Stardust by Neil Gaiman: My favourite books

Stardust is one of those books of which I watched the film before I read it – in fact, I watched the film before I even knew there was a book. It took me some time to even put the book with the film, which is quite embarrassing, but as my teacher lent me a copy in year six (our library was woefully lacking at the time), I was lucky, as everyone I told about it was just as excited as I was. I am obsessed with the world of this book – just last year, I purchased a charity pin from the RSPB that is in the shape of a snowdrop in reference to this book, and I wear it whenever I can.

If you’re ever looking for a stellar example of fantasy fiction set partially within our world, Stardust is the book for you. Starting in the village of Wall, the narrative follows the adventure of one boy – Tristan – as he crosses the wall to retrieve a fallen star for Victoria, the woman he thinks that he’s in love with. He soon discovers that stars are actually people, and an adventure to get the star, who goes by the name Yvain, back to give to Victoria ensues. Combined with this is the quest of a group of three witches to get the star, as  they have to eat hearts of stars to stay alive, beautiful, and powerful, and the story of seven brothers fighting for the throne after their father followed the laws of succession in their royal family, and threw a necklace with a large gemstone on it out of the window. None of the story lines ever become confusing, and they reach a great conclusion that brings all of them together. The world beyond the wall is almost palpable, the aspects fit together to form a world that seems like it couldn’t be the product of one person’s brain.

I put down this book and immediately looked up Gaiman’s other books, even at the age of 11. My love for this book, and Neil Gaiman’s stories in general, has not waned since I read the first few pages. If you ever want to read a feel good fantasy book that must have taken so many charts and balls of yarn in its complexity, but takes no effort on your part to enjoy, read Stardust. And even if not, please just read Stardust anyway. I can assure you that you won’t be disappointed.

 

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Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell: My Favourite Books

Of all of my favourite books, Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell is one I often forget when people ask me about my favourite books. Not that it’s a bad book, or forgetable in any way, but just as a reader of largely fantasy books, or at least books with some sort of supernatural element, Eleanor and Park is somewhat more understated; there’s no magic, nothing out of the ordinary, just a beautifully realistic love story.

I discovered Eleanor and Park after reading another of Rowell’s books, Fangirl, which I also love. As soon as I finished Fangirl, I immediately went to my nearest bookshop and sought out anything else by Rowell, and Eleanor and Park was on a display table. (Briefly taking a tangent, I am loving the new run of Runaways that Rowell has a large part in the writing of, and I would recommend it to anyone, as you don’t have to have read any of the previous Runaways to be able to follow what’s going on. Anyway.).

The book is set in the 1980s, and centres around the two characters of Eleanor and Park. Both of them, typically, don’t quite fit in with the world of high school. Park is half Korean, which makes him an outcast in Omaha, Nebraska, where almost everyone is white, and on top of that, he is obsessed with music and comic books. Eleanor is even more of an outcast, wearing men’s clothing a lot of the time, a little chubby, with a head of bright red hair. Park realises how much of a target Eleanor is for the bullies at their school, and so offers her the seat next to him on the bus. As is to be expected, a relationship blossoms between them.

The novel explores issues of race, class, family, and so much more. At the novel’s open, Eleanor has just returned from a year spent living with her uncle after she was kicked out of her home by her stepfather, who abuses her mother and her siblings. The conflict between Eleanor, and to a lesser extent also her siblings and her mother, and Richie, her stepfather, is central to the story, but amazingly it never errs from realistic throughout the novel. The story, whilst heartbreaking, is firmly rooted in the reality of life for many people, which makes it all the more poingnant.

One of the other things I loved as well was the mystery of the novel’s ending. Leaving a story so open ended is something that I rarely enjoy, but Rowell does it so well that it still feels like a satisfying ending. By the end of the book, you know the characters so well that you know what most likely happened, but you can never be sure. The ending also fits with the reality of the novel – you don’t ever know exactly what’s going to happen in life, and that’s okay, as a lot of the time you just have to go where life takes you.

Everyone who I have leant this book to have told me that they cried reading it, and in my opinion moving people to that extent is a clear signifier of a good book. All of this is why Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park will undoubtebly remain one of my favourite books, quite possibly forever.

