RE: 40(ish) Books to Read During Lockdown (which aren’t classics)

So there I was, happily scrolling through news articles about books for one of my clients, and I see an article all about books you should read during Lockdown.

Colour me intrigued!

But as I begin to scroll through, I realise something; all the titles are classics (except for Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). And then I look at the URL and it says:

…arts-entertainment/books/books-best-greatest-read-you-die-classic-novels-literature-austen-orwell-dickens-mantel-a9255191.html

‘Classic Novels to Read Before You Die’ has become ‘Books to Read During Lockdown‘.

Now this bothers me because, even as someone who enjoys reading Classic Literature, I understand that if you give someone a list of books to read, throwing a long list of classics at them is 1. going to put them off coming to you for a recommendation every again because a. you are obviously a snob or b. they feel intimidated and can’t tell you. And 2. completely ignores the fantastic novels, verse and novellas that have been produced in the last five to ten years.

What about the amazing authors of colour who’ve ONLY JUST had their debut released? What about the amazing LGBTQ+ writers? Disability Rep Advocates? #MeToo Champions? All the wonderful progress the publishing industry has made to be more inclusive? (Although, I’m a realist, I get they (and we as readers) have a long way to go!). You give someone a list with JUST CLASSICS, even Middle Grade Classics, you’re letting your audience know that nothing from recent generations will ever be as good as this. And you’ll be disappointed to find out – you’re dead wrong.

So here’s my 40 books you should read during lockdown (or whenever) that were written in the last 10 years. (Multiple genres, Multiple Age Ranges, Enjoy!).

Instead of Pride and Prejudice, you should read Queenie by Candice Carty Williams. (2019) Queenie Jenkins is a 25-year-old Jamaican British woman living in London, straddling two cultures and slotting neatly into neither. Pride and Prejudice is 1st and foremost a romance, and whilst Queenie is dealing with modern relationships her way, it echoes a the ‘contemporary honesty of women’ that Jane Austen evokes with Lizzie B. But, you know, more realistically for the 21st Century.

Instead of Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, try picking up The Trials of Morrigan Crow (Nevermoor) by Jessica Townsend. (2017) Morrigan Crow is cursed. Born on Eventide, the unluckiest day for a child to be born, she is blamed for all local misfortunes. The curse means Morrigan is doomed to die at midnight on her eleventh birthday. But, a strange man named Jupiter North appears to take her to a secret, magical city named Nevermoor. Middle Grade reviewers keep coming back to this one time and time again. Wonderful whimsy and fantastic writing, the Nevermoor series is a fantastic read no matter your age.

Instead of Things Fall Apart, prepare yourself for Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo (2017). Set in Nigeria, this novel gives voice to both husband and wife as they tell the story of their marriage – and the forces that threaten to tear it apart. Adebayo’s was nominated for the Wellcome Book Prize, Dylan Thomas Prize, Women’s Prize for Fiction, Goodreads Choice Awards and the International Dublin Literary Award. This powerful and poignant novel looks at married life in Nigeria, infertility, the trauma of losing a baby and how far a couple will go to keep their family safe. 10 out of 10, this book will break your heart.

Looking for the teen-angsty-melodrama of Adrian Mole? Try Love is For Losers by Wibke Brueggemann (2020 (I think this may have been pushed back to 2021?) Fifteen-year-old Phoebe thinks falling in love is vile and degrading, and vows never to do it. Then, due to circumstances not entirely in her control, she finds herself volunteering at a local thrift shop. There she meets Emma . . . who might unwittingly upend her whole theory on life. Love is For Losers has all the charm and drama of Adrian Mole, but for a modern LGBT audience. The characters are friendly and warm, there’s Disability Rep and Neurodiverse characters, emotional plot points and the diary style you’ll recognise from other moody teenager books.

Instead of 1984, you should read The Testaments by Margaret Atwood (2019) “Dear Readers: Everything you’ve ever asked me about Gilead and its inner workings is the inspiration for this book. Well, almost everything! The other inspiration is the world we’ve been living in.” –Margaret Atwood. The Testaments is the sequel to the 1985 Dystopia ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. Now a popular TV series on Netflix, The Handmaid’s Tale focuses on Offred, and her life in Gilead, where as the Testaments takes places 15 years after the first book ends. A stunning piece which looks at an established dictatorship and genuinely scary. It was also the Goodreads Choice Award winner for 2019.

Yes, I really wanted to leave Rebecca on the list because I love Gothic Fiction and I haven’t read it yet, so it felt mean taking it off the list. But! Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (2020) has taken the Gothic world by storm, and is one of the few titles worthy of displacing Du Maurier. After receiving a frantic letter from her newlywed cousin begging for someone to save her from a mysterious doom, Noemí Taboada heads to High Place, a distant house in the Mexican countryside. She’s not sure what she will find – her cousin’s husband, a handsome Englishman, is a stranger… A far more visceral Gothic than you might be used to, Moreno-Garcia’s take on the genre is designed to shock and awe!

Instead of Great Expectations, try Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. (2021) IN THE YEAR 2044, reality is an ugly place. The only time Wade Watts really feels alive is when he’s jacked into the virtual utopia known as the OASIS. Wade’s devoted his life to studying the puzzles hidden within this world’s digital confines, puzzles that are based on their creator’s obsession with the pop culture of decades past and that promise massive power and fortune to whoever can unlock them. A far more accessible read, Ready Player One looks at the recent industrial revolution of virtual reality, whilst still being fun, fast paced and adventure driven. You can still enjoy secretive benefactors, destructive class status and male protagonists, but with pop-culture references and in-jokes everyone can enjoy.

