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    Halloween event at Waterstones 

    As someone who quietly kinda loves Halloween, but isn’t so keen on having to dress up, I was excited to hear Waterstones Birmingham had arranged a witch-themed author talk and singing for the night itself – authors Laure Eve, and Katharine & Elizabeth Corr.

    The topic was firmly on witches, feminism and friendship, with the authors dressed up as witches from cult films like The Craft (Laure) and Practical Magic (Katharine and Elizabeth) and host Jamie as Maleficent, plus a few of the audience had dressed up too – I’d come from work, so it was just some novelty skeleton earrings for me.

    I’d finished The Graces by Laure Eve a couple of days before the talk and was interested to hear more about the book.  Laure talked about the idea that witchcraft in popular culture like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Craft, and indeed her own novel, gave ‘ordinary’ girls the chance to be something more, something powerful, and why witches seem to have a feminist and outsider appeal to them.  It paralleled an article Laure has written for Buzzfeed, which is probably a better read than my memory.

    Both The Graces by Laure Eve and The Witch’s Kiss by Katharine & Elizabeth Corr all have strong elements of friendship about them.  I haven’t read The Witch’s Kiss yet, but this was certainly something I found interesting in The Graces, which was more of a focus than the romantic element of the story.

    Laure, Katharine and Elizabeth all talked about the research that goes into writing novels about witches, with Katharine and Elizabeth’s novel focusing quite a bit on anglo-saxon witchcraft, but all authors admitting that their computers’ search engines are rather colourful.

    The talk ended with a series of questions about Halloween, with some general fingerling about Halloween, witches and suitably spooky reads, which means I’ve added even more to my ‘to read’ pile, including Cell and The Sun Dog by Stephen King.

    Both The Graces and The Witch’s Kiss have sequels coming out next year; roughly February for The Witch’s Kiss and September for The Graces.

    And then I got my books signed…


    #FeminisminYA with Alwyn Hamilton & Samantha Shannon

    Waterstones Birmingham are really spoiling us young adult novel readers this year.  After a fantastic talk earlier in the year about the nature of feminism and female positive friendly authors, the bookshop put on a talk hosted by #FeminisminYA creator Mariam Khan, plus authors Alwyn Hamilton and Samantha Shannon.

    True to nearly all the talks I manage to get to, I’ve only read Alwyn’s Rebel of the Sands, but it was one I thoroughly enjoyed.  It’s the story of Amani who is frustrated living with her uncle in a remote town, in a land where magic still filters through the desert nation of Miraji.  One evening she meets an intriguing foreigner in a shooting contest, a place where she, as a female, has no place being and ends up escaping Dustwalk, the backward town she lives in, for an adventure where she learns her true power.  I think the best description I’ve read of it is ‘Middle East meets Wild West fantasy’ and it’s so rich and colourful that it made a really great read.

    Mariam did a really good job chairing the discussion and lots of really great questions were asked.  She started with one about “strong female characters” a phrase I think we’ve all come to dislike and both authors talked about how problematic it is; Samantha Shannon talked about how the comparison with other female characters flattens them and diminishes the characteristics of both, and Alywn Hamilton talked about how the phrase is wrongly used to imply masculine traits in female characters.  A similar discussion was brought up about the phrase ‘feisty’ when used to describe, almost solely, women.

    feminisminyaMariam also asked the authors their feelings on whether the characters in their books are role models and whether there’s a sense of double standards with female characters in YA novels and if they’re allowed to be considered as such.  There was also discussion about the role of Katniss from The Hunger Games and how lazy journalism means ‘strong female characters’ are almost all compared to her, in a way that male protagonists aren’t constantly compared to Harry Potter.  On a more positive note, Samantha told the audience about a message from a reader who took inspiration from her character Paige and how it inspired them to change their own life – which really makes me want to read the book now!

    In Rebel of the Sands, Amani talks about the frustration of being female and, as the character spends a lot of time dressing up as a boy, as soon as it is revealed she’s female she loses her authority.  It’s a very telling line, and feels applicable even in 2016, but it inspired Alwyn talked about how much she enjoys the ‘female characters disguised as boys’ trope.

    The evening was a real success with lots of interesting topics that made me go away and think more about the books I read and the descriptions of female characters.  It also made me go back and watch Joss Whedon’s Equality Now speech; “‘So, why do you always write these strong women characters?’ Because you’re still asking me that question”.