 

My favourite books: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller was recommended to me by many people before I actually read it. If I’m completely honest, I only got round to it because it was on the reading list for one of my modules this year (it was subsequently removed, much to my dismay, but that’s another story). I don’t know why it took me so much convincing – I love Greek and Roman mythology, I love the Iliad, and I’m always excited to read books with LGBTQ+ representation, and this book ticks all of those boxes. No wonder then that before I had even finished it, it had made it into the list of my favourite books.

This book is just beautiful. I cried throughout the book – I started bookmarking every time the book made me cry, which considering I knew the ending, and how Miller consistently foreshadows the ending through Achilles’ happy arrogance and Patroclus’ reluctant happiness, was a lot. I ran out of post-it-note bookmarks. This, coupled with the gorgeous poetic descriptions of the landscapes and events of the novel, makes it into one of those books I stayed up until 2.30am to finish, at which time I messaged my friend in tears and she immediately knew what I had just finished reading.

I don’t feel that my love of the Iliad was a necessary pre-requisite for reading and loving Miller’s novel either. Most of my friends that have read the book and love it had no idea what was going to happen, giving them a completely different experience of reading the book. Either way, I do not know a single person who has read The Song of Achilles and not enjoyed it.

This book is the book that I always recommend to people without exception when they ask me for book recommendations, so I felt it most remiss not to mention it here on my blog when I have this favourite books series. If you haven’t yet read it, do so. I sincerely promise you that you will love it.

My favourite books: His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman 

Something happened this week that I am very excited about: Phillip Pullman released a book in the same universe as one of my favourite book series, the His Dark Materials trilogy. La Belle Sauvage is described as not a prequel, or a sequel, but rather an equal, taking place at the same time as the events of the series. The excitement I feel to read it reminded me of how much I love the original trilogy.

I, like many others I know, was first introduced to the Phillip Pullman trilogy through the film the Golden Compass. I loved it, fantasy is one of my favourite genres, and the universe felt so different, so similar to the world that I knew and yet so magical at the same time. I almost immediately checked the Northern Lights out of my local library, and read it within a week. It was so much better than the film (not in a snobbish way, in the sense that they changed some major plot points and removed some elements to market the film more towards children) the world far richer, the characters more developed, and the plot so natural and yet very unpredictable.

I never normally read books in a series one after the other, as I generally find it somewhat spoils my enjoyment of them – too much of a good thing, in a sense. I made this mistake with the Subtle Knife, choosing to read it almost immediately after finished the Northern Lights. I struggled with it for a bit, had to put it down for a while. Once I came back to it, I enjoyed it far more, although it still remains my least favourite of the three in the series.

The final book in the series, the Amber Spyglass, felt like the perfect finale to the series. The series had gradually built to that point, and taking the start of the Northern Lights and the end of the Amber Spyglass in isolation would leave you completely unsure if they were even from the same series, but the progression throughout the series goes as a perfect pace, and it all fits into place. I can still cry thinking about Will and Lyra’s annual tradition.

This book series remains firmly in my favourites, and I am so excited to read the latest instalment – and, after writing this, I want to reread the whole of the original series!

My favourite books: 1984 by George Orwell

Like many people, I had heard of 1984 long before I read it. It was due to it’s reputation as a classic dystopian novel that I decided to read it, largely because I wanted to do my Extended Essay for my IB on dystopian literature, comparing the graphic novel V for Vendetta with a novel to look at the differences in presentations of themes in graphic novels and novels. I chose to read 1984 because not only is it the classic, but also because V for Vendetta has been compared to it a lot by critics, and Alan Moore himself has said that he took a large amount of inspiration from 1984 when writing V for Vendetta.

I have to say, I found the book initially slow to get into. Without a clear direction of narrative like I was used to, it didn’t immediately grab my attention. However, I soon found myself halfway through, having read for several hours, with no intention of putting the book down with any haste. I also found it really enjoyable to re-read, which is something I don’t find with many books. In fact, re-reading it was almost more enjoyable for me than reading it the first time, as knowing what was going to happen made the story all the more poignant in a way.