Instead of To Kill A Mockingbird, try The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (2017). Sixteen-year-old Starr lives in two worlds: the poor neighbourhood where she was born and raised and her posh high school in the suburbs. The uneasy balance between them is shattered when Starr is the only witness to the fatal shooting of her unarmed best friend, Khalil, by a police officer. Now what Starr says could destroy her community. It could also get her killed. Steve Rose from the Guardian described this book as ‘Fictional, but barely’. All too often we see another Black name in the news, murdered by the police under false pretenses. For THUG’s character Khalil, it’s for the hairbrush they thought was a gun. The Hate U Give is a powerful lesson in institutionalised racism, and the importance of using your voice to speak against it.

Okay, you can keep Wolf Hall because it came out in 2010. But if you’d like some wicked Historical Fiction books, my honourable mentions are:

  • Circe by Madeline Miller (2018) – Greek Mythology contemporised.
  • Lady Hotspur by Tessa Gratton (2020)A Gender-Swapped and very Sapphic Henry V Retelling.
  • The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton (2014) – 17th Century Amsterdam, Mystery with Magical Realism.
  • The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester (2015) – A Suffragette Mystery.
  • The Rabbit Girls by Anna Ellory (2019) – Berlin as the wall comes down, and during the Holocaust.

Instead of The Big Sleep, I’d like to recommend My Sister The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (2018). When Korede’s dinner is interrupted one night by a distress call from her sister, Ayoola, she knows what’s expected of her: bleach, rubber gloves, nerves of steel and a strong stomach. This’ll be the third boyfriend Ayoola’s dispatched in, quote, self-defence and the third mess that her lethal little sibling has left Korede to clear away. A hundred and one ‘traditional’ murder mysteries a published every year, but this fresh take on ‘blood is thicker than water’ will have you tense from start to finish.

I have almost NOTHING bad to say about Frankenstein, other than I wish it wasn’t 100 pages before anything interesting happened. It looks at an important scientific vs religious question of the time. And whilst that question is still being asked today, and we praise the absolute QUEEN Mary Shelley for posing it, I’d like to suggest An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green (2018). Roaming New York City at 3am, April May stumbles across a giant sculpture, makes a video and uploads it to Youtube. The next day, April wakes up to a viral video and a new life. In a world where infamoy is the right click away, this novel looks at the overwhelming reality. Psychology, aliens, safety and identity are the least you can expect from this novel.

Did you read Wuthering Heights at School? Or because Bella from Twilight did? Either way, angsty teen girls everywhere grew up with OG Love Triangle and it’s a bit played out. Can I suggest instead Hearts Are Jerks by Gabrielle Harbowy (2020). 16 Year Old Alicia’s parents have been in a stable, nurturing polyamorous relationship all her life, so dating boy a boy and girl in high school doesn’t seem like a big deal to her. When Allie crashes the car, her love life crashes next. She’s determined to handle it on her own, and stay true to herself. A Poly-Positive YA, this book is a fresh take on relationships that’s ready for 2020.

Instead of Lord of the Flies, pick up Wilder Girls by Rory Power (2019). It’s been 18 months since the Raxter School for Girls was put under quarantine. (Yeah I know we’re living our own pandemic, but just go with me on this one.) Pulling Hetty’s life out from under her. But when Byatt, Hetty will do anything to find her, even if it means breaking quarantine and braving the horrors that lie beyond the fence. Raxter School For Girls is on an isolated Island, and the teachers haven’t survived as long as the students have. This LGBTQ+ novel has a visceral reality that William Golding only ever hinted at. It’s brutal, and wonderful, and the ending may break you. (I still don’t know how I feel about it… but I’m still recommending it to people for that very reason!)

Vanity Fair is a convoluted novel about a young woman trying to find her place in a society that looks down on her. Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson (2017) does that but so much better! Jade believes she must get out of her neighborhood if she’s ever going to succeed. Her mother says she has to take every opportunity. She has. She accepted a scholarship to a mostly-white private school and even Saturday morning test prep opportunities. But some opportunities feel more demeaning than helpful. Like an invitation to join Women to Women, a mentorship program for “at-risk” girls. Except really, it’s for black girls. From “bad” neighborhoods.Her’s a female protagonist you want to champion from the first page, with authentic familial characters who love and support her in a world that doesn’t want to. I really loved this book and I keep forcing people to read it, so, it’s on the list.

Instead of Midnight’s Children, try Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire (2016). Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through shadows or at the back of a wardrobe. But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children. Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experience… they change a person. But her adventures at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children has just begun. Part Murder Mystery, Part Alice in Wonderland, this (too short in my opinion) novel is such a great read and (thankfully! because did I mention it’s too short) part of a series which you’ll absolutely love.

For Lolita… I mean. Any book. Pick up any book instead of Lolita. If you want to know about predatory behaviour, sexual abuse and murder just google ‘Hollywood News’. But, I guess, if I had to recommend a book about those topics, Asking For It by Louise O’Neill (2015) is a brutal depiction of the reality modern girls are dealing with. TW: all of the above really. Hardest book I’ve ever read EXCEPT for Lolita which threw me into such a rage I broke the mug in my hand (having made myself a tea to calm down… yeah it didn’t work).

Instead of Jane Eyre, a novel about the expectations placed on women with a side-quest romance story, can I interest you in Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (2018)? Xiomara Batista feels unheard and unable to hide in her Harlem neighborhood. Ever since her body grew into curves, she has learned to let her fists and her fierceness do the talking. But Xiomara has plenty to say. Poet X us the debut novel by slam poet Elizabeth Acevedo, and written in verse. Each poem is a look into Xiomara’s inner thoughts, and an expression of all the thoughts she can’t communicate to those she cares about. Poignant, powerful and perfect for a modern audience.