    Birmingham, Books

    UKYA Extravaganza

    What do you get if you put 35 authors in the top floor of a book shop on a Saturday afternoon and a while pile of people who really like books? Chaos.

    I went along to the inaugural UKYA Extravaganza at Waterstones Birmingham New St, which was organised by authors Kerry Drewery and Emma Pass. The idea had been to pull together authors and fans and celebrate the genre that was Young Adult. This was purely a labour of love and with £3 a ticket no one was there for the money and the sheer enthusiasm was palpable.

    Sure it was chaotic; it was sometimes a choice between quietly chatting with authors at the back of the room and listening to the panels. But ultimately it was a lovely event, full of enthusiasm and good will – and two groaning tables of cake!

    As a fan of YA it was lovely tto hear from authors, some of who I knew and have read their books and others who enticed me into buying their novels whilst I was there – I went home with another five books, much to my groaning ‘to read’ pile’s displeasure! The range of authors, and genres, was fantastic and Emma and Kerry have plans to do some more events, so it’s worth keeping an eye on the hashtag #ukyaextravaganza if you want to go along.

    So many authors, I couldn’t fit them all into one photo!


    Life’s too short to read bad books

    LUCIA book challengeI vividly remember the first book I never finished.  It was Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, and I hated it.  Up until that point I read everything veraciously and this was the first book that I struggled through, that gave me reader’s block and made me struggle with whether it was okay to give up on a book.

    And my answer is yes.

    I’ve rarely found anyone who has given up on a book did so without good reason, even if that reason is that they didn’t like it; there’s often reasons why they didn’t.  It’s why the book club I run has a rule that you don’t have to finish the book.  Rarely do I find that people didn’t finish a book because they ran out of time, and if they did it’s usually because something was preventing them from picking up the book in the first place.  But if someone doesn’t finish a book, there’s usually just as much to talk about as those who mercifully struggled to the end.  Hated the plot, the characters or the writing style?  Great, lets discuss why!  Books people don’t finish often make better book club books anyway.

    Thankfully it’s not just me who thinks it’s okay to give up on a book, even as a self-described reader / bookworm.  Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project (which is a great book) talks about the relief of giving up on a book and letting go of the sense of obligation.  And Adele Parks advised a teacher not to force young people to finish a book if they hated it at a World Book Night event I went to.  So if authors are advising people to give up on books they hate it seems reasonable to do so.

    But when do you give up on books?  Writer Jen Doll suggests preserving with 100 pages.  I tend to go for 100 pages or 10% of the book before making a judgement, but some times the first five pages are enough.  This way I avoid the guilt that comes with leaving a book unfinished; I’ve given myself a point where it’s okay to just admit it’s not for me.

    What do you think, am I admitting defeat too early, should I struggle on and finish what I started?  Or is life just too short to read books you don’t like?

    Birmingham, Books

    World Book Day – three Birmingham authors to check out

    Today it’s World Book Day in the UK and what better way to celebrate than by picking up a good book by a Birmingham based author?  Here are three contemporary authors which i think are well worth checking out…

    Benjamin Zephaniah

    Writer, poet, lecturer and born in Handsworth, he is well worth seeing speak live as reading some of his work.  Having published (and performed) a slew of poetry, he has also released several novels aimed at young people.  He also did a blinder of a talk at the University of Birmingham’s annual Baggs Memorial Lecture on the topic of happiness and was in BBC TV show Peaky Blinders.  If you’ve never heard, seen or read anything by this man you’re really missing out.

    Katharine D’ Souzaparklife2

    I read Katharine’s first novel Park Life a couple of years ago and adored it.  It follows the lives of two people who live in the same block of flats, with South Birmingham being almost a supporting character – and those in the know will be able to spot references to Kings Heath / Moseley, which just added to the book for me.  Katharine has since released a second book which I’m looking forward to reading soon.

    Mike Gayle

    Ex-agony uncle (no really, check out his website) and author of a stack of bestsellers, Mike Gayle in a Brummie born and bred.  He’s also set a few of his books in Brum, namely Turning Thirty and its sequel Turning Forty, which is also set in South Birmingham.  But his other books are set in London, Manchester and there’s even a non-fiction book, The To Do List.  His books are light-hearted (except maybe My Legendary Girlfriend, that one’s a bit darker) and often confusingly called chick lit.  If you’re looking for a beach read, then you can’t go wrong with some of Mike’s novels.