What makes me love this book so much is the reality of it. Unlike many dystopias we see nowadays, (for example The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins) it is a terrifyingly possible future. There’s a logic to how the world developed to get to the point it’s at in the novel, which is what Orwell intended, obviously, so it feels like so much more than just a story.

The way Orwell builds this world as well is so chilling. There’s a reason that the opening line, ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen’ is known by so many people. From that line alone, the eerie atmosphere of the novel is set. It only builds from there, and by the end of the first page I could imagine this world in all sorts of detail that Orwell hasn’t even touched on from the few things that he has.

It’s also interesting the way I started off with sympathy for Winston, the protagonist, and root for him more and more as the novel goes on, but then ended up more disappointed in him than saddened for him. There’s so much hope, and it’s all crushed for the reader and for Winston, which I did not expect at all with the way the novel was written leading up to that point.

I find the very fact that writing this blog post makes me want to go and re-read 1984 clear evidence to the fact that this novel is more than deserving of its iconic status, both to me and in the world at large.

Undercover Princess by Connie Glynn: A magical debut

I was lucky enough this summer to get to go to the YouTube convention Summer in the City in London, and among the awesome panels and the fabulous performances over the weekend, I managed to bag myself a free proof copy of Connie Glynn’s book Undercover Princess, the first in the Rosewood Chronicles series. I have been a fan of Connie’s YouTube channel – Noodlerella – for a while, and after seeing a reading of her book and hearing her talk about the process of writing the book, I was really excited to read it. And Glynn did not disappoint.

The novel centres around the character of Lottie Pumpkin, who arrives at a new school to start year 10 and finds that everyone at the school believes that she is the undercover princess from Maradova, despite the fact that the undercover princess is in fact her roommate.

The plot of the novel is very fresh and original, and differentiates itself well from the other ‘school’ books that are all too easy to find in the Young Adult section of any bookshop. One way in which this is done is through Lottie starting in year ten, rather than starting at the start of year seven. I found that the novel skipped events that I would have considered essential to a book about a person’s school life, but in missing these events out, although it seems initially strange, the book is transformed from a book about a student at school to a story about a character that happens to be set at a school.

The language and descriptions of this novel are fantastic, as is the characterisation. When Glynn signed my copy of the novel at Summer in the City, she said to let her know what theories I had whilst reading it, because she was really excited to see how people interpreted the book. And I do have a fair few theories, brought about through subtle clues throughout the book.

This book was a wonderful debut by Glynn, and I am very much looking forward to the next installment in the Rosewood Chronicles.

My favourite books: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern 

As I haven’t been able to read many new releases recently owing to my rather extensive university reading lists, I thought I could start a series this week, talking about my favourite books, in both my experience with them and why I love them so much. So this week: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.

The Night Circus is the book I say in response to the ‘What is your favourite book?’ question from anyone, and though there are many books I enjoyed and appreciate just as much as The Night Circus, so few people I know have read it that I can’t resist the possibility of telling someone about it so they may read and enjoy it too. 

I first read it as a loan from my uncle, who gave it to me as a book he’d read, mildly enjoyed, and thought I might like. I will admit, it took me a while to get into. When I boarded the plane for a family holiday to Barcelona in 2014, I was around 40 pages in. A day and a half into the holiday and I had finished it. I got swept up into the story, invested in every character, unsure of what was going to happen, that I could barely put it down. I have since forced many of my friends to read it, and I still live in hope that the production company that bought the rights will make the film someday.

The premise sounds strange when described, and it is so difficult to describe. There’s a circus that ‘appears without warning’, is only open at night, and disappears again. The Circus is in fact a stage for a duel between Marcus and Celia, both bound at birth to be engaged in a duel of magic until one of them wins. And every character within the Circus has a role to play.

One of the key reasons I love this book so much is its characters. You care about every single one, no matter how many are introduced as the story progresses. I think one of the reasons this is is Morgenstern’s masterful use of a non-chronological narrative – the story leaps forwards and backwards in time, with headings on each chapter to tell you where and when you are each time. Through this, you see the world of the circus introduced to the different characters, and see how they fit it in with the wider narrative.