Okay… two on the list… Americanah is also within the last ten years. BUT! My honourable mentions for BIPOC Own Voices are:

  • I Am Thunder by Muhammed Khan (2018) – YA Muslim Romance set in London.
  • Born A Crime by Trevor Noah (2016) – Trevor Noah’s powerful memoir about growing up in South Africa.
  • A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow (2020) – Finding your identity in a society that is more prepared to cast you down than accept you.
  • Becoming by Michelle Obama (2018) –  The first African American First Lady of the USA, this is her story in how she helped create the most inclusive White House in History.
  • Children of Blood and Bone by Toni Adeyemi (2018) – Award Winning Nigeria Orisha Fantasy.

Cold Comfort Farm could easily by replaced by Girl Woman Other by Bernadine Evaristo (2019). Teeming with live and crackling with energy – a love song to modern Britain and black womanhood. Girl, Woman, Other follows the lives and struggles of twelve very different characters. Mostly women, black and British, they tell the stories of their families, friends and lovers, across the country and through the years. This book had me laughing and crying in equal measure. It won the Booker Prize in 2019 for good reason, and is a more realistic depiction of British life than you could ever ask for.

Beloved is a Pulitzer Winner and published in 2004. I’m not giving you a replacement for this one. Give Toni Morrison the time her novel deserves

Instead of Brideshead Revisited, try The Fortunate Ones by Ellan Umansky (2017). In 1939 Vienna, the spectre of war darkens Europe and Rose Zimmer’s parents are desperate. Unable to get out of Austria, they manage to secure passage for their daughter and send her to live with strangers in England. Six years later, the war is over and grief-stricken Rose attempts to build a life for herself. This is not the ‘nostaligic’ glory days of the Golden Era. This is a cruel reality for many, and a test in empathy. I hope you’re up to the task.

Dune is epic, there’s no deny it’s the Game of Thrones of the Science Fiction world. BUT! Have you heard about Red Rising by Pierce Brown (2014)? Darrow is a Red, a member of the lowest caste in the colour-coded society of the future. Like his fellow Reds, he walks all day, believing he and his people are making the surface of Mars livable for future generations. But Darrow and his kind have been betrayed. He discovers that humanity already reached the surface generations ago. Leaving Darrow – and Reds like him – are nothing more than slaves to a decadent ruling class. The Red Rising saga has taken the internet by storm, and I can’t find (and I’m not looking for you to break this rule for me) a single reviewer who thinks it’s anything less than incredible.

Butlers and their dip-stick ‘masters’ are a well past their prime. No one is interested in a privilege idiot having the answers handed to them any more. Not with one still in the Oval Office. So I offer you, instead of The Code of Woosters, The Department of Sensitive Crimes by Alexander McCall Smith (2019). Self described as Scandinavian Blanc, vastly different of Scandinavian Noir, we enter the world of Ulf Varg, Detective Inspector in the Sensitive Crimes Department of the Criminal Investigation Authority. Ulf is concerned with odd, but not too threatening crimes, and the peculiar goings-on. From the creator of The No. 1. Ladies Detective Agency, set in Botswana, Mcall Smith’s writing promises levity and comedic relief rather than another Girl With A Dragon Tattoo Scandi-Horror-Mystery. For which I’m greatly thankful.

I haven’t read The Great Gatsby. I know. Tragic. But! Would you like ANOTHER roaring 20’s style book? But this one has the supernatural in it, has won loads of awards and came out in 2012? The Diviners by Libba Bray. Evie O’Neill has been exiled to the bustling streets of New York City. It’s 1926, and New York is filled with speakeasies, Ziegfeld girls, and rakish pickpockets. The only catch is that she has to live with her uncle Will and his unhealthy obsession with the occult. Evie worries her uncle will discover her darkest secret: a supernatural power that has only brought her trouble so far. But when the police find a murdered girl branded with a cryptic symbol and Will is called to the scene, Evie realizes her gift could help catch a serial killer. This is the start of a fantastic series, and waaaaay better than a book I’ve actively not read. (When a guy you despise tells you he reads it every year because it ‘reminds him what’s important, and nostalgic and so much better than the modern era’ you tend to give it a wide berth).

Instead of A Clockwork Orange, try The Power by Naomi Alderman (2017). Something vital has changed, causing their lives to converge with devastating effect. Teenage girls now have immense physical power – they can cause agonising pain and even death. And, with this small twist of nature, the world changes utterly. This intensely feminist novel follows the lives of five people during the lead up to the ‘incident’ that changes our history forever as young women finally have the power over men. Brutal and powerful, and will make you uncomfortable from start to finish.

Put down Tess of the D’Urbevilles and pick up Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (2014) instead. We’re done with ‘fridging’ characters, especially main characters, just to show the moral growth of their male counterparts. With her razor-sharp writing and trademark psychological insight, Gillian Flynn delivers a fast-paced, devilishly dark, and ingeniously plotted thriller that confirms her status as one of the hottest writers around. This is an unputdownable masterpiece about a marriage gone terribly, terribly wrong.

Instead of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? the seminal novel which became The Blade Runner film franchise, try The Bees by Laline Paull (2014). Born into the lowest class of her society, Flora 717 is a sanitation bee, only fit to clean her orchard hive. Living to accept, obey and serve, she is prepared to sacrifice everything for her beloved holy mother, the Queen. Yet Flora has talents that are not typical of her kin. She finds her way into the Queen’s inner sanctum, where she discovers secrets both sublime and ominous. Enemies roam everywhere, from the fearsome fertility police to the high priestesses who jealously guard the Hive Mind. But Flora cannot help but break the most sacred law of all. If you thought you’d read every type of dystopia, I ask that you make space to try this fantastic, award winning debut novel.

