less common urban settings, detailed magical systems, action and most of all, humorous, flawed and sardonic main characters.

Lore and Order by Steve K Peacock
A lot of fires happen in the book and this photo aims to suggest that – fake candles don’t help but it’s the thought that counts, right?