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!

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Surrounding yourself with creativity

Recently, I found myself in a creative slump. I wasn’t motivated to write anything – the ideas for the novel I’m working on were still ticking over in my brain, but I wasn’t actually writing, and I hadn’t even considered writing a poem for months, other than those I had to write for my seminars, and they were turning out flat and lifeless. I lacked motivation, I lacked inspiration, I lacked drive.

And then I went to my local poetry night at the local pub.

It was like a switch was flipped; I got home and immediately wrote two (admittedly godawful) first drafts of poems, and I wrote two more today. Just being in a creative atmosphere made me want to write again. I got my drive back.

It’s worth noting as well that I think it was partially that I was so invested in writing this novel. Not that I don’t want to write it, but I think after being so focused on one thing – especially when it’s taking so long to write given my lack of free time – I needed a little break from it to allow some of the other ideas I’d had in the mean time to work their way out.

So if you’re feeling like you’re in a bit of a writing funk, all I’m saying is that it might be worth stepping back from what you’re working on, and surrounding yourself with people who inspire you with their creativity. Easier said than done sometimes, I know, but it just might be what you need.

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.

The Sim

The world seemed to buzz around me, disintegrating before my eyes. The pavement blurred into the road and the screech of brakes crackled towards me. I looked up and blinked. The walls of a room I didn’t recognise came into focus.

Something started beeping next to me; a high pitched chirp joined it in a disharmony my brain couldn’t process. People ran into the room, I counted three, cloaked in lab coats and lanyards and plastic gloves. I knew none of them.

They talked amongst themselves, barking words at each other that I couldn’t derive any meaning from. I tried to sit up, but my brain didn’t reach my body, and I remained stationary.

The beeping stopped. The people took a breath. They smiled. One of them stepped closer to me, the other two left the room.

‘Hi, Elspeth. How are you feeling?’

I frowned. She checked her notes.

‘Who are you?’

It was their turn to frown. ‘Elspeth, it’s me, May.’

‘Who? Where am I?’

‘You’re in your dorm, Elspeth,’ she said, her voice rising in confusion, ‘do you not remember anything?’

‘I remember a car.’ I grimaced. ‘I remember a lot of pain.’

‘What about before that?’

‘Could you be more specific?’

‘Before your life in the sim, Elspeth, what do you remember?’

‘Life in the what?’

She clutched at a walkie talkie strapped to her waist and spoke into it. ‘Doctor Fisher, I need assistance.’

‘Who’s Doctor Fisher? What is going on?’

Her voice shook slightly as she continued. ‘You don’t remember anything?’

‘I have no idea what you’re talking about! Where am I?!’

‘You’ve just woken up.’

‘What do you mean?’

Another person shrouded in a white entered the room. ‘What appears to be the problem May?’

‘Will someone please tell me where I am?’ The panic swirled in my gut as the two people remained silent, exchanging glances.

The man, who I presumed to be Doctor Fisher, turned to May. ‘Does she not remember anything?’

‘It doesn’t appear so, sir.’

He turned to me. ‘Elspeth, what year are we in?’

‘2016?’

‘What are the names of your parents?’

‘Maggie and Steven.’

‘And your siblings?’

‘I only have one brother. George.’

He turned back to May. ‘This is an unexpected hiccup.’

‘Will someone please tell me what’s going on?’ I yelled, my fear transforming into pure rage. May flinched at my outburst, speechless.

‘You’ve just woken up from a simulation,’ Doctor Fisher explained.

‘What?’

‘You’ve been in a coma for just under six months, during which you have experienced twenty years in a simulation we’ve been running in your brain – like a dream that we can control. It’s been very interesting. But we expected you to wake up and remember your current situation, as you would after waking up from a dream, but as you now know, that is clearly… not the case.’ Fisher’s voice was a monotone, his face remaining emotionless.

My breath quickened. The nausea clawed its way up my throat; a cold feeling spread from my scalp through my body.

‘What do you mean, my life is made up?’

‘The life you think you have is. Your real life is here in 2546. You are twenty-five years old.’ He consulted a clipboard, before snapping it shut, pushing his glasses up his nose and frowning at me. ‘If you wait here, we will decide the best course of action, hopefully reinstate your memory somehow.’

With that, he and May left the room. I tried to get up to follow them, but I found myself unable to move. I removed the blanket covering my legs and I felt the blood drain from my skin as I saw what little was left of my legs. They were reduced to skin and bone, none of the muscle that I had come to know and be so proud of as a triathlete remaining. It dawned on me that I hadn’t actually done that training; the years of hard work and dedication were no more than a dream.

