The Martian

The Martian

Based around Mark Watney’s log updates on Mars and the NASA’s story back on earth, his story is essentially about one man’s survival. It was really riveting, I couldn’t stop reading. I loved the maths, chemistry and biology we had to go through, as Mark figured out how to survive and fix things to maintain life support. At the beginning of the book I found myself imagining Mark as someone who must be unlikeable, who must have been a bad person previously or whatever, that this might be a story of redemption. I’m not sure why, because that wasn’t true at all. It’s funny sometimes, how you read into things what your mind is clearly thinking about. Mark is actually a nice, well-liked guy, he has a great sense of humour that really comes through. It’s also his ability not to panic about things – I guess the fact he is writing logs after the fact has helped him to reflect and laugh at himself and the situation in a way you probably couldn’t if this was narrated in real-time.

I also felt throughout the story that there was the very real possibility that Mark may not make it. A real sense of danger that made the telling feel real.

Royal Parks Half Marathon

It’s taken me a while to get round to writing about my Royal Parks Half Marathon on 9 October 2016. But I did it. I did it!

People who know me may or may not know this, but I have a real problem with self confidence. I stress over and fixate on the thing I am trying to achieve, because I simply don’t believe I can do it. It was a bittersweet experience. Sweet, because I achieved it, I ran the whole 13.1 miles. And that was some undertaking, yes I had trained hard, but there were tears in the weeks leading up to the run, there were tears on the start line. I decided there on the start line that I just had to run my best, take it steady and get round the course, take in the experience. I had wanted to achieve certain times – for someone who loved cross country and athletics as a teenager and once wore a West Midlands vest, that was important to me – but just running the thing in the end was my Everest. But of course I was running in memory of someone I lost. And I never forgot that. It took until the week of the half marathon for me to set up my justgiving page properly, it’s hard to think about him, to look at pictures. And its hard to find the courage to share that page and ask for sponsorship. What I wrote on the page had to come from my heart, I had to run for those words.

The support on the day was what stands out to me. My mum shouting for me. My boyfriend and his parents. Those were the gold moments. My friend Charlotte at mile 12, just at the point when it was getting so tough and I was feeling emotional again, screaming my name… and suddenly my heart soared and I could do it, run to the finish line. Those are the things I am going to hold on to from this experience.

A Blight of Mages

Blight of Mages

I enjoyed this book a lot, the first half to three-quarters perhaps more than the rest, but overall, it felt different, exciting and intelligent.

Many of the characters of this world have to talk forcefully and often arrogantly to try and get what they want. In a way, performing magic is arrogant, it’s meddling with things that occur naturally, and you have to be confident you know what you’re doing otherwise you could do some real damage. Bard is an interesting lead character, on the one hand I could feel sympathetic for her ambition and her not feeling fulfilled, on the other hand, she didn’t help herself by being rude or by demeaning other people and their work. That conflict, knowing that at some point all that would land her in real trouble, made the story interesting. It’s a bit of a lesson in tempering your ambition with learning to appreciate what you have.

Goldenhand by Garth Nix

Goldenhand

I was so pleased recently to have the opportunity to meet Garth Nix at Waterstones Piccadilly. The panel was brilliant and interesting, and Garth was just as intelligent, articulate and engaging as I imagined he would be. All the things I aspire to be. It is awesome to meet your heros and find they live up to your imagination and more.

Goldenhand was a great sequel to the Old Kingdom series. In fact, as soon as I opened it and saw that distinctive font that Garth uses in these books, I was there, in that world straight away. His writing is so good I soon forget I am actually reading, I’m in the story, experiencing the world through the characters. This is what storytelling is.

Goldenhand was a well structured story, and we get to see more of Lireal as she undertakes her work as Abhorsen-in-waiting. There were still questions about Lireal that we crave to understand and these are soon hinted at, and it was lovely to see Lireal becoming more confident in her abilities and in who she is. She found herself in Lireal but in Goldenhand she comes into her own.

Book Review: Spellwright by Blake Charlton

spellwright

What a wonderfully refreshing fantasy. Spellwright had a gripping story, but it was the world building and the system of magic that I fell in love with. Spellwright is about Nicodemus, an apprentice spellwright in a world where magic is text, it is written in magical languages and spelled in the muscles of the body to form magical runes. The catch: Nicodemus cannot spell. Infact, he sounds dyslexic. I especially loved all the play on words through the book – spellwright for one, the book worms (dangerous constructs that infected and destroyed books), ghostwriting (spells that produced ghosts with all the knowledge and memories of the person gone), spellbound (people caught in a magical spell), and many more. It had me smiling as I turned the pages.

At the heart of the story is a young man trying to come to terms with who he is (and his limitations) and wishing for more. There’s something universal about him not feeling ‘complete.’ He was vulnerable, yet bold and intelligent. I liked that.