Instead of The God of Small Things, try Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi (2018). I’ve been falling more in love with every Roidan Presents that I read. 12 Year Old Aru Shah has a tendency to stretch the truth in order to fit in at school. Whilst her classmates travel the world, she spends her Autumn break at the Museum of Ancient Indian Art and Culture, waiting for her mum to return from her latest archeological trip. Is it any wonder Aru makes up stories? From the other that brought us The Gilded Wolves, this Middle Grade is full of Own-Voice’d magic and wonder, Hindu mythology and lots of adventure.

I really didn’t enjoy Heart of Darkness, and I don’t know how much time I should advocate you spend reading about Colonialism in general, so I’d like to recommend Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor by Layla F. Saad (2020). Me and White Supremacy teaches readers how to dismantle the privilege within themselves so that they can stop (often unconsciously) inflicting damage on people of colour, and in turn, help other white people do better, too.

The Secret History is fantastic, but a more supernaturally led murder mystery you might enjoy is Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo (2019). Galaxy “Alex” Stern is the most unlikely member of Yale’s freshman class. Still searching for answers about her past, she arrives in New Haven tasked by her mysterious benefactors with monitoring the activities of Yale’s secret societies. Well-known to be haunts of the future rich and powerful, from high-ranking politicos to Wall Street and Hollywood’s biggest players, their occult activities are revealed to be more sinister and more extraordinary than any paranoid imagination might conceive.

We can blame L.J. Smith and Stephanie Meyer for taking the dark, brooding vampires and making them angsty boyfriend material. But The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix (2020) is trying to bring back the supernatural thriller vibes of the original Dracula. This novel is a Southern-flavored thriller set in the ’90s, about a women’s book club that must protect its suburban community from a mysterious and handsome stranger who turns out to be a blood-sucking fiend.

How about, instead of Middlemarch, you pick up Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay (2014). In these funny and insightful essays, Roxane Gay takes us through the journey of her evolution as a woman of color while also taking readers on a ride through culture of the last few years and commenting on the state of feminism today. The portrait that emerges is not only one of an incredibly insightful woman continually growing to understand herself and our society, but also one of our culture. There’s no such thing as the perfect feminist, but this nonfiction will have you considering your internalised misogyny and how your interactions form part of a wider picture of feminism.

I have no idea what The Catcher in the Rye is about and when I looked it up on Goodreads I got distracted by phrases such as ‘Transcending his own vernacular, yet remaining marvelously faithful to it’. What does that even mean?!? Want a book which is completely accessible, has a teenage protagonist and isn’t going to punish you for wanting to understand it? Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand (2018). Three girls live on an island with a monster who considers them the PERFECT midnight snack. It’s dark, twisted, sapphic and it won’t talk to you like an idiot. I’d really appreciate it if you could read it because I think it’s great.

Instead of The Bell Jar, I recommend All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven (2015). Theodore Finch is fascinated by death, and he constantly thinks of ways he might kill himself. But each time, something good, no matter how small, stops him. Violet Markey lives for the future, counting the days until graduation, when she can escape her Indiana town and her aching grief in the wake of her sister’s recent death. When Finch and Violet meet on the ledge of the bell tower at school, it’s unclear who saves whom. And when they pair up on a project to discover the “natural wonders” of their state, both Finch and Violet make more important discoveries. This is another YA which threatens to break you right at the end, but it’s such a heartfelt and traumatic book that I can’t help but recommend it every chance I get. TW for Suicide and Mental Health struggles.

Anna K by Jenny Lee (2020) is the modern adaptation of Anna Karenina we’ve been waiting for. Dazzlingly opulent and emotionally riveting, Anna K.: A Love Story is a brilliant reimagining of Leo Tolstoy’s timeless love story, Anna Karenina―but above all, it is a novel about the dizzying, glorious, heart-stopping experience of first love and first heartbreak.

Instead of Catch 22, try The Boy at the Top of the Mountain by John Boyne (2015). Brought to us from the same author who broke us with The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, it tells of Pierrot, an orphan, who must leave his home in Paris for a new life with his Aunt Beatrix, a servant in a wealthy household at the top of the German mountains. But this is no ordinary time, for it is 1935 and the Second World War is fast approaching; and this is no ordinary house, for this is the Berghof, the home of Adolf Hitler. Quickly, Pierrot is taken under Hitler’s wing, and is thrown into an increasingly dangerous new world: a world of terror, secrets and betrayal, from which he may never be able to escape.

I don’t read enough smut to give a true replacement for Dangerous Liaisons (or Cruel Intentions if you’ve seen the Ryan Phillipe film… which you definitely have) but if you’re looking for a compelling ‘Rivals to Lovers’ with Cruel in the title as a giveaway, I’d definitely recommend The Cruel Prince by Holly Black (2018). Now I know this hasn’t been THE book for everyone else but I loved the characters so much that I’m not going to lie, I didn’t try very hard making this leap, you know? Jude was seven when her parents were murdered and she and her two sisters were stolen away to live in the treacherous High Court of Faerie. Ten years later, Jude wants nothing more than to belong there, despite her mortality. But many of the fey despise humans. Especially Prince Cardan, the youngest and wickedest son of the High King.

Instead of One Hundred Years Of Solitude, I recommend The Island Child by Molly Aitken (2020). The Island Child tells two stories: of the child who grew up watching births and betrayals, storms and secrets, and of the adult Oona, desperate to find a second chance, only to discover she can never completely escape. As the strands of Oona’s life come together, in blood and marriage and motherhood, she must accept the price we pay when we love what is never truly ours . . . This dark, superstition driven, search for identity is a wonderful book dripping with Irish Folklore. Also Molly Aitken is lovely! I’m totally biased.

