Thursday, 30 July 2015

Children's Books And Why They're Great (2): The Excitement Ideal

Good afternoon, blogglings. (Or evening, or morning, or, in fact, night. Aren't timezones a strange thing?) Today I am ploughing on with the second part of my mini-series on children's books.

Maybe this a terrible idea. Maybe you all hated the first post, but this post is scheduled because I am on camp and have not read your comments, so the mini-reviews shall plunge ahead.

I reread The Cry of the Icemark in January (it is appropriate as a winter reread).

In the tiny kingdom of Icemark, war presses in from every side. Princess Thirrin is soon shouldered with far more responsibility than she could ever expect, and it is up to her to use allies and foes alike to win her country's freedom.

The Cry of the Icemark is a really fun book. It's not, and never will be, a classic. There are too many adverbs for the thinking reader. But it has an energy that makes it hugely enjoyable; in short, it has the excitement ideal.

By nature of genre, some books are more exciting than others. Some books are beatiful and adorable and brilliant, but they don't catch your breath with the thrill of the chase. That's OK! Every book should be different. Some books aren't thrillers. Most of my favourite books, in fact, are not thrillers.

However. There is nothing worse than a book that's boring.

In my last post, I discussed the prevalence of humour in children's books; how it's something that's done well.

The other thing that I think children's authors manage very well is pace, and excitement.

The Cry of the Icemark encapsulates this. It's an adventure story spanning magic, mythical creatures, and a journey across the frozen world of the white days and long nights. It has battles and swords. It has werewolves and vampires. It has magical forests and magical boys, and death and danger and thrill. Rather than getting caught up in the muddy waters of over-description, pointless deviation or a barrage of characters' emotions that we could really do without, The Cry of the Icemark grips. 

Caroline Lawrence's Roman Mysteries series is a far cry from the Icemark trilogy. I binge reread the first three books (in this omnibus) a few months ago, when I also binge reread the first three Percy Jacksons.

This was my favourite series when I was younger. The writing teacher in my book is called Caroline, after Lawrence, because she was one of the biggest influences on me, and on my wanting to write.

It's AD 69. Flavia Gemina is the daughter of a sea-captain in the town of Ostia. When she befriends Jonathan, the new boy next door; an African slave-girl called Nubia; and mute boy Lupus, it is the start of many adventures as the four friends work to solve the mysteries of murders, thefts and much more in Ancient Italy.

The Roman Mysteries is an uncomplicated series. There are mysteries; the characters solve the mysteries. But it is also rich with character development and evocation of setting, and the plots are second to none.

I started reading these books when I was maybe nine or ten, and they are totally appropriate for children that age. They're pretty short. They're probably not going to give you nightmares. But their plots are absolutely beautiful, and I think they totally fit in with the Excitement Ideal. They are page-turners - gripping. They all had me hooked, even though I vaguely knew what was going to happen. (OK, I lie. Though I remember certain things about the series, the plots of those first three had faded into the mist of time. Although I did remember all the details about the dogs, and the food. What does that say about me? Don't answer that.) I couldn't stop reading!

I also love the characters. Flavia is a top notch MC -- she can be a bit horrible and proud occasionally, but she's generally kind, and clever, and just great. Then there's Nubia, who is so sweet and lovely and I love her and Flavia's friendship. There's Jonathan, who is hilarious and will always have a place in my heart. And there's Lupus, who likewise is so smart and savvy and generally a great guy. Bonus: there's also Aristo, AKA the forever bae. Did I mention that the later books have wondrous things to ship? Aristo/the ship (no spoilers) was my OTP before I knew what an OTP was!

The bottom line is that I'd 100% recommend both of these series. I will keep you updated as I continue my rereads of both!

Now then: tell me, what is the most exciting book you've read this year? How about ever? And have you read either of these series, and will you fangirl with me?

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Children's Books And Why They're Great (1): The Funny Factor

There comes in point in life, aged maybe twelve or so, when you stop reading children's books and graduate to YA.

Hopefully, it isn't long before you start again.

CS Lewis said, “A children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest.” I think this is entirely true, which is why I'm doing a mini-series* highlighting some excellent children's books, for teenagers and adults.

*Doing mini-series makes me feel like such an accomplished and organised blogger.

Today, I'm thinking about humour and its prevalence in children's books.

