DISCUSSION // my reviewing process

Discussions posted, latest book finished, to-be-read pile saved from toppling – you know that this means. It’s TIME TO WRITE A REVIEW. Huzzah!

There are lots of ways of writing blog posts and review features, many of them much easier and less involved than mine (I am enthusiastic and need a constructive outlet for my flailing) but this is roughly how I go about it.

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STEP ONE: reading and annotating the book

I read for enjoyment, so I only take basic notes while reading. I used to take very detailed notes, but found it pulled me out of the story and slowed down the pace of the plot. Sometimes I’ll flick back or re-read specifically for review – I did this with The Next Together by Lauren James because it has four timelines – but otherwise I work from memory as I like to review quite soon after reading if I can.

STEP TWO: whip out the review notebook

I LOVE blogging notebooks. I’ve filled many with drafts of posts (and lots with fangirling).

STEP THREE: pick a review playlist

I love setting books to music. If I’m looking for a way to remind myself of the story, these songs allow me to review while keeping in touch with the essence of the book.

STEP FOUR (very important): planning

This is where I figure out my feelings on a book! I pack this plan with details, from the smallest plot twist to the hook. Somewhere in all of this I’ll cover plot, characters, craftsmanship, surprisingly good things, whether my expectations were met, pacing, my favourite scenes. If I’ve come up with any taglines or a fun way to introduce the review, I’ll make a note of that too.

(This is also usually where I get snacks/fly a dragon/realiSe my foot is asleep.)

Then, I must find order in the chaos. I’ll separate details into related topics and subjective opinion, choose a rating and set the tone for the post. Will it be passionate and full of gifs, or more story-focused and serious? Will it be both? I’ll start to group details together, finding connections and highlighting what I know I’ll definitely want to talk about. I’ll arrange and rearrange, discovering what each paragraph will look like.

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STEP FIVE: WRITING THE THING

Now we get to the hard bit: finding the words to make sense of the review outline. I may decide some paragraphs aren’t necessary or they’ll turn out longer than anticipated.

Review speed at this stage can vary from lightning fast to just about keeping pace with nearby tortoises.

STEP SIX: Edit. Edit some more. Edit again.

My early drafts are very detailed, and for this reason, editing is my best friend. If I’ve only written by hand up to this point, I’ll get an extra round of edits in while typing it up. I’ll sharpen sentences, rewrite criticisms or clunkily-worded phrases, check how many times I’ve repeated the word ‘magnificent’… and I’ll cut words right up until the last second. If there’s a way to say things more concisely, editing is where I’ll find it. I’ll only occasionally add things here.

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STEP SEVEN: INTO THE JUNGLE

Finally a finished, formatted blog post! Now I can hit schedule or publish, do promo, send emails, and sneak glances at my alluring TBR. Bloggers often bemoan the fact that reviews seem to get the least traction for the most amount of work, and maybe that’s true, but I love writing (and reading) them, especially if they’re evolving and improving, so that’s what I aim for: to get better at them, even just a little at a time.

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What’s your reviewing process like? Do you outline in detail or wing it? Let us know on Twitter or in the comments below!

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The Way Past Winter by Kiran Millwood Hargrave // swapping the tropics for snowy forests

Today on the blog, I’m reviewing a book I read all the way back in June and am so excited to be able to talk about more!

way-past-winter-hb-no-bleedAuthor(s): Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Publisher: Chicken House Books
Publication date: 4th October 2018
Source: I received an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Any quotes taken from this copy may be subject to changes in final editions.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Mila and her sisters live with their brother Oskar in a small forest cabin in the snow.

One night, a fur-clad stranger arrives seeking shelter for himself and his men. But by the next morning, they’ve gone – and it looks like Oskar has joined them. Twelve-year-old Mila can’t believe her beloved Oskar would abandon them. But then she never believed her father would abandon them either, and he disappeared years ago. 

Then she learns that all the boys in the village have gone. Except one – an outcast mage called Rune. To discover the truth, Mila and Rune set out in a dog sleigh to find Oskar and bring him back. Even if it means facing a wilderness full of dangerous, magical things. Even if it means going all the way to the frozen north… 

Kiran Millwood Hargrave is having a bit of a moment. Already a published poet and playwright when her first children’s novel The Girl of Ink and Stars was picked up by Chicken House Books, it was shortlisted for the Branford Boase Award, declared Children’s Book of the Year at the British Book Awards and won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize. Her second children’s book, The Island at the End of Everythingwas shortlisted for a Blue Peter Book Award and the Costa. The first book in a feminist YA series, Bellatrix, which will see her working with fellow Costa nominee Kit de Waal, is slated for July 2019. A buzzy 13-way auction for rights to her first adult novel The Mercies (previously known as Vardø) earlier this year was eventually won by Picador, with publication set for 2020.