The premise of the novel seemed so unique to me as well. The idea of young and old arguing as to whose way is better is obviously ages old, but the framing of the Night Circus, open only for a few days, arriving unannounced, was just so enticing. As a reader, you are like one of the many normal visitors to the circus who are described in a few vague chapters dotted throughout the novel. You walk around with the other people, admiring these things that you could never dream of appearing so vividly in front of your eyes as Morgenstern’s words come to life.

The ending of the book also worked really well – it did not feel forced, it was very satisfying, and it still left me in tears.

The Night Circus is almost as magical as its namesake circus is itself, and that’s why it remains firmly in my list of my favourite books.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream performed by the Pantaloons – raucous fun blown away by the wind

A little over a year ago my parents mentioned that there was a performance of Much Ado Ado About Nothing at Smallhythe Place, and asked if I wanted to go. As a fan of Shakespeare, I said that of course I would, but I had no idea what I was in for in watching the Pantaloons production. The Pantaloons are a travelling stage company who specialise in comedic interpretations of various stories – since I was left in hysterics at the performance of Much Ado About Nothing, I have seen them also perform The Importance of Being Earnest, and have heard of them performing Pride and Prejudice as well, both with the same reaction from the crowd, everyone entralled by their comedic abilities. So when I found out that they were performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, my favourite Shakespeare play, at Hall Place, I was very excited.

However, the day came, and there was one key issue: the wind. The Pantaloons largely perform outdoors, meaning that they are, to an extent, slaves to the weather. The wind really didn’t help them in this case – there were parts of it that I struggled to hear, sitting around four rows back to the side (being open air, people brought their own chairs or picnic blankets, so this is a rough estimate of space). The way they were positioned didn’t help – there was a wall that they could have positioned themselves against to help the audience to hear better. As they ran around the audience, stealing people’s picnics, and came closer to this wall, it was far easier to hear them, but this may have been just that they were speaking louder due to being amidst the audience.

The show was also the victim of the traffic around the venue. Hall Place is next to a very busy road, and so the actors were fighting with the noise of various vehicles going past, including no fewer than two police cars. The company was very professional throughout, using their great improvisational skills at various points to turn these issues into part of the comedy of the play with great skill, without a hitch or a pause in flow.

The wind and the traffic were in no way the fault of the company, of course, it was just such a shame that there were these issues that hampered the performance. A fair number of people actually left at the interval. I have to admit, if I did not already know the story, I would probably have had no clue what was going on, as was the case with a few members of the party I went with. The doubling of characters confused this as well – they had different accents, and slightly different clothes, but it would have been difficult to hear these accents if you were any farther back than we were, and therefore hard to distinguish between many of the characters.

The actual performance was absolutely amazing, and reminded me how much I love the Pantaloons and their hilarious interpretations of Shakespeare. The use of an audience member as Hippolyta, and the subsequent performance of a song based on audience submissions of various romantic things (pet names, places, and tv shows) was highly amusing, and went down very well with the whole audience. The comedy of the rude mechanicals was also very well exaggerated in a way that was very funny to a modern audience – I desperately wanted a t-shirt that said ‘Pyramids and Frisbee’ but alas, I did not have the cash. The performance of the whole company was good, but for me, the performance of Kelly Griffiths was standout. I have seen her in multiple shows before and the range of expressions her face goes through in one performance always leaves me in awe (and fits of giggles).

There was only one aspect of the performance that I thought didn’t work so well, and that was in the final section of the play. The performance of Pyramus and Thisbe is a comedic highpoint of the play, and is made by the comments of the various characters watching. Due to the very nature of the Pantaloons, having only five members of the cast and doubling a lot of the characters, this wasn’t possible, so the cast member playing Theseus, who also played Snout and Puck, went into the audience once his part playing the wall as Snout was over dressed as Theseus and said only around half of the lines, and as they weren’t in conversation they didn’t have the same comedic effect. The point of the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe seemed to be slightly lost, and my poor Mum, who went in with zero knowledge of the plot, was very confused as to what was going on at that point. In the whole play though, this is my only criticism, and this again was out of the hands of the company in a way, due to the very nature of their performances.

Overall, a thoroughly enjoyable production that had me laughing right the way through – I can’t wait to see the production of The War of the Worlds in the Spring!