Maybe it's just me, but this is what I've noticed: YA just isn't that funny. Anna and the French Kiss is squirmingly adorable and we ship it to the moon and back ... but it's not a laugh a minute. Divergent, Throne of Glass, The Hunger Games? Maybe we love them, but A+ humour they do not have.

Of course, there are exceptions!

Skulduggery Pleasant is hilarious.

And let's not forget Harry, Sass Master Extraordinaire.

Oh, and of course, the books of Queen  Maggie Stiefvater are brilliantly funny.

But for the most part, YA is a desert for humour. (And, interesting note: both Skulduggery and Harry walk the line between YA and children's books. The early books in both series are comfortably in the children's camp, I'd say.)

Why is this? Whilst it's sometimes true that YA deals with darker subjects than children's books, that doesn't mean that the humour content should be lower. Maybe YA heroines are just too distracted by love triangles to have any time for humour. I don't know.

I finished this book on Thursday. 

In a Britain run by magicians, the government buys magical children from their parents and apprentices them to magicians. Nathaniel, frustrated by his lacklustre master and his feeling that no one understands his potential, secretly summons 5000-year-old djinni Bartimaeus in a bid for revenge against an old enemy. But when he orders Bartimaeus to steal the ancient Amulet of Sarmakand, he is soon embroiled in a plot that goes far beyond his petty idea of vengeance.

I'd been told before that The Amulet of Sarmakand was "hilarious", so I was expecting humour. Humour I got, but it was also a lot darker than I expected. I imagined that the two MCs would form an adorable and brilliant team ... but, in fact, Bartimaeus was pretty mean, and Nathaniel was a brat. He was selfish and self-obsessed, and made a lot of bad decisions. As such, I found myself siding with Bartimaeus pretty much the whole way through -- but even he was quite cruel.

However, the humour was perfectly balanced.

Footnotes! I love footnotes.

Obviously, this sort of humour comes down to Stroud's particular style. He created an unreliable and very amusing character in Bartimaeus, and this made The Amulet of Sarmakand a highly enjoyable read.

The plot was also fast-paced and interesting, but in the end, it was the humour that defined this book for me, and the humour that gives me my main reason for recommending it.

I'm yet to read The Heroes of Olympus, but from what I've been told they are solidly in the YA camp. However, the first Percy Jackson cycle are, I'd say, definitely children's books.

I binge-reread those three in as many days when I was ill a few months ago (and, once I've finished A Farewell to Arms, I'm going to reread #4 ... yay!), but never did a proper review. (Do you remember when I used to review every book I read? I also used to post every day. Hahahahaha.) Now is the time.

For anyone who doesn't know (and can I ask, where have you been?) the Percy Jackson books tell the story of the eponymous Percy who, after discovering he is the son of Greek god Poseidon, goes to a place called Camp Half-Blood. There he receives training and meets other demigods, as well as a whole host of other creatures, and some of the Olympians themselves. What Percy must quickly learn, however, is that a full-blown war of the gods is brewing, and he and his friends are about to be plunged into its midst. 

I first read the first few Percy Jackson books (the first four, I think) when I was about nine until I was maybe eleven. Then I sort of fell off the end -- it's difficult to keep up with a series when the books come out once a year. You can forget the plot in between book. I normally do.

However, rereading these first three I have fallen in love with them all over again. They are brilliantly fresh -- do you know of any other Greek god books? Do you? -- and fast-paced. Riordan's love and devoted study of Greek mythology spills over on every page; for me, reading these aged ten or so sparked a mythology phase that ensures I now know far more about classical myths even than is found in these pages. Riordan marvellously captures and reworks ancient stories.

The characters are excellent. He goes for a really diverse cast, and introduces the refreshing theme of ADHD and dyslexia for many of his characters, whose inbuilt demigod fighting skills make them hyper-aware all the time, and whose brains are wired for Ancient Greek, thus making it hard to read English. This, paired with the books' easy-to-read style, enables them to connect with children struggling with ADHD and dyslexia, which I think is really important.

Percy is a strong MC. He can be a little annoying, but I think that, in these early books, he captures the essence of being twelve (not that I'd remember. I am as ancient as the forest.), and is ultimately a selfless and brave boy. Annabeth, meanwhile, is an excellent female lead. I love how strong she is, and her love of learning (not letting her above-mentioned dyslexia get in the way of her dreams of being an architect). Then there's Grover; though often viewed as the hopeless on of the trio, he is hilarious, and keeps the rest of the characters together. We all need a Grover.