Instead of The Trial, try picking up The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead (2019). The 2020 Pulitzer Prize winner, this powerful and poignant novel looks at the Civil Rights era and the real story of a reform in Florida. Elwood Curtis takes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King to heart: He is “as good as anyone.” Abandoned by his parents, but kept on the straight and narrow by his grandmother, Elwood is a high school senior about to start classes at a local college. Elwood is sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, whose mission statement says it provides “physical, intellectual and moral training”. In reality, the Nickel Academy is a grotesque chamber of horrors.

I really struggle with nostalgic novels about any kind of aristocracy (but that says more about me than the novels themselves) so I’d like to recommend you put down The Leopard and pick up The Land Where Lemons Grow by Helena Attlee (2014) instead. The Land Where Lemons Grow uses the colourful past of six different kinds of Italian citrus to tell an unexpected history of Italy. From the arrival of citrons in 2nd century Calabria, through Arab domination of Sicily in the 9th century, to the earliest manifestations of the Mafia among the lemon gardens outside Palermo, and traces the ongoing links between organised crime and the citrus industry.

And that’s it! You’ve made it to the end! Are there any books on here you’d swap out for something else? Are you going to stay loyal to the Classics list posed by the Independent? Let me know in the comments! Until next time!

On Three… Empress of All Seasons.

For those of you who have not read an ‘On Three’ review before: I review books after the 3rd chapter and determine whether I’m going to continue reading or not. Most agents only give a book three chapters (or the first 50 pages) and I find it’s gauge enough to know whether I’m going to enjoy a book or not. Sometimes I’m wrong but hey – what’s life without a little surprise?

Empress of All Seasons:  

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Fantasy writers, specifically Epic Fantasy writers, love opening a book with a fight scene. It does several things; establishes the main character’s strengths and weaknesses (their agility, their physical and emotional strength, potential superpowers etc.), it throws the audience into the main action – thus encouraging them to read on – and it allows the reader (sometimes) to understand the stakes of the world the character lives in.

But when you’ve read one ‘Opening fight scene’ you’ve – maybe – read them all?

Emiko Jean makes an interesting attempt at this trope as we’re introduced to a Mari, a self-described executioner, who has pitted herself against a Samurai – who mocks her for being a small child. Whilst this creates the aforementioned ‘interest’ with dramatic irony, it has been done before. It’s the opening chapter – we know she’s going to win. The Samurai – for all his great skill – is going to die. So if the opening chapter isn’t going to do anything original with the opening plot, does it do anything for the world-building?

Yes and no.

We’re introduced to Yokai, which are monsters, spirits and supernatural beings from Japanese folklore, first in the prologue of their creation. And then in Mari’s transformation into one. In the second chapter, we’re shown what happens to Yokai in this kingdom. Whilst they’re not executed outright, as the Samurai was, they’re are put to death via one of the seasonal rooms.

Here the stakes are raised, a secondary perspective explains that this is how an Empress will be chosen.

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But my main concern is how much is explained to us in this narrative. There’s not a lot of space in these opening chapters for the audience to work things out for themselves. Are hands are held the entire time, which I don’t really enjoy or appreciate. (As someone who reads A LOT of fantasy, I can be a bit particular…) Due to this, the world building feels stunted and inorganic. However, if you enjoyed any of the following:

  • Cinder, or the series thereafter.
  • Children of Blood and Bone
  • Socery of Thorns

Then yeah – give this book a go. At this point in the narrative, I’m HIGHLY sceptical. And possibly a massive bitch. I was just kinda hoping for “more”.

On Three… Aftermath by Chuck Wendig

For those of you who have not read an ‘On Three’ review before: I review books after the 3rd chapter and determine whether I’m going to continue reading or not. Most agents only give a book three chapters (or the first 50 pages) and I find it’s gauge enough to know whether I’m going to enjoy a book or not. Sometimes I’m wrong but hey – what’s life without a little surprise?

Preamble: 

Image result for aftermath chuck wendig

Sometime between Christmas 2019 and New Year’s Eve of 2020, I went to see The Rise of Skywalker. And let me just tell you, weeks later, I have absolutely no idea how I feel about it.

  • It’s beautiful – sure.
  • Great Characters – obviously.
  • Pacing and structure? New Phone Who Dis?

I watched the first three films when I was six years old. My Grandparents only had three videotapes for kids. Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back, Free Willy, and The NeverEnding Story. So whenever we visited, this was all I could watch.

And if that doesn’t deeply explain my psychosis nothing will…

Anyway – because of this, I’ve always held a warm, safe place for Star Wars in my heart. Or so I thought. I wasn’t amazed by the prequels, but I’ve come to appreciate them for developing the world. Wasn’t a fan of Rogue One (don’t @ me) and let’s just pretend The Solo Story didn’t happen… and I’ll die on the hill that The Last Jedi is wonderful because it actually attempts a slightly different narrative than a simple rehash of old storylines.

Was I secretly a Star Wars snob? Was I unable to enjoy anything except the original trilogy?

My best friend is the complete opposite – the Star Wars franchise can do no wrong (except for Last Jedi, he hates that film). And it amazed me we could both love a Franchise, for completely different reasons. At completely different ends of the spectrum. I asked him if he’d read any of the Star Wars books. He said no.

Time to test my snob hypothesis then – I bought Star Wars Aftermath. And my journey began…

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Aftermath opens straight after The Return of the Jedi, and the second Death Star is destroyed. But there’s no time to celebrate. The Empire still has factions of power, and as the statue of Palpatine is pulled from its plinth, Imperial Police (Stormtroopers in black) arrive and a battle breaks out in the middle of the square.