What, then, of The Way Past Winter, which seems to bridge a critical moment between Millwood Hargrave’s children’s fiction and a transition to work for older audiences? Has this relatively short adventure been left in the dust in the rush to get to other projects? It certainly seems like a break with tradition when compared to The Girl of Ink and Stars and The Island at the End of Everything, which both feature long titles, only children, and sun-drenched tropical island settings. The characteristic girl heroine and male villain remain, and islands are to an extent still places of wonder for this writer, but the trading of sand for snow and sun for ice has the effect of conjuring a world as fresh and sharp as the air after a storm. It seems that Millwood Hargrave has found the means to step further away from the formula set by her first book – and her plunge into this wintry landscape is often brilliant.

Mila’s quest to find her brother is one of snowy forests and eerie mountain cities, breakneck chases and perilous encounters, fierce creatures and mesmerising wilderness. As their close-knit sibling group splinters and older sister Sanna concludes that Oskar was desperate to take any opportunity to abandon them – perhaps an expression of her own frustrated longing to see the world beyond the forest – Mila is sure there’s something more to his disappearance. She is joined in her search by mysterious boy-mage Rune, bright-eyed younger sister Pípa, and loyal canine companions Dusha and Danya. Theirs is a world which awaits a far-off spring; one of superstition and stories, like that of Bjorn, bear protector of the forest. I would’ve liked slightly deeper exploration of certain plot threads or secondary characters, but on the whole, simple devices are woven into an effective, engrossing adventure.

It is not unexpected that nature should prove fruitful literary ground here (“Cold hovered like a carrion bird”; “it was the way of the mountains to carry on outdoing each other”), or that there are poetic influences (“A dark fizzing, like a hot coal spitting”). More important is that Millwood Hargrave is hitting her prose stride. The Way Past Winter features a compelling goal, exciting action and well-defined structure. Some of my favourite lines were character-centric (“Oskar had grown up so fast it seemed he had left loving them behind”; “She felt empty, like a hand that is dropped when it is used to being held”), but some came even when the story was at its simplest. When it was speaking of “a pane of ice, thumb thick”, or “watching as the flour and water performed their small alchemy”, or “listening to her breathing, which seemed the best sound ever made.” It is in these moments that The Way Past Winter shines.

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The Way Past Winter is simple, evocative, and captivating. Its pacy adventure and flashes of rich imagination will appeal to fans of Katherine Rundell’s The Wolf Wilder and Abi Elphinstone’s Sky Song. One of Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s best books yet.

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Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho // rich, inventive historical fantasy

What’s this? Adult fiction? ON MY BLOG?!

26833370Author(s): Zen Cho
Publisher: Macmillan
Publication date: October 1st 2015
Source: Library
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Zacharias Wythe is England’s first African Sorcerer Royal. In a Regency London where magic is an everyday reality, he must juggle conflicting demands and malicious rumours. There’s the wayward Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, where a faction schemes to remove him from his position by fair means or foul. The Fairy Court is withholding magical resources and the British government is baying to deploy increasingly scarce magic in its war with France. And now he has to deal with something even more outrageous than any of these things: a female magical prodigy.

Prunella Gentleman is an orphan desperate to escape the school where she has drudged all her life. A visit by the Sorcerer Royal seems the perfect opportunity. For Prunella has just stumbled upon English magic’s greatest discovery in centuries – and she intends to make the most of it… 

I picked up Sorcerer to the Crown in an effort to find more adult fiction that suits my YA-honed tastes. It has so many things that I like: a richly constructed magic system, a detailed historical backdrop, an inventive story full of intrigue and memorable plot devices. Cho injects the grand architecture and glamourous parties of Regency London with a fitting and vibrant strain of magic. She also packs the novel with plenty of unfurling secrets and social questions, from themes of class and race to community and culture.