The thing that really brings these books to life is the humour.

They never fail to make me smile, and for this reason they are an excellent series for readers of any age.

What about you? Do you still read children's books? What's your favourite? And, I am very interested to know, what's the funniest book you've ever read? Do you agree with me that YA needs more humour? And why is the humour absent, anyway? Give me your thoughts.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Bookish Photography: In Which I Actually Try

Good evening! After much gadding about (a week in Portugal, and then a wedding weekend in Shropshire) I am back in bonny Scotland. I'm back at work. It's raining. 

Ah, it's good to be home ...

My holiday was exceptionally excellent, and then the wedding in Shropshire was marv. I saw many members of my far-flung family (it was my cousin's wedding) and it was wonderful all round.

Today, I share a June-and-July-s0-far haul. And, guess what?

Rather than my general haul approach, which is to slap them on the badly lit floor and take a blurry picture .... I actually tried. I went outside, guys. I got my jeans muddy. Appreciate what I do for you.

Taking these photos was really, really good fun. I'm yet to master exposure (any tips, anyone?), but it was nonetheless highly enjoyable. I hope you like!

This is, like, the book blogosphere's favourite book ... and I'm yet to read it. But I will! Soon! Honest!*

And isn't that cover gorgeous?

*Disclaimer: at the moment I am actively reading twelve series, plus waiting for new books in others, and dithering over whether to continue with others. So I might try and finish some of those before starting a new trilogy.

Maggie! Maggie! Maggie! I've actually not read Lament yet, but of course I'm going to love the series because ... Maggie! Maggie! Maggie!

Isn't that cover gorgeous, too? In fact, everything the woman has ever published is gorgeous. I am currently enjoying this beautiful collection of spines on my shelf:

I bought Skulduggery Pleasant: The Faceless Ones for £1.29. Charity shop, naturally, though it has never been read! I now have 7/10 (if anyone wants to send me the other 3 at any point, feel free).

I find bookish gifs far too amusing.

I bought Gormenghast for 10p! Normally I'd wait to read the first one before buying any others in the series, but ... 1op!!!

Of course, the editions are wildly different, but in an odd way, they match. Again, don't you love Gormenghast's cover? Absolutely beautiful.

My Percy Jackson empire is growing with the addition of The Battle of the Labyrinth and The Last Olympian. I bought them both in Portugal, and now ... I can actually continue reading the series! Huzzah!*

It's come to the point where I don't even care about having matching editions anymore. Sadly Battle of the Labyrinth is a pretty gross edition, but The Last Olympian is beautiful, isn't it?

*I'm so excited by this prospect. I'm dancing a little bit in my chair.
Remember how I'm obsessed with F. Scott Fitzgerald? I was very happy to pick these up in Shropshire (secondhand, naturally).

I'm starting to feel like a broken record repeating this so often, but don't you love the covers? Those illustrations are stunning.

I almost didn't buy The Golem's Eye because I'd not yet read Amulet, and I was worried just in case I didn't like it. But I'm reading Amulet now (I'm almost finished) and man, I'm glad I have the second one! This is an excellent series: it's hilarious. I'm really excited to pursue it.

Ownership of The Dolphins of Laurentum allows me to continue with my Roman Mysteries collecting. That's 14/18 to my name.

I'm so looking forward to continuing my reread of this series. You don't even know.

Bonus question: does it hurt my heart and shred my soul, the fact that The Prophet from Ephesus is a different edition to the rest? Yes, yes it does.

PS You can ignore that box bobbing its merry way along. Apparently it was too much for the books to stand up on their own (worthless layabouts). Oh well. I think the box adds a certain je ne sais quois.*

*I know it doesn't, but come on, I'm trying to be positive, here.

These are the two novels I'm studying for Advanced Higher English. I'll be reading The Handmaid's Tale this summer. It's cover is really nice. Shame about The Road and its film cover. You win some, you lose some.
And finally, a complete wildcard! I'd never heard of this book before, but first attracted by the spine, and then the cover, and then the prologue (which is beautiful), I bought it in Portugal. I love that retro-fantasy cover.