Tears spilled over my cheeks. I tried to move, but my muscles barely twitched.

As I waited, I resolved to attempt to remember my life in this reality. Nothing revealed itself. Whilst I could remember a few times in which the world I knew suggested to me that it was not quite real, I could not remember anything of this one that I had been given as a replacement.

I focused on May – from her reaction, I clearly knew her well. I pictured her face in my head and searched for her somewhere within my memory. I found a glimpse of something, but as I pulled at it I lost the source. I was sure that I had met her before, but where, I did not know.

I looked around, beginning to doubt everything. If I hadn’t noticed that I’d been living in a simulation before, who’s to say I would realise now? The thought began to overwhelm me as the minutes ticked by.

May walked in just as I the walls started shrinking closer.

‘May?’

She looked up, startled. There was an almost imperceptible glimmer of hope in her eyes. ‘Yes?’

‘If I’ve been living in a simulation for years and had no idea, how do we know that we’re not living in a simulation right now?’

‘We don’t think we are, but who knows?’ Her eyes snapped back to the clipboard she held in her hands as she leafed through the papers attached to it. ‘If we are, then one day we’ll wake up, and that’ll be that.’ She looked at me, her face paling as the words lingered in the air between us.

‘Well. Yeah. Kind of insignificant, I guess.’

When May next spoke, her voice was barely audible. ‘You did choose this.’

‘What?’

‘You volunteered. I can show you the records if you like – Fisher thinks it may be too overwhelming, but…’

‘That should make me feel a bit better, I guess,’ I sighed, ‘but I don’t even know the person I was before this whole situation.’

May let her clipboard drop down to rest against her thighs.

‘She was great.’ May smiled, looking at me, but clearly seeing the me that she knew. She cleared her throat. ‘Anyway, we need to get you into rehab as soon as possible, redevelop your muscles. That’s the only thing the old you was afraid of – you had spent so much time getting as fit as you were. We had no idea how long the experiment was going to last.’

A flash of memory suddenly came to me as May sat there, of a girl, of a blurred night, and a morning spent feeling quite sorry for myself. I felt my cheeks flush.

‘May, how did we – do we – know each other?’

‘We were really good friends.’

‘Just friends?’

It was her turn to blush. ‘Yeah, just friends, why do you ask?’

‘Just something that must have happened in the simulation.’ My mouth fumbled around the word like it was cotton wool, objecting to calling every memory I had fake.

May wouldn’t meet my eyes. ‘I think I know what you mean. Anyway, if you want we can unhook you from this equipment and take you down to rehab now?’

‘So, you saw everything that happened in the simulation?’ My face felt like it was on fire as memories flashed through my mind that I had presumed no-one would ever know about.

‘We had the ability to, but obviously we gave you some privacy.’

I really didn’t want to find out exactly what it was that they had and hadn’t seen, so I dropped the matter. ‘You were saying about rehab?’

‘Yes, shall we go?’

‘Sounds good.’

May slipped the various needles and sensors out of and off me whilst I lay there. I let out a shaky breath as she turned from me, pulling the walkie talkie from her belt and requesting assistance moving me. Two people walked into the room, beaming smiles on their faces.

‘Hi, Elspeth, how’s it going?’ The greeting came from the taller one of the two, his bulky frame nearly too big for the doorway. I had never seen him before in my life.

‘Um, hi.’

The two people looked at each other, frowning. ‘Don’t you recognise me, Elspeth?’

‘Sorry, I don’t.’

‘You recognise me though, right, Elspeth?’ The other person had long hair the colour of daffodils, swept up and out of the way in a ponytail that reached their waist.

‘You look just like my friend Lizzie.’

The woman’s expression transformed, the ends of her smile flopping to her chin, the lines on her forehead deepening.

May sighed. ‘I did warn you she doesn’t remember anything. Elspeth, this is Amanda, and this is Peter.’

The two of them seemed quite lost for words.

‘Hi, nice to meet you. Can we please get to rehab? I’d really like to be able to move again.’

‘Sorry, Elspeth, this is all just a bit strange, is all.’ Amanda was almost speaking through tears. She and the guy took positions at the head of the bed, whilst May grabbed the front.