Twelfth Night at Shakespeare’s Globe – A disco in the highlands

A few weeks ago, a couple of my friends decided on a whim that they were going to go to see a show at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London. Being so close to London myself, and having never seen a show at the Globe, I felt I could hardly turn it down. The atmosphere of the Globe is amazing, and if you are able to I would highly recommend getting a ticket at £5 for standing in the yard, which is what we did, and we thoroughly enjoyed the show.

The show opens on a cruise ship of some sort, and from the music and the dress, it is clearly Shakespeare with a seventies twist. This may sound strange, but somehow, it worked. Sebastian danced onto the stage in white platform boots and flared trousers, and Viola joined him in a sparkling purple jumpsuit. What’s not to love?

But then, as the twins were shipwrecked, it became clear that Illyria is only Illyria by name, and is in fact, Scotland. Duke Orsino, his court, and Sir Hugo all wear kilts, and Orsino dances to a song (supposedly of his own composition) with a Scottish folk music feel. The combination sounds bizarre, but it works so well, especially with the comedic ability of the actors.

The script was fantastic. Shakespeare’s original dialogue was peppered throughout with added lines, with exceptional delivery by all of the cast, providing extra comedy, bringing the story to the more modern audience.

All of the cast was fantastic, but there were three stand out performances.

Malvolio was played with such great characteristation, as Katy Owen made her own clear stamp on the character. I watched (and loved) her in the livestream of A Midsummer Night’s Dream from the Globe last year, playing Puck, but seeing her act in person was even more phenomenal. The energy she brought to Malvolio was unlike any I have ever seen, but at the same time it fit so well. Even the way Owen ran around the stage sent the whole theatre into fits of giggles.

Another stand out performance of the cast was that of Sir Andrew Aguecheek, played by Marc Antolin. The combination of the fantastic costume design of Lez Brotherston, the direction of Emma Rice, and the performace of Antolin, resulted in a character that no-one in the audience could fail to find amusing. Despite his interest in marrying Olivia, mentioned only a couple of times, he was clearly portrayed as a gay stereotype in his dress, his strength (or lack thereof), and his whole manner. And here begins my problem with the performance.

Despite being a performance for Pride Month at the Globe, featuring a rainbow design to demonstrate this both within the design on the front of the programme for this play, and the poster for the whole season, there seemed to be a distinct lack of LGBTQ+ representation. The play of Twelfth Night has a huge potential for LGBTQ+ representation in various ways. For example, Orsino can clearly be read as bisexual, in that he loves Viola whilst she is Cesario. This is played on a bit in the performance, but it could be done more explicitly in my opinion. One aspect with huge potential that was just ignored was the potential for relationship between Antonio and Sebastian. Antonio tells Sebastian that he loves him, but this is completely ignored. There is the great potential in those few lines to present a gay character that is not a male gay stereotype, but is instead just a character who happens to be gay, and yet the lines pass without note. Having said all this though, I must mention the performance of Le Gateau Chocolat as Feste. He was simply phenomenal in the role, and his vocal range was awe-inspiring.

The only other issue I had with this production was the use of the same actors as a sort of chorus, dressed in white overalls and t-shirts, when they were not themselves in the action, for example to pull the bed Malvolio was on around the stage. This almost drew me out of the performance, reminding the audience that this was a performance on the stage, and the actors were merely actors. When the performance from each actor was so amazing, it felt bizarre to see them in what was effectively a different role within the same production.

Overall, the performance was a joy to watch, save for a few minor issues, and I wish I could go and watch it again for the first time!

All That She Can See by Carrie Hope Fletcher: a novel that needed five minutes more in the oven

Carrie Hope Fletcher is not someone who shies away from hard work. It is clear in everything she does, working in theatre in lead roles in many productions, and making vlogs for her channel ItsWayPastMyBedTime on YouTube. It shows in her fans – she has amassed over six hundred thousand subscribers over her years on YouTube, and has performed in Les Miserables as Eponine, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as Truly Scrumptious, and is currently in the Addams Family playing Wednesday Addams. On top of this, she has written three books, All that She Can See being her second novel and third book, all whilst juggling everything else that life is throwing at her. As a result, I was more than excited to read this book, as the passion she had shown for it led me to believe that the same high-level performance would shine through in this aspect of her career as well.