Are you a bookish photographer? I really hope you have enjoyed my first attempts! Now, you must tell me: have you read any of these books? I mean, I know you've all read Daughter of Smoke and Bone and Percy Jackson, but has anyone read the Gormenghast trilogy? Weaveworld? How about the Bartimaeus trilogy or the Roman Mysteries? Let me know! And if you have any recent haul posts, please link me up.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Beautiful People: Corrie // Summer

Hello, beautiful people! I bring you Beautiful People!

This is the monthly link-up hosted by Cait @ Paper Fury and Skye @ Further Up and Further In. 


For July, it is kinda summer-themed. This feels weird because in my novel right now it is December.

If you want to read any of my previous Beautiful People posts, pop up to the page called I Write. The links are there.

I will, once again, be talking about WIP novel, focussing on the MC, Corrie.

1. What’s their favourite ice cream flavour?
Before coming to Teyvanidan and the Royal Court, Corrie had never had ice-cream bar a very few times. It's not that her family are super poor (her stepfather is actually a well-established merchant so they're pretty comfortably off) but, without electricity, there just aren't the facilities in her village to store something that needs to be frozen. But she really likes ice-cream. (Who doesn't?) Favourite flavour is orange sorbet.

2. Your character is getting ready for a night out. Where are they going? What are they wearing? Who will they be with?

The one and only night out Corrie has in the book (thus far) -- and it is organised by school! Awkward ...

It is a feast and ball for St. Hesta's Day. She is wearing a green dress. She will be with her friend Freddie. Things you should know about Corrie's friends: she is in a group of four. The others are called Freddie, Mel and Jem. Freddie and Corrie were Selected together from Mallowwick, whereas Mel and Jem live in Teyvanidan. They are not of the Selected nor the nobility; they therefore cannot come to the St Hesta's Day Ball, which is why Corrie and Freddie go alone. But most of the time, any evening stuff will be done by the four of them together.

^There was this one bit where they talked by the sea and ate toffee apples ... that doesn't count, does it?

3. Look at your character’s feet. Describe what you see there. Do they wear dress shoes, gym shoes, or none at all? Are they in socks that are ratty and full of holes? What do they consider comfortable and what do they consider agony?

cute shoes! it can either be a little formal or casual. and don't miss the pretty floral dress in the back ground ;)

Brogues! You'd be hard pressed to see Corrie not in brogues. Hers would be a lot more scuffed than these, though.

ca. 1805 SilkDamask : The Dramatic Shoe: A Selection from the Chester County Historical Society

These are some legit 17th century shoes. (In terms of historical context, the novel is very loosely based in the 17th century. With emphasis on the very.)

Women's mule. England, mid-17th century

Bonus: for the aforementioned ball, Corrie has to wear this kind of shoes. They are surprisingly comfortable. She does have a weakness for pretty shoes (just pretty things in general, to be honest).

4. Do they have any birthmark or scars? Where are they and how did they get them?

She has a birthmark on her shoulderblade; not in a particular shape, just a light brown mark. As a little girl, she used to pretend it was a sign that she was actually a fairy. (It isn't. Sorry, Corrie.)

She has a scar on her calf, near the knee, from a bad cut she got aged seven. She fell over and sliced her leg on a stone.

5. What kind of music do they listen to? Does it change depending on their mood or is it always consistent? (Feel free to share samples!)
In a Spotify-free world (I know. Try not to imagine such a horror.) she doesn't have much opportunity to listen to music. I've never really thought about this before, but I suppose the only music she'll hear is from court musicians, or street performers. 
She really likes choral music.

6. Do they have any musical talent? Play an instrument? How’s their singing voice?

Not especially. She doesn't play anything, and in terms of singing, Corrie is like me. Words sound better coming from her fingers than her mouth. She's not a bad singer, though.

7. What kind of book would you catch them reading?

EVERYTHING! OK. Not quite. But ...

#amreading hashtag on Twitter

You know this. I know this. Corrie knows this too. 

She loves reading about magic etc, but as it actually exists in her world, "fantasy" is not a genre as such. She also reads a lot of classics. And poetry. 

8. How would they spend their summers (or their holidays)?
With no aeroplanes, there aren't many super exciting holiday prospects in Corrie's life. Her mum doesn't really like travelling, and for George (her stepfather), his job involves a lot of travelling, and he can't often take his family with him. As such, they don't really go away in the summer, except to see Corrie's grandparents.