    Some other authors with links to Birmingham worth checking out are: W. H Auden (you know the Stop all the Clocks / Funeral Blue poem from Four Weddings), R J Ellory, Catherine O’Flynn (her first novel What Was Lost is set in a shopping mall which may or may not be Merry Hill), Lee Child, J. R. R. Tolkien, Arthur Conan Doyle (spend some time working in Brum) and Malala Yousafzai.

    So, what are you reading this World Book Day?


    UrbanCoffeeCo book club: Delirium by Lauren Oliver

    The final book club book of the year was Delirium by Lauren Oliver.  Set in a world where love is considered a disease that the population can be cured of when they come of age, Lena is counting down the days to her operation.  But when Lena meets Alex things take a turn.

    Overall most of the group seemed to enjoy the novel, pronouncing it interesting but at times a little superficial.  Certain aspects of the books didn’t seem to quite add up, particularly the timeline with Lena’s mother and the concept of passion amongst the regulators finding pleasure in their job.  But with reminders of 1984 and cold war communism this book seemed to tread the balance of science-fiction dystopia and a love story well.  The group really liked the way a teenage relationship was depicted from Lena acting silly and irrational, but being self-aware enough to know this.  In fact the group felt the whole depiction of being a teenager, even trapped in a dystopia, was accurate and the theme of growing up was well played.  Certain questions like why the regime exists and how big the compound they all live in were left unanswered, but being the first in a series of books it was thought they might be answered in later novels.  Overall an absorbing read.

    Questions/aspects we discussed:

    • How well did you find the portrayal of a love-cure?
    • Did the book do a good job of explaining first love and did it feel relevant to modern day as well as the novel’s setting?
    • Did the book explain how people could feel pleasure in their job like the regulators?
    • What about the idea of unnaturalism, the idea that homosexuality can be cured in this regime – how did that make you feel, did you notice it (p.47/8 in our copies)?
    • What about why the family unit still existed – do you think this was realistic in the world the book was set?
    • Did it remind you of any other books/regimes?
    • And the usual: did you like it, would you recommend it and if so to who?
    I read Delirium earlier in the year – here’s my review of it.

    Review: Ostrich Boys by Keith Gray

    From GoodReads:

    It’s not really kidnapping, is it? He’d have to be alive for it to be proper kidnapping.’ Kenny, Sim and Blake are about to embark on a remarkable journey of friendship. Stealing the urn containing the ashes of their best friend Ross, they set out from Cleethorpes on the east coast to travel the 261 miles to the tiny hamlet of Ross in Dumfries and Galloway. After a depressing and dispiriting funeral they feel taking Ross to Ross will be a fitting memorial for a 15 year-old boy who changed all their lives through his friendship. Little do they realise just how much Ross can still affect life for them even though he’s now dead. Drawing on personal experience Keith Gray has written an extraordinary novel about friendship, loss and suicide, and about the good things that may be waiting just out of sight around the corner …


    I’ve been meaning to read something by Keith Gray for a while now, so when earlier in the year I noticed the Rep in Birmingham was putting on a performance of Ostrich Boys I had to go – especially as the ticket was only £5.  This in turn made me want to read the novel it was based on before I went and I’m glad I did (the play was fab though).

    The story centres around three boys dealing with the death of their friend Ross and decide to honour his wish to visit a town which shared his name so Ross would be in Ross.  Along the way they come to terms with the news Ross’s death might not have been an accident and their guilt towards how they each individually treated him in his last few days – from girlfriends, to bullies and lost things.

    This really was a wonderful book.  It sounds so cliched but it dealt superbly with some really heavy subjects which sadly aren’t all that uncommon amongst teenagers.  The reaction to the news that Ross might have committed suicide, both anger and quiet understanding, is so well played out that at no point does it feel patronising which it could so easily have been.  The understanding and portrayal of how the nature of friendship groups change after a big event and the loss of one friend rings painfully true and the depiction of teenage boys feels entirely realistic – like hearing the story of a friend’s little brother.  This novel is wonderful –  I read it in less than a day and relished every minute of it.

    My copy suggests this might not be suitable for younger readers, but I disagree.  I think this book does a fine job of showing how unaware and well hidden other peoples emotional states can be and explaining the confusion and anger of those left behind.  The main characters might all be boys, but I fail to believe that anyone wouldn’t be touched by this book.  Beautifully bittersweet.