Unfortunately, it fell just short.

All that She Can See centres around Cherry Redgrave, a woman who can see people’s bad feelings as monsters that follow them everywhere, growing when the feelings increase and shrinking when the feelings lessen. Cherry has been able to see these feelings since she was born, and using this power she bakes things containing the good feelings that people need to counteract the bad.

The book is an easy read – the plot is compelling, and I read it on holiday within a few days. I cared about the protagonist, Cherry, and what happened to her. The premise is fantastic, and Fletcher explores it in a very interesting way, through both Cherry and the other characters who have the same and similar powers as her. There are so many characters, all with individual lives and backstories, clearly carefully thought through by Fletcher.

The flaws with the book seem to come with untidy editing. The prologue and the first chapter seem surplus to requirements, as everything that is revealed within it is explained again when Cherry reaches Portsmouth, where the main portion of the novel is set. The characters who are Cherry’s ‘usuals’ are explained perfectly through their actions once Cherry reaches Portsmouth in the main portion of the novel, so the first chapter describing them makes it seem like Fletcher doesn’t have the confidence in her writing later in the novel, which she should. Also, once it gets to the main action of the novel featuring these characters, it doesn’t feel like there is enough time to have these characters to become ‘usuals’, and some of the things mentioned – such as Sally giving Cherry’s customers tarot card readings – seem to be forgotten. These characters being set up at the start of the novel, combined with the tone that Fletcher adopts in the portion of the novel between the first chapter and the sixth chapter, makes the action that takes place before Cherry arrives in Portsmouth read like backstory that is just being told rather than shown to us. Cherry’s backstory is interesting, so it strikes me as odd that it is almost dismissed due to this.

It also seemed that the novel could have done with proofreading. I was adding in commas as I read the book to make it make sense, and there is a character mentioned in the ‘usuals’ chapter in the list of everyone – Orla – who is not mentioned previously as all the other characters are to tell the reader why they have the ‘Meddlums’ (as the feelings are dubbed) that they do. This is a simple issue that should have been picked up in proofreading, but somehow it wasn’t, which really brings you out of the story as you’re trying to get into it. Granted, it is a first edition, and mistakes are made in first editions that can then be rectified later on, but these seem too numerous to ignore.

Fletcher’s tone comes across as quite preachy at times, but this seems to be more down to the issue of not having faith in her readers – an issue that I know many writers suffer from, as they want to get their point over very clearly. For example, when Cherry is talking to two women described as ‘charlatans’, Fletcher feels the need to specify that ‘”respect your elders” was something Cherry had been taught very early on in life, but as she grew up, she realised respect wasn’t something to be earned and sometimes wasn’t relevant to age or experience’. As this is surplus to requirements, it comes across as Fletcher using her novel to make a point to the reader, which is quite strange in a novel, and is quite disconcerting to a reader, as it almost interrupts the action of the novel.

The conversations of the novel also seem quite unnatural. It seems that the steps in conversations are lost, so characters are spilling their guts after not having known each other for very long. It is hard to feel compassion for all of the characters when they don’t behave like real people. A lot of characters with substantial depth have been fit into this novel, and as soon as they are introduced, you find out everything about them and their life. In my opinion, the book would have benefitted from either having less of these characters, or revealing the aspects of these characters gradually.

The action also seems slightly rushed, but less so – a lot does happen in not very many pages. More time could have been taken over Cherry’s early life, and the ending is incredibly vague, which may have been deliberate, but comes across to me as almost a cop out, not wanting to work out how Cherry gets out of the situation she is left in at the end of the novel. The book could have benefitted from being around one hundred or so pages longer, which I think would have allowed for the natural character development and the natural progression of dialogue and action that I feel this novel is somewhat lacking.

The thing I was most disappointed with was that all of these issues could have been sorted with another edit, so the main impression that I got of the novel was that it was rushed. Another careful edit could have taken this book from alright to amazing.

Whilst when considered in the context of the busy life that Fletcher is leading, the novel is amazing, when taken alone, it falters, and could have done with a little longer and a little more focus on it to achieve the great novel that I know Carrie Hope Fletcher is more than capable of.