Nothing like throwing us in amongst the action. The characters, even though barely introduced in this opening scene, are empathic and real. Families protecting themselves. An angry mob fighting back against a cruel establishment.

The next three chapters cover a range of characters, and interestingly for me, hover over the perspective of an Imperial Admiral – Rae Sloane. Ambitious, tempestuous, strong and flawed – I love her already. And whilst I know I shouldn’t want her to win, her motives are clear and reasonable. Which makes her a fantastic antagonist. The world-building and settings are tangible and I’m really enjoying the pace of this narrative.

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I don’t tend to read a lot of Scifi – for reason’s I’ve explained in this tweet:-

But! Aftermath’s pivoting between perspectives, the soft references rather than heavy-handed ‘remember this guy from the first film? We brought him back! Even though he’d definitely be dead! HAHA!’ – It all works.

So if you’re worried that you might be a Star Wars snob – which might be true for me – give this book a read. I’m really glad I chose this to be my first read of 2020. I just hope it ends in hope because – with the world as it is outside, I need my Star Wars escapism safety blanket.

 

#Gothtober – Gothic Fiction 101

Gothtober

Before Pride and Prejudice could create an idyllic wonderland of Georgian Society, before Charles Dickens could address the poverty and hypocrisy of London life, before Matthew Lewis could creep us all out with The Monk (honestly, I’m not sure I’d recommend you read it) Walpole created The Gothic, a literature movement which would go on to shape countless genres, books and authors, with elements and tropes undisputable and almost undefinable.

I mean, I love Gothic Fiction, but have you ever tried to look up a definition?

Gothic fiction, which is largely known by the subgenre of Gothic horror, is a genre or mode of literature and film that combines fiction and horror, death, and at times romance. Its origin is attributed to English author Horace Walpole, with his 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto, subtitled “A Gothic Story” – Wikipedia.

Seems a bit of an oxymoron – how can Gothic Fiction be a subgenre if the origin is attributed to a book over two hundred and fifty years old? I love Gothic Fiction. It’s spooky and moody, and full of creepy monsters. And it’s not super obvious because it was created during a time of great change.

That said, all the great Literature movements were.

In April 1721, Sir Robert Walpole became the first prime minister – sort of. He was made chancellor of the exchequer, and given 10 Downing street, and his responsibilities were not dissimilar to the responsibilities our current prime minister has (when he remembers… *cough cough*). This continues, no matter his failures, wars with the Spanish, and other messes, right up until 1742 when Walpole resigns as prime minister. He would die three years later.

His son, Horace, aforementioned creator of The Gothic, was Eton and Cambridge educated – though he never completed his degree. He started hanging out (and this is the part where it should be super clear this isn’t a real essay) with Conyers Middleton – a clergyman against superstition and bigotry. Noteworthy due to its rarity. H Walpole also became a politician, but wasn’t as committed to it as his father, choosing instead to focus on his writing, and his beloved palace – Strawberry Hill, Twickenham.

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If you haven’t been – I’d definitely recommend it.

You see that bit of building which isn’t painted bright white? That’s where I studied Gothic Fiction. In the home turf of the creator. In a cute little lecture room with wallpaper which had about six different greens in it, and spooky paneling and a genuine real hidden door which popped open when I leaned on it. It was just a cupboard full of paper towels, but it was still cool. It created a new trend for architecture and became the template for spooky Ghost castles.

Anyway, back to Gothic Fiction. Travel had become a cosmopolitan luxury. People were traveling further, experiencing more than ever and writing all about it. And everything that was ‘other’ and ‘alien’ was terrifying. And literature, being the easiest and most accessible sponge, allowed the world to see without ever leaving their homes. Walpole had been all over France and Italy. It took him years to visit places it can take us two hours to fly to. (Sixteen if you’re flying Sleazy jet). 

Horace Walpole wrote The Castle of Otranto in 1764. The second in a long list of books he’d write developing his Gothic tropes. And thus an era was born.

The Book Junkie Trial’s Readathon – The Reading List.

I’m taking part in a readathon.

Did I know readathon’s existed before last year? No. Was that because I didn’t watch enough Booktubers? Probably.

I’m 27 years old – and I’m not going to lie, I had to think about it for a second. Time was people would read a book, and then find a select group of friends you could talk about that book with. These people would be the bread and butter of your recommendations and book chat. Without them, your creativity might starve. Or you’d spend a lot of time at the library skimming through things you may or may not actually enjoy reading.

Then came the internet, and an inter-galaxy of opportunities to give your opinion and share reading experiences. And, unfortunately, until now I’ve not had the time to enjoy this outside of ‘reading for half an hour before going to bed.’ But since I’ve become self-employed and I’ve developed a Book Review Blog with my mum, I’ve made the time to read more. Which is why I’m taking part in a readathon.

Last year I set myself the goal of reading (and actually finishing) 12 books. One a month. Shouldn’t have been too difficult except it was. Whilst I was teaching, I couldn’t scrape five minutes for a smoothie let alone the hours it would take for me to enjoy 12 books. I’m by no means a ‘speed-reader’ and it blows my mind that there are wonderful people out there who ‘read the whole of the Harry Potter series in a weekend.’

Just know I’ve seen you. I respect you. I also kinda loathe you.

So I didn’t reach my target. Not even close. But it’s a new year, and I’ve got a new job that works to my own schedule. So I’m taking part in a readathon.