The rest of the building that I could see as I was wheeled through it was pretty much the same as my room – plain white walls, white linoleum floors, everything spotless. There was an occasional window set into the wall, and I took every opportunity to glance out. All I could see was unreally turquoise blue skies. From this, all I could discern is that we were high up in the building. Not that I was likely to know where we were even if I did see it – Doctor Fisher had said that this world was 500 years farther in the future than anything I had memory of living in.

The building was labyrinthian, with twists, turns, ups, downs, all down corridors that looked no different from each other. The sound of laughter emanated from some of the rooms, cries from others.

‘Where are we?’ I asked.

It was May who answered. ‘London General Hospital.’ With that, we pulled into a large, open room, not dissimilar in appearance to a gym.

I stored the knowledge away that London still existed and tried to focus.

‘See ya, Elspeth, and good luck!’

‘Good luck, Elspeth!’

I smiled at them through the mirror as they waved and left the room. My life must not be too bad here, I thought, if I was friends with them.

‘We have a lot to be going on with, so let me just grab Kim and we’ll be getting on to it.’

My question of ‘Who’s Kim?’ died in my throat as a man I recognised very well walked up to the side of the bed.

‘Hiya, Elspeth.’ He looked uncomfortable, leaning towards me slightly as if to hug me before stopping, halfway down, patting my hand with his and stepping back. ‘I’ve been told you probably don’t remember me?’

‘I have no idea who you are,’ the next words came out before I had a chance to consider them, ‘but I remember dating someone who looked very much like you. In the simulation.’ Sadness washed through me as I remembered that Logan and I hadn’t left things on the best note.

‘You and Kim dated for a couple of years when we were all in school,’ May explained, ‘He’s your physiotherapist.’ She looked over at Kim. ‘Are you all good here?’

‘I think so. Ready to start, Els?’

The nickname made me cringe. ‘Would you call me Elspeth, please?’ I murmured.

He cleared his throat. ‘Right. Sorry. Elspeth.’

‘I’ll leave you to it,’ May said, writing something on her clipboard before turning and leaving the room.

Kim and I struggled through the session. I didn’t know how much he knew about my life in the simulation, but he fed off my awkwardness, touching me as little as he possibly could, which, given that I couldn’t move at all, was still far more than I was comfortable with. We had barely managed to move me out of the bed before May popped her head into the room.

‘Time’s up. You don’t want to over-exert yourself.’ She walked over to us. ‘How did the session go?’ The question was directed at me, distracting me as she handed the clipboard over to Kim. He made some quick scribbles.

‘It was alright. Frustrating, mainly,’ I admitted. I glanced at Kim.

‘Well, it’s a long process. We hope to have you walking again in a few months, but we can’t promise anything. You ready to go back?’

May took the helm again as Kim helped her push me back to the room. She hooked me back up to some of the machines, ‘for monitoring purposes’ and pulled up a chair to sit next to the bed.

I noticed someone had placed a bouquet of ruby and yellow gerberas in a vase on the table at the side of the room.

‘Those flowers are beautiful.’

May blushed. ‘I thought they would brighten up your room a little bit.’

‘Aw, thank you!’

‘You’re welcome,’ she said, walking over to the chair against the wall. ‘Dinner will be here in a bit. I thought I could keep you company.’

We both knew that what she really meant was that she was staying to help me eat, but neither of us acknowledged it. ‘Yeah, that would be nice.’ I took a deep breath. ‘Can I ask you a few questions? Y’know, about my life here?’

The question seemed to take May slightly off guard as she placed the chair next to the bed. ‘Of course, what would you like to know?’

I tried to pick from the infinite questions that were whirring through my head.

‘Who are my family? And where are they?’

‘You were an only child. Your parents didn’t quite agree with your decision to pursue the research you were doing, so you haven’t talked to them in five years. I heard that they… they passed last year. Car accident. I’m sorry.’

I mulled this information over in my head. I couldn’t imagine life without my brother; we fought a lot, but he was one of the best people to go to when I needed cheering up. As for my parents, I couldn’t imagine a life without them as a part of it. My simulation self – and myself now – couldn’t contemplate not attempting to reconcile with them after an argument, no matter how big. But we had never had an argument that big.

‘What was the point of this experiment?’

‘That’s a pretty big question.’

I waited for May to continue.

‘Well, it started off as an experiment to see if we could put anyone in a simulation. How much we could control, how much control they had. We designed most of it for you, but anytime someone from this real world, for lack of a better word, appeared in the simulation, it was your subconscious taking over.’