I also loved the sense of prophesy, of old gods and demons, of history and culture, of the world on the brink of threatened change.

Book Review: Bears, Without Fear by Kevin Van Tighem

bears

I can’t believe I never knew this – we had ‘teddy bears’ as children because Theodore Roosevelt refused to shoot and kill a black bear, and a toy company commemorated this with stuffed toys called ‘teddy’s bear.’ I think Teddy Roosevelt is now my favourite president.

I’ve been reading about bears because I wanted to understand more about them after traveling to Canada twice in the last two years. They have also increasingly been coming up in ecological impact assessment work I have been doing in my day job. I think perhaps because here in the UK there is nothing, at least no predator, to worry about when walking anywhere, I felt unnerved by that instinctual weariness when walking in bear country. It’s a funny feeling, reconnecting to that part of yourself that knows there’s something out there that’s bigger, stronger and wilder than you. Natural to feel that fear I think.

Bears is written by Kevin Van Tighem and he writes a calm, intelligent and balanced book about bears. I was impressed by this for two reasons. One, for someone who is clearly passionate about bear conservation it is perhaps easy to stray into impassioned one-sided arguments about bear persecution and government failures. Instead, the arguments are well thought out, considering both sides so that we can really understand the complex, if frustrating, problems facing bear conservation. Two, for someone who saw someone he loved (his sister) suffer from the affects of a bear attack, he is still able to think about bears with respect and understanding. I began to understand, once I’d looked up what had happened to his sister, why the book is perhaps titled ‘Without Fear.’

The last thing I wanted to do when hiking in Canada was unknowingly do something stupid and put myself, my partner and the bear in danger. After all, if we got attacked by a bear, there’s a good chance that bear may be relocated or killed as a result (and most relocated bears do not survive). I felt very aware that we were heading into their habitat, their home. As with many wild animals, bears have almost a dual persona – the one in the wild, and the one in our psyche. The one in our psyche is complex, formed from years of stories, movies and images we’ve grown up with. If you want to gain an understanding of bears and their behaviour, Bears is a great book to read. It includes advice and tips on hiking in bear country and what to do if you come across a bear. Bear spray is a must—not only will it deter a charging bear, that bear will then also be deterred from charging the next time it comes across or is surprised by human hikers. So my advice: read up on bears, respect bears and their home, behave appropriately in bear country.

 

Book Review: To Hold the Bridge by Garth Nix

To Hold The Bridge

A beautiful book. I’ve long been a fan of Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series—of the fantasy world, magical symbology, characters, and the writing. So the wonderful cover really appealed to me. The Old Kingdom series really captures what is magic, other-worldly and adventurous about fantasy fiction.

I fell in love with the novella of the title and I probably would have read a whole novel about Morghan’s adventures with the Bridge Company. I liked Morghan’s backstory, and though on the surface it felt like he was striving for this coveted position in the company, I was very aware that if it didn’t work out, he had little to nothing to fall back on. An underdog with heart. Given his background he ought to have been far less well-adjusted and hard-working! But that only made me like him more. The novella was beautifully structured and laid out and had a satisfying ending. The whole feel and writing style of the novella was similar to the Old Kingdom series and it definitely felt familiar in a way that I of course craved, being a fan of the series.

The second novella I loved in this book was A Handful of Ashes. Set in a collegiate school for witches it had the feel of parts of His Dark Materials to me – Lyra as a street kid in the Oxford colleges. I liked the two different sets of students – the undergraduate gentlewomen from wealthier backgrounds and the sizars who alongside their studies had to work as servants too. I liked the growing sense of danger, of something powerful and bad beginning to happen.

There are lots of stories in To Hold the Bridge, and I won’t review all of them here. The other standout story for me was Infestation. I’m not sure why this appealed to me, I only know that it was one of those stories that stuck in my head afterwards. I am intrigued by vampires, yes I loved Buffy as a teenager and yes I have read and watched the Twilight series, but I haven’t read or watched any of the many vampire stories now on the shelves or on TV. But I liked this story. It felt different. I liked the idea of having an ‘infestation’ of vampires and a volunteer group of vampire hunters coming into the designated area at sundown to despatch them. I liked the hint of vampire backstory – that they are from another world, that our use of mobile phones and such has triggered this recent rise in their number. I liked the ending too, though it was sad and abrupt – it was moving in a way that felt right after the physical action of the fight with the ancient vampire.

I’m looking forward to Goldenhand, the next novel in the Old Kingdom series, and am excited that Garth Nix is coming on a book signing tour to the UK. Can’t wait!

