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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…

    Books

    #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!

    Books

    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.
    Books

    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 …

    Review:

    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.

    Books

    Review: Velvet by Mary Hooper

    VelvetVelvet is a laundress in a Victorian steam laundry. With both her mother and father dead, she is an orphan and has to rely upon her own wits to make a living. The laundry’s work is back-breaking and Velvet is desperate to create a better life for herself. Then Velvet is noticed by Madame Savoya, a famed medium, who asks Velvet to come to work for her. Velvet is dazzled at first by the young yet beautifully dressed and bejewelled Madame. But soon Velvet realises that Madame Savoya is not all that she says she is, and Velvet’s very life is in danger. (From Amazon.co.uk)

    I’ve always thought I disliked historical fiction, but Velvet really changed my mind. Having won a set of Mary Hooper’s historical young adult novels from Wondrous Reads (sadly seems to be defunct) I figured I should at least give them a go and I’m glad I did.

    The interweaving of historical fact with a fascinating fictional tale was superb. I hate unnecessary description and thankfully this book doesn’t suffer from it.  The author doesn’t dilute the story with boring unnecessary history, rather keeping everything relevant whilst still being descriptive enough to evoke a great tale of Victorian/Edwardian Britain.  There’s some informative notes at the back for readers wanting to know more about the history, with more details about one of the characters, Amelia Dyer, who was a real-life baby farmer during the time the novel was set.  Velvet’s level of scepticism about the ways of mediumship was also a real pleasure to read in a genre which seems to be a bit obsessed with the paranormal at the moment.  Not that I don’t like a bit of paranormal in my novels, but it was really refreshing to have a character that questioned what was going on.

    The book is well paced and all of the characters are relatable, from the main characters to the peripheral ones visiting the Madame for spiritual guidance.  I really liked Velvet herself, whose growth from humdrum laundress to personal maid of a famous medium is handled well. Velvet’s childhood friend Charlie is also another fascinating character and Lizzie, a fellow worker from the laundry, provides a good level for the difference in Velvet’s situation.

    All in all a thoroughly enjoyable book and one I might be recommending to the Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub!  I was pleasantly surprised by this novel and looking forward to reading more of Mary Hooper’s novels.

    Books

    Three is no longer the magic number? Rumours of the loss of 3-for-2

    The rumours of Waterstones stopping the ‘3 for 2’ deal had been floating around since the sale of the company and the appointment of James Daunt as managing director, but it looks like they may have finally come to fruition if the article today on The Bookseller today is correct.

    I’ve got mixed feelings about this.  Frequently I’ve been into Waterstones wanting one or maybe two books and come out with a third because, well, it’s free isn’t it?  But more recently the ‘3 for 2’ deal has actually worked in Waterstones favour with me.

    Incident one: I wanted to try out Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls series.  Looking at the prices for the first three, Amazon online and Waterstones in-store ‘3 for 2’ were about the same price.  Plus getting them from Waterstones meant I didn’t have to wait ages for them to arrive by post nor suffer the fear that they might use a courier company that I have had numerous incidents with (once I was on the phone to Amazon for an hour to try and get my books, due to some stubbornness on my part and an excellent customer services rep).  Waterstones won without a doubt.

    Incident two: I’d just finished Delirum by Lauren Oliver and was in the mood for another young adult dystopian tale.  I asked for recommendations and rather than buy one book I came out with a ‘3 for 2’ plus another one I picked up at the counter.  Waterstones got two more sales from me and I got a free book, win all round.

    These aren’t the only instances, I’ve frequently end up buying more books that I would’ve because the ‘3 for 2’ had enticed me in.  I can say without a doubt that had it not been there, Amazon would’ve been my pick for the Gallagher Girls books.

    That said, when Boarders was open in Birmingham I frequently ended up with a third book I didn’t want because trying to tell the staff that you didn’t want a free third book seemed akin to telling them you killed puppies for pleasure.  It became easier to pick up a free third book and donate it to the charity shop or just not buy more than one book.  So I guess in those circumstances the books really were devalued.

    Plus, there is, of course, always that issue that the tables of ‘3 for 2’ books were always a bit obvious.  It stopped me looking through the shelves to find something published not quite so recently and not having the buying power behind it of whatever teenager-vampire-ghost-angel-love-story was being released that week.  If the tables of ‘3 for 2’ no longer exist, then maybe other books will get a look in.

    I’m really interested to see what Waterstones do in terms of promotions next, if the ‘3 for 2’ really dies disappear.  Half price books sucker me in and I’ve been known to wander around a few stores on release day to take up this offer, so maybe that’s something that might stick around…but it’s not often than the books I tend to read (YA edging away from paranormal romance) get included in this offer.

    Aside from the promotional elements, I’m hoping that this means Waterstones will start focusing on what it can offer above and beyond online algorithms – personal service.  I’ve had mixed experiences of going in and asking for recommendations; a couple of times I’ve come out with more books than I meant to because of the enthusiasm of the bookseller, other times I’ve wondered if they even read.

    But hopefully if the tables of ‘3 for 2’ really do disappear, it’ll mean a wider range of books get a look in, with more enticing tales that might not have the publishing powerhouse behind them, but rather a bookseller with a genuine love for that tale and wants others to see it.  Still, if it’s true then I’m going to miss being able to justify coming home with lots of books because they were part of a deal, but looking forward to seeing what comes next.