‘So that means that my subconscious remembers everything in this world?’

‘That’s what we think.’

‘So, there’s a chance I’ll remember?’

‘Hopefully. We think it’s likely, but we can’t say for certain yet.’

‘How did we meet?’

‘We’ve been friends since school.’ May rested her head on her arms, folded on the bed. ‘Primary school. We met in the first week, us and Kim. We were inseparable.’

‘Why is Kim no longer our friend then?’

‘I never said-‘

‘You didn’t seem very familiar with him when we saw him earlier.’

There was a knock at the door. May got up and grabbed what looked like mush off the trolley at the door, thanked the person manning the trolley and returned to her seat next to me.

‘Sorry, it doesn’t look very appetising, but it’s the only option really, unless you want to be on a drip.’ She opened the bottle and sniffed. ‘To be honest, it actually smells quite good. Can we try with a straw?’

I opened my mouth and she placed the straw inside. I sucked at it and the mushy liquid hit my tongue – in fairness, it didn’t taste that bad.

‘In answer to your question, once you two broke up, we just kind of… drifted apart. It was hard to stay friends with both of you, you didn’t exactly break up on the most amicable of terms.’

I wanted her to expand, but the straw in my mouth prevented me from saying anything. I tried to prompt an explanation with a confused look, but May just laughed at me. ‘I think that’s enough information for one day.’ She looked at me hopefully. ‘I don’t suppose it’s triggering anything?’

I shook my head as I swallowed the last of the weird smoothie.

‘To be honest, I’m just getting more confused.’

She laughed. ‘Alright. I need to run some errands, but shall I come back after I’m done?’

‘Sure. I could use the company.’

‘See you later then.’ She smiled at me, taking the cup and straw with her as she walked out.

I hardly had a chance to pause for breath before Doctor Fisher walked in. ‘Hello, Elspeth. How are we feeling?’ He twiddled his thumbs and paced awkwardly around the room, checking things but not really looking at anything.

‘As well as I could be.’

‘What a positive outlook.’ He smiled at me. ‘I have a proposition for you.’

His smile didn’t quite reach his eyes. As he looked at me, a feeling of unease slithered its way into my stomach. ‘What?’

‘How would you like to go back into the simulation?’

‘Back into the…’

‘You see, Elspeth, the experiment isn’t really finished.’

‘But I just woke up!’

‘Yes, but you realised you were in a simulation and woke yourself up.’ He spoke slowly, as if to a child, ’We still have more tests to run. Don’t you think some closure would be good for you?’

‘But it’s not real, is it?’

He shrugged. ‘This could all be fake. What’s the point of anything? You were happy in that simulation, Elspeth. Don’t you want to be happy?’

‘Can’t I be happy here?’

He shrugged again. ‘Eventually. We only want to run the sim for a couple more years, until you die naturally in it, that’s all.’

I considered it. I needed closure, at least, it wasn’t so bad to want that, surely?

‘A couple more years, you say?’

‘Yes, that’s all, and then you can live your life here.’

‘Alright.’

‘You’ll do it?’

‘Yes. I’ll do it.’

‘I knew you were more sensible than May! I have the injection ready, let’s get this done quickly now.’

‘Wait, May doesn’t want me to go back under? Why not?’

He came towards me, needle readied, frowning and dismissing my question with a wave of his hand. ‘I don’t know, Elspeth, just hold still now. Focus on the moment before you died in the sim.’

My eyes went to the flowers on the table at the side of the room, and a horrible sense of dread set in as I felt the needle prick my skin. His words brought the moment to my mind, the wind whipping at my face, the dampness of my ankles from cars splashing through the puddles next to the pavement, my phone clutched in my hand…

I looked up from my phone just in time to stop myself from stepping out into the road as a van screeched around the corner. I looked again and crossed the road. As I stepped up onto the pavement the other side, I noticed a bouquet of red and yellow flowers lying on the asphalt. I picked them up and placed them on the bench at the side of the road before continuing with my walk home.

© Alyx Hurst 2017

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.

Returning to Square One

As I sat struggling to write chapter four of the novel I’m working on, I had a horrific realisation. I needed to go back and plan again.

There were several issues with the set up of the world (as it is a fantasy novel; I talked about the trials and tribulations of world building in my post here) that needed sorting, and could critically alter the plot depending on what I did; I needed to add to the beginning to fully explain this world, the ending that I had planned felt like it didn’t quite work, and I needed more time for a relationship to build between the characters. So, it was effectively back to square one.