Inspiration Post: Long Train Journeys

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I’ve done a lot of travelling as a young person. Quite often in my life I have felt a bit nomadic, on a bus from here to there, a train, a car, a plane. Hotel rooms. Service stations. Travel has always been about imagination to me, of discovering something new and seeing something amazing, in much the same way  as reading a good book lets me discover an adventure and new world. Neil Gaiman said that those of us that read lots live lots. Live many lives. I agree, we’ve explored, fought, died, loved, learnt magic, ridden dragons, crossed space, crossed time, been through salt deserts, attended magical schools and met all manner of intriguing, wonderful, cruel, evil and brave people.

Do you know what I have always loved about travel, no matter where I was, no matter where I was going? I can carry where I want to be in my backpack. A book. A journal. Fiction has been my constant throughout, a ‘safe’ world I can dive into wherever I am.

A new love of mine has been discovering the real places written about in fiction I like. I’ve been to Stockholm and walked in Lisbeth Salander’s shoes, I’ve been to Meiji Castle and trod in Mori’s shadow, I’ve rowed across Loch Shiel and stared at the spot my muggle eyes can’t see past, I’ve wandered down Tottenham Court Road and glanced into the pub where Robin watched her mark. Do you know why I like it so much? It teaches you, I think, that a mundane street or office block can be something else, a part of a story, and that really can bring the world to life. Nothing is really that mundane. Let your imagination run riot.

Book Review: The Summon Stone by Ian Irvine

The Summon Stone by Ian Irvine

 

I’ve waited a long time to read more about Karen and Llian. Ian Irvine’s Three Worlds Cycle has a special place in my heart because it was the first fantasy series that I really fell in love with. I think I first read it when I was at university, ten years ago, and I have read (all eleven books) several times since then. It is rare for me to read fiction more than once, but the story is so complex, there are so many characters, so many adventures and issues, and moreover, I love Karen so much, that I feel very able to re-read it. Why do I love Karen so much? She is quiet and sensitive, yet she goes on this epic journey, which proves her resourcefulness and illustrates her conflicted loyalties. She struggles with all of this, and you really feel for her. She is special, she’s a sensitive, but she is thrust into a world of the more powerful and large egos and conflicting cultures, histories and philosophies.

The Summon Stone was a welcome update. I think Ian Irvine has said that his writing has evolved and The Summon Stone definitely felt pacey and tension-filled. I love that we get to see Karen and Llian after the events of the View from the Mirror—don’t you always wonder what happens to the characters next? I love that they are parents, I have grown up with Karen and Llian, from when they were young and running for their lives, to now having a different set of responsibilities and concerns.

Ian Irvine once described the Three Worlds Cycle as a ‘Darwinian Fantasy’ – the central theme isn’t good against evil, it is about the struggle for survival between four species of humans. I was intrigued therefore, when the first chapter of the new book was titled ‘The evil man saw me.’ Santhanar is under threat once more (in fact I know it will one day be under threat from the void, as the second and third trilogies of the Three Worlds Cycle deal with further down the timeline than The Summon Stone).

I enjoyed the ride, with old and new characters. The old characters have of course evolved since the first trilogy, but they add a familiarity that I craved when I picked this up. It’s important I suppose when picking up old characters to make the story feel fresh and exciting, rather than a nostalgic remembrance of all things we loved about these characters in the first place. The Summon Stone delivers. I like the tension, the sense of everything starting to go wrong, of Karen being at the forefront of it all once more, trying to save her family in the midst of worldwide danger. Because I already cared what happened to Karen, and the more dire things got, the more I rooted for her.

One of the things I loved about The View from the Mirror was the sense of an epic journey and of traveling through fantastical landscapes: mountains and forest, leech infested bogs, salt deserts, sprawling cities. In The Summon Stone we travel through Santhanar again, go inside mansions and down tunnels, up to eerie mountain tops and black lakes, we go to the cold void. I will always love the sense of adventure I get from reading Irvine novels.

Thoughts on female characters

I do love strong female characters in fiction—I’m particularly drawn to badass ones that are tougher than I am, and also to the reluctant, mousy girl who turns out to be a hero. Why do I need them to be female though? Aren’t I actually drawn to male characters in a similar way?

Perhaps I am drawn to male characters for slightly different reasons, they are different, vulnerable yet tough. I like being inside the head of the tough hero, privy to all his self-doubt and struggles.

The truth is, I like inhabiting the world of female characters as much as I do a male one. I did go through a stage of purposefully only seeking out books with female leads. And yes, I will always be happy to celebrate the wonderful breadth of strong female leads in fiction and I will always enjoy reading them. However, I recognise now that I was cutting myself off from a heap of awesome books and intriguing male leads.

I worry sometimes that some forms of feminism and supporting everything female is not done from a place of promoting equality.   I want to enjoy a character or a writer, because of the quality of the writing and the complex well fleshed out character, not because of their gender. I like the character I like because of how they’ve been written. If I’m hooked in by something intriguing about a character, I will usually read to the end.

I guess in the end perhaps we all subconsciously or not, look for traits in characters that we either recognise in ourselves or admire. Gender does and doesn’t come in to that.