Scribes Map

Naomi (@TeatimewithNaomi) suggested The Book Junkie Trials, which was going to be a fantasy style readathon run by her majesty, Rachael Marie. It was the perfect choice. Her majesty organised a quiz to put you into a team, and I became a scribe. She created a map for each team and little additional ‘trials’ like sharing photos of your TBR and tweeting about your Daemon. Before the readathon had even started, I’d found a thousand new people to follow (only slight hyperbole) and all these like-minded, wonderful people wanted to talk to me about books! Dream accomplished. 

So I thought I’d post this before the readathon starts, because I’m going to be posting more blogs as I work through my reading list. Below is what I’ve chosen and why:

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The Prompts

1. Dwarf Mount: You spot a fair tavern wench, however, the Dwarf Mines, grimey and dusty, didn’t evoke a very romantic feeling. Read a book with a hint of romance to get you in the mood.

I chose Blackhearts by Nicole Castroman. It has been on my general TBR list for a while, and promises passion and pirates! Seemed like the perfect place to start.

2. Apothecary Towers: Where the wizards dwell. Tricksters. They have blind-folded you and randomised all your books, choose a book at random from your bookshelf.

Technically, I didn’t choose this, but Scarlet by Marissa Meyer was recommended to me by a friend after I threatened to give up on the series after thinking the first book, ‘Cinder’ was meh. Nothing wrong with Cinder, it just didn’t hold my interest as much as I wanted it to. And my two favourite characters died so it left me with very little root for. I’ve been promised book two in the series is worth going back for.

3. The Great Library: Ahh the great archives, find and read a book that has been on your TBR forever.

I bought Cruel Prince during the great hype of 2018. Which might not seem like forever ago, but we’re five months away from 2020. Just give yourself a minute to let that sink in. I avoided reading it because those who read and finished it before I could get my hands on a copy did not review it highly. So I kept putting it off and reading other things. So I guess it kinda counts.

4. The Drowning Deep: The Whirlpool… is so…. mesmerising. Read a book with rich world-building that will suck you into its own world, instead.

Because I’m a Scribe, the weakness attributed to me was ‘I spend too much time documenting my findings, so my challenges take longer. I must read a book over 500 pages.’ Turns out I’ve read quite a few books over 500 pages, but not within a month. I needed something with incredible world building and staying power. So I chose The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson. Whilst I was on my MA course, I joined a creative writing group which focused on Fantasy called Moonrakers. So I got to spend a lot of time talking about fantasy with other fantasy nerds and just generally living my best life. Brandon Sanderson was quoted on a regular basis and even though I’ve read hundreds of fantasy books, I was promised by all that this was the author I needed to sink my teeth into. The hype is real, so I hope it delivers.

5. The Bookie Grail: Here you find a lost manuscript, delivered on this forgotten island by a fallen star. Read the group book: Stardust.

So, that’s my reading list. I’ve got 31 days to complete it. Wish me luck!

Have you ever dyed your hair?

Dying your hair is a lot of hard work and commitment. I’m not really a fan of either of those things when it comes to my appearance – which is why I’ll never dye my hair again.  The first time I dyed my hair should have been an experience to put me off for life, but I like to learn mistakes a couple of times just to be sure.

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Allure

You know?

PHASE 1 – The Blonde Highlights

I’d wanted blonde highlights – either because they’d been suggested to me or because everyone in my class was getting them. I can’t remember – I  just remember thinking it would be easier to do than it was. But my mum came home with one of those ‘highlighting’ caps and good lord…

Have you ever experienced someone digging into your head rhythmically for hours, to get to the smallest strands of hair? Because that’s what this is. It feels like hours of life you’re never getting back because when you see your hair poking out of the cap it’s like ‘is that it?’

But it looked okay, I didn’t hate it. And then we went on holiday…

NERD ALERT – Copper is found in traces in water, thanks to the pipes and wells used to store water. You can also use copper-based algaecides to keep your swimming pools clean. But when copper is oxidized by chlorine is binds to the proteins in hair.

TLDR – Copper water + Chlorine + hair = green tints.

And because bleached hair is so stripped down, dyed hair can look fluorescent. So I went to Margarita with gorgeous blonde highlights and came back looking like I’d stitched a witch’s wig into mine.

Copper is an alkali though, so I was told to put something red and acidic in my hair and it would counter the oxidation. We were recommended – I kid you not – tomato ketchup. So I washed tomato ketchup into my hair a couple of times and got most of the blonde back. Only in some lights could the green be seen.

PHASE 2 – Bottle Black Emo Kid

Because each phase should rebel against the last right? Black hair was sweeping through my friends shortly after the blonde highlight fiasco – so I jumped on that bandwagon too. The problem was, I had a bob. And glasses. And a school uniform. I looked less like the cool anime emo kids and more like Velma Dinkley from Scooby Doo.

And there was no fooling my classmates. My roots were lighter than the rest of my hair, so required constant upkeep. Being called ‘Bottle Black’ became a sort of slur for someone trying too hard and I gave up after that. If I were to go and dye my hair again now, this is probably the phase I’d return to. I’m pale, I think I’d look good as a casual goth.

PHASE 3 – Colour Colour

Like I said, every phase has to rebel against the last. And the last phase was to go big and bright with colours. My friends hit the bright red hard. All of them, pretty much, and I became the ‘unique one’ for not bothering. For letting my hair grow out long and brown and natural.

The truth was, I wasn’t very well, and all my hair fell out. Well, not all my hair – but enough to make growing it out a mission because it was stress induced and stress perpetuating. So it was a few years between being ill and dying my hair purple. Yes, purple – because if everyone else went red, why would I bother?

I’d expected a bright Cadbury purple, but my hairdresser ‘knew better’ and gave me a soft magenta purple. It was nice. It was different. No one cared. By this point, different hair dyes that change colour in the rain and under heat was a thing. Dying your hair multiple colours and having the top black so no one would know until the wind came along or you put it up into a ponytail.