It felt like a defeat, I felt despondent and demotivated. But I got a clean piece of paper and I wrote out everything that needed changing, brainstormed how I was going to change it, and ordered the changes. I’m currently only halfway through them, as they require a lot of working out, and something I always find difficult: important decisions. But I am making my way through them. And I’m very glad for realising the issues at this point, as it has made me rethink the story in many ways, and I have made a lot of changes – some minor, some major – for the better.

What I have now realised is that I never went back to square one. As long as you have something, however much it feels like you’re at square one, you never truly are. Maybe square two, or even square one point five, but you always have more than you started with, and going back can easily launch you a lot further than you were before. Think of it not as regression, but as going up to the line, walking back, and taking a run up.

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.

Origami Cranes

Fold one thousand paper cranes in your life, and you will get a wish, so the legend says. Given the amount of time it takes to fold one thousand paper cranes, very few people have completed the task. Amelie was a rare exception.

She had learnt to fold cranes at the age of ten, and found the movement with her hands, having something to do, calming. Initially, she made them just for fun, but before she reached sixteen, the origami had become a coping method, a way to deal with her scrambled brain and butterfly heart. It was the racing heart that had led her to reach for the paper a few minutes before the strange thing appeared in her room.

She had just made the last fold, crisping the edges with her fingernails, when the thing appeared in front of her. It was tall, but looked like it was somehow standing wrong, as if it were a dog standing on its hind legs. It had a nose that came somewhere between an elephant’s trunk and a pig snout, with a mouth just underneath it and two white, aged tusks protruding either side of it. It was covered in iridescent fur, with a stripe of white running down the centre of its back and finishing in a tuft at the end of its tail.

‘Hi there!’ Its voice was a low growl but there was an unmistakable sense of friendliness to it.

‘Um, hi?’ Amelie’s eyebrows furrowed as the creature gave no further explanation of itself, despite a lengthy pause. ‘Can I help you?’

‘Oh, sorry, completely forgot. You just folded your thousandth paper crane! Congratulations!’ It pulled out a party popper from somewhere on its person and set it off so that the strings of paper adorned Amelie’s hair.

‘I’m sorry, what?’

‘You know the legend – fold one thousand paper cranes and you get a wish!’

‘And you are…?’

The creature shook its head, looking briefly at the floor. ‘I always forget to introduce myself! I am your personal wish granter, my name is Baku.’

‘Your name is what and you’re my who?’

The thing’s – Baku’s – smile vanished, replaced with a look of disdain. ‘I am Baku, you folded one thousand paper cranes, I am here to grant you a wish.’ It muttered something about how modern people had no appreciation for the old gods anymore before looking back to Amelie, smile back on its face.

‘And why should I believe you?’

Baku perceptibly rolled its eyes. ‘Look, you see these tusks, and these claws,’ it said, pointing to each of the body parts respectively, ‘if I wanted to kill you, or hurt you, I would have done so by now. I can see you just finished folding a crane, is there anything so crazy about this all really?’

Amelie sat down on to her bed, feeling slightly sick. Her hands instinctively reached for the paper as her breathing quickened, unable to take her eyes of this thing that was in the room. She looked down at the paper, breathing slower, and deeper, with each fold. Her hands had slowed to an almost imperceptible tremor when she asked her next question, her eyes firmly on the crane. ‘So what are my options?’

She slowly looked up to see Baku brighten. ‘Right, let’s get into it then! There are three rules: you cannot wish for anything that would directly harm another person, you cannot wish for anything that would upset the natural order of things, and you cannot corrupt any person’s will.’

One idea jumped to the forefront of her mind immediately. ‘I wish for you to cure my anxiety.’

Baku titled its head, and frowned. ‘I don’t think that would be wise. You see, to do that would require resetting a deep-rooted psychological pathway very suddenly. It’s too dangerous.’

‘So there are more than three rules?’

‘I’d say that one’s more of a guideline.’

Amelie crossed her arms. ‘You won’t do it though. What about super speed?’

‘I can do that! But from what I’ve seen, the novelty does soon wear off. Just a warning.’

Amelie rolled her eyes. ‘I feel like you’re being deliberately obtuse.’ She wouldn’t normally have been this honest with someone that she had just met, but this was a something, not a someone, and besides, the entire situation seemed to have sent her brain into partial shutdown anyway. For now, it was easier to go along with everything and pretend it was all normal. Her fingers still fiddled with the crane she had folded, making the wings flap.