So she spends her summers reading, writing, enjoying not going to school, and taking long walks to write, and to avoid her sisters, who are probably bickering. She also likes to go swimming in the lake behind the village.

9. It’s Saturday at noon. What is your character doing? Give details. Ex. If they’re eating breakfast, what’s on the menu? Are they hiking, shopping, lazing around?
During termtime, Corrie has just finished Writing. In the Selected timetable, they work for the week and get Sundays and Saturday afternoons off. On Saturday mornings, Breakfast is half an hour later than a normal day (8.30 instead of 8), and a special two-hour class begins at 10, for training in your Selected discipline. You have other one-hour lessons in this subject throughout the week.

So, at noon, she's just leaving class. There's an hour till lunch. She's probably going to read for a bit, or meet her friends to walk the city streets, watch the performers; soak up the life of Teyvanidan. 

10. Is there anything your character wants to be free of?
A civil war that's threatening to tear her country apart. The fact that, right now (80k in) she doesn't know where one of her best friends is because he went off to fight and could be dead. The missing, also potentially dead, sister of another of her friends. The pyschotic queen who's after her. The fact that a lot of Ivarians are on the brink of starvation.

Yeah, Corrie would like to free of all of those things.

So, have you participated in Beautiful People? I'll go round some of the posts on the link-up, but tell me yours, in case I miss it! Oh, and a question for the non-writers of my followers: is this sort of post even mildly interesting to you? I am eager to know.

Emily x

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Art Tuesday: Eric Ravilious // Beauty and Tragedy

At the end of May I visited London. I posted about it once before, in an Art Tuesday post wherein I shared some pictures from an Impressionist exhibition I saw. You can read that post here

Though this is technically a book blog, one thing you should know about me is that besides books/writing, art is my great love, so now and then I like to branch out like a beautiful tree and post about it.

When in London, the other exhibition I saw was of the work of Eric Ravilious. Heard of him? I hadn't, either, until I was Googling "art to see in London" the week before our trip. Going to the exhibition was a bit of a gamble, but I'm so glad we did.

Ravilious lived from 1903-1942. Prior to the twentieth century, all artists painted in oils and watercolours were considered as being only for draft paintings, but Ravilious was instrumental in changing this because he painted almost solely with watercolour; rather than considering these paintings "drafts" they were his finished works.

He was particularly inspired by the Sussex Downs and painted a lot of landscapes, reflecting the beauty of England and the tranquillity of rural life.

Mount Caburn

This one is beautiful.

Downs in Winter
Furlongs on the Sussex Downs
The River Thames at Hammersmith
The Causeway, Wiltshire Downs
The Duke of Hereford's House

I love this one because I am fascinated by graveyards.
The Waterwheel
Vicarage in Winter

The light! It is so beautiful!
Wet Afternoon

Ravilious also painting cityscapes and interiors.

November 5th

I love how his work hovers between fine art and illustration.

A Farmhouse Bedroom

This one is quite
 surreal. The floor isn't quite straight, you see? It is very beautiful, but hard to look at!

Edward Bawden Working in His Studio 

Again, I love the slightly surreal feel of this, and all the beautiful detail.

Trains formed a large part of Ravilious' subject matter.

Train Landscape

I LOVE this. 
Eric Ravilious  The Wilmington Giant
The Giant of Wilmington
Eric Ravilious  The Westbury Horse, 1939
The Westbury Horse

The giant chalk pictures of the Downs often featured in Ravilious' work.

During the Second World War (1939-45), Ravilious became a government-employed war artist, travelling with the British Army and painting what he saw. Whilst today we have cameras readily available at every turn, then the government used artists like Ravilious to document the war.

HMS Royal Ark in Action

Ravilious - Midnight Sun.
Midnight Sun

I think it's incredible that his work is still so stunning; even when at war, Ravilious saw the beauty in everything.
Convoy Passing an Island
Leaving Scapa Flow

Eric Ravilious was killed in 1942, aged thirty-nine, when the aircraft he was on was lost off Iceland.

He remains one of the defining British twentieth century artists, for his contribution to the illustration movement; pioneering work in having watercolour recognised as a proper medium; beautiful paintings; and bravery in contribution to the war effort.