And when it grew out it looked like a cheap Balayage. It went a bizarre red/ombre/ginger colour which did suit my long brown hair but it only sprung to life through my lack of commitment. And that was years ago. I don’t bother dying my hair now.

I might try low lights though – when it’s colder and I’m not wasting the money on something I’m going to sling out of my face with a hair band.

Let me know what you think.

 

 

Why do authors prefer a quiet place when they are writing something?

There are a lot of stereotypes about authors being reclusive and introverted. And if there’s anything I’ve learned from my years of studying Creative Writing as a craft it is this:

They are all true, but not for the reasons you think.

You see, for new/amateur writers, a blank page can be really daunting. It’s a white void. But for someone who has a bit more experience taming this particular barren landscape, a blank page can carry enough excitement to carry you forwards way past 10, 40, 80,000 words. How does this relate to quiet? Well, it’s hard for me to avoid cliches here, but just know it’s so I can convey how I see the blank page as a writer. For me, it’s a canvas and I’m trying to paint a new world on it. It might be fictitious, fantastical, or more familiar – but it has to be clear in my mind and my readers’. The blank page gives me all the freedom I need to create this world, but I’m surrounded by other elements that can affect it. Most of these elements are sounds and distractions.

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Some writer’s like to work in silence because it allows them to focus in on their creation and develop their world from this clean slate/blank canvas. Others don’t. It’s not uncommon to find a writer in a coffee shop or somewhere busy working on their manuscript. I even enjoy writing to specific playlists. If I’m working on a particularly dark scene, I like to listen to the soundtrack from Inception on Spotify. When I’ve got my historical head on, I prefer a bit of Einaudi.

But not everyone is going to appreciate me flicking between songs to find the right mood as I write, so I’ve got my noise-canceling headphones at the ready. (Sometimes, I’m not even playing music, I just don’t want to work in my office alone but can’t afford to be distracted). A quiet place doesn’t have to be silent.

The second reason, though arguably more important, is that authors prefer a quiet place to write is because they are working. One of my lecturers described a writing career as akin to Wuthering Heights.


You’re bringing this feral child home, this nomad lifestyle of writing and locking yourself away. Your family will not understand. They’ll think it’s a hobby or a waste of time. Because everyone knows you can’t get paid for writing.”

– Lucy English, Bath Spa University.


So a quiet place gives you the freedom to create without feeling like you need to justify the time you’re committing to your writing. People always look impressed that I’m studying an MA, up until the moment I tell them it’s for Creative Writing. Everyone thinks they can write, which is great. I don’t want to disparage anyone from that. But writing is a lot like playing a musical instrument. You can have a dabble and you might get a few good sounds out of it. But it’s the commitment that’ll develop it into something beautiful. And for that, I need a quiet place, without judgy faces or questioning expressions.

Me, my quiet place, and my blank canvas.

 

 

Do you believe in Luck? (Nerd Alert)

Luck
noun
  1. success or failure apparently brought by chance rather than through one’s own actions.

Luck – as we understand it from the above definition – is quite a modern concept. From as late as the 1500’s we’ve wished each other ‘Good Fortune’ – thanks to the Dutch and Germans from whom we stole the words. But the idea that we rely on ‘luck’ to achieve what we want is only a hundred and fifty years old or so.

Before that, if we wanted something we’d have to manoeuvre things to suit our needs; whether that’s work hard, work smart, network with the right people, develop skills or gain cultural capital: this is very much my mentality.

When I studied A Level Psychology, we completed several small experiments and one in particular which is relevant to ‘luck’ is whether you’re a ‘Type A’ or ‘Type B’ personality.

 

Type A Personalities generally:

  1. Live at a higher stress level, feel the pressure of time to work flat out.
  2. Enjoy the achievement of goals, especially if they’re deemed ‘difficult’ to achieve.
  3. Find it difficult to stop once they’ve achieved these goals
  4. More competitive. Hate failure.

Type B Personalities generally:

  1. Live at a lower stress level.
  2. Do not stress goals unachieved, do not fear failure but enjoy the ‘taking part’ process.
  3. Are more likely to be creative and enjoy exploring new ideas and concepts.
  4. Are more likely to be reflective.

Thanks to Changing Minds.

This means Type A Personalities are less prone to believing in luck – they’ll deconstruct failures and take credit for successes, whereas Type B Personalities tend to be the types of people who say ‘that’s life, I guess’ or ‘that’s the way the cookie crumbles’ – attributing their success or failures not to their actions but to a ‘greater, uncontrollable plan’.

And as a control freak – that’s just not acceptable to me.

So back to the psychology experiment –

We sat in a circle and my teacher asked us to look at a selection of cards with three lines on. One was longer than the others and we had to answer which one was longest. Now, I was unaware that the first three people would answer honestly, the fourth person would pick a line at random, and the rest of class then had to copy that fourth person. As the experiment continued, and we got the 8th or 9th card, I was getting more irritated that people didn’t seem to be taking this experiment seriously, just copying each other.

My teacher revealed the experiment was on me – and that I’m a Type A personality because I refused to follow the crowd in case they were wrong. And this is a mentality I’ve carried with me ever since.

That’s not to say I’m not creative, or reflective. But I do reflect over both my successes and my failures, working out what I could have done differently to improve. As a teacher and a writer, this is a key skill. No point on relying on Luck to get me published.

The Greeks used to believe in The Fates – but they didn’t ‘help’ people. People’s fates were usually tragic – and I don’t need that kind of drama in my life. I’ll continue to work hard so that my success is of my own making – because luck might not be recreated, but hard work can be.

Do you agree? Or do you believe in Luck? Leave me a comment and let me know!