‘All I’m saying is this decision is not one to be made in haste. Wishes can’t be undone, and you would do best to make it worthwhile rather than ending up wishing that you had wished for something better your whole life.’

‘Alright then.’ Amelie slumped back in her chair, placing the origami crane on to her desk, at the end of a row of around ten others. ‘I have some thinking to do.’

Baku sat on the floor and curled up like a cat, yawning. ‘Wake me up when you’ve decided.’

Amelie grabbed a piece of paper and began to write ideas for wishes down, scribbling them all out one by one until half an hour later, she was left satisfied.

Unsure how to wake up Baku, she cleared her throat. It didn’t stir, so she poked it, very gently, with her pen cap. It yawned, stretched, and stood up.

‘Ready to make a wish?’

Amelie nodded, and told it.

‘That’s a pretty good wish. And I have heard a fair few wishes in my time.’ Baku raised its two front limbs and closed its eyes. A teal light shone from somewhere behind it, surrounding it. The light disappeared, and Baku opened its eyes and smiled. ‘Your wish is granted.’

‘You know, you have some sort of gift,’ Amelie’s friend said to her as they lounged on a picnic blanket at the park. Three dogs surrounded them, jumping into Amelie’s lap, all fighting for attention, trying to lick her face and laying down on their backs, presenting their stomachs for belly rubs.

The owners came running over, each apologising and trying to get their dogs back. Amelie just smiled at them and pushed the dogs back to their owners.

‘Something like that.’ Amelie smiled to herself, feeling a kind of peace for the first time in years.

Magnus Chase and the Sword of Summer: Riordan’s humour and wit take on the Norse gods

When my mum asked me several years ago if I wanted to go and see a film directed by the same director that directed one of the Harry Potter films, featuring Greek mythology (a topic I had loved for years), I jumped at the chance. As soon as I came out of the screening of Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, I realised I had to buy the book. Once I had read it, I disowned the film of course, seeing how it paled in comparison to the book (and I don’t mean in a pretentious ‘the-book-is-always-better’ kind of way, I mean it in the sense that they took a great concept and storyline and twisted it into a shadow of its former self). I loved the original Percy Jackson series, I loved the Heroes of Olympus series, and so Rick Riordan secured himself in my list of authors whose every book I read.

I have read the first book by Riordan in the Kane Chronicles, which are based around the Egyptian gods, and didn’t love it as much as I didn’t feel attached to the characters. Despite having heard good things about Riordan’s take on the Norse gods, I was slightly dubious when it came to Magnus Chase and the Sword of Summer. I needn’t have been.

From the opening, I loved this book. Riordan creates another sarcastic, funny protagonist, and yet somehow Magnus is different enough from Percy that he doesn’t just seem like a copy of the character that so many readers know and love. Riordan retains the hilarious chapter titles that made me laugh out loud just flicking through the contents page, all as original as the ones seen throughout his previous books. There is a great connection to the Percy Jackson series in that, as can be guessed from Magnus’ surname being Chase, he is the cousin of Annabeth Chase, Percy’s girlfriend. This link could have felt forced and an attempt to endear the readers to Magnus, but instead it felt very natural and worked well.

I was slightly nervous that I would not understand this book as well due to not knowing much about the Norse gods, but instead the book serves as a great introduction to them. With a glossary of terms and important figures in the back, and you learning everything along with Magnus, it is very easy to pick up on Norse mythology. A lot of the traditional mythology is interspersed with modern twists – for example, one of the highlights of the novel for me was Thor’s use of his hammer, Mjölnir, to watch tv shows such as Game of Thrones.

One of the other great things about this book is that there is explicit representation. The Valkyrie who saves Magnus, called Sam, is a Muslim teenage girl with a majic hijab that can camoflauge up to two people at a time, and through her character various topics, including arranged marriage and Islamophobia, are explored. One of Magnus’ two protectors, Hearth, is a deaf elf, and his deafness is the only reason that the characters survive the final battle of the book. The characterisation within this book generally speaking as well is fantastic, with a vast array of unique and interesting characters, including a talking sword and two talking goats, and I am left interested to know how these characters develop as the series continues.

With the first chapter of the sequel that was in my copy of the book, I am very intrigued to read the next installment in this series, and any more than follow, and see how Riordan further develops this world that he has created.