Overworked sorcerer royal Zacharias is trying to investigate a scarcity of magic in England, but he’s being hindered by a hostile magical aristocracy and hounded by rumours that he played a role in the death of his adoptive father, the previous Sorcerer Royal, Sir Stephen Wythe. Of course, this being a fantasy novel, the plot is twisty and Sir Stephen is still around as a ghost. Prunella is young, reckless and ambitious, making for solid contrast between the leads. Zacharias is African and Prunella is biracial, bringing some welcome characters of colour to a historical period too often generalised as white. Supporting characters include Zacharias’ high-born, society-fluent adoptive mother; subplots include a conflict between a sultan and some very powerful witches.

The writing style takes some getting used to, but it absolutely suits the genre and even has occasional moments of knowing humour. There’s a subtle element of romance I would have liked to have seen more of. My major issue with the book is that it’s quite slow. You can practically feel the pace dragging. If it were shorter, tighter, less agonisingly slow-moving, it would actually make for a cracking bridge between YA and adult SFF. There is supposedly a sequel in the works (it’s currently slated for March 2019), but after the initial publication date of 2017 sailed by and barely a peep about the book since, the wait for The True Queen has been as slow as reading Sorcerer to the Crown can sometimes feel. Still, if we can wait for the next series installment in A Game of Thrones or Outlander, I’m sure I’ll pick up this book’s sequel eventually.

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Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown is a slow but rich and unusual take on historical fantasy. For fans of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley, The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. 

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The Skylarks’ War by Hilary McKay // an outstanding historical novel

My run of children’s fiction reviews continues on The Paper Alchemist today – with even more historical fiction!

39903894Author(s): Hilary McKay
Publisher: Macmillan
Publication date: 20th September 2018
Source: I received a NetGalley copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Any quotes taken from this copy may be subject to change in final editions.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Clarry Penrose and her brother Peter live for their summers in Cornwall. They stay with their grandparents and run wild with their older cousin, Rupert. But normal life resumes each September, with boarding school for Peter and Rupert, and for Clarry, a dull return to an echoing old house and a father who doesn’t want her. 

Even worse, the shadow of a terrible war looms ever closer. When Rupert goes off to fight at the front, Clarry feels their skylark summers start to slip away from them. Can Clarry’s family survive this fearful war? And will any of them be the same when it’s over?

Modern publishing is obsessed with the next big thing; with flash-in-the-pan fads and blockbuster bestsellers and instant Hollywood movie deals. There is such pressure on the make-or-break debut, particularly in YA, that there hardly seems room for thinking about writers as people who may continue to exist beyond that first nerve-wracking publication day. One wonders if the likes of Sir Michael Morpurgo, who wrote seventeen books before War Horse, his most famous title, or Dame Jacqueline Wilson, who wrote dozens of books before The Story of Tracy Beaker, would be given the time to build a long-term career if they were to debut in today’s publishing landscape.

Hilary McKay certainly got out well from the starting blocks – her first novel The Exiles won the 1992 Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize – and has nudged awards from time to time since – in 2002 the first of the brilliant Casson family books, Saffy’s Angel, won the Costa, then known as the Whitbread Children’s Book Award. Her books have meant a great deal to many readers. And, in a testament to writers being allowed to hone their craft, it is in her third decade of writing for children that she has created one of her best books to date.

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The Skylarks’ War is an old-fashioned tale, written in distinctive, almost idiosyncratic prose. It is a coming-of-age story in the truest sense of the word. It follows an extended family of characters for years, from childhood to early adulthood, like Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle or Jeanne Birdsall’s The Penderwicks. Cheerful, bright Clarry is at its heart. There’s also bad-tempered, slowly-flourishing brother Pete, grammar school girl turned nurse Vanessa, and loyal, ungainly Simon. And then there’s Clarry’s favourite, her charismatic, reckless cousin Rupert (“Having endured the desertion of his parents, a Cornish winter when a gale was so strong it blew him off the cliff, a Christmas of scarlet fever and innumerable years in compulsory education, he was assumed to be indestructible and allowed to do what he liked”).

As historical fiction, The Skylarks’ War straddles a complex era in which the Edwardian period gave way to the First World War, and in which the young were faced with changes and horrors once unimaginable to their firmly Victorian parents and grandparents. It grapples with ideas of education, ambition, patriotism, trauma, and vibrant hope. I particularly liked the intense exploration of family dynamics and the use of letters. There are a few inelegant touches – an instance of (a heavily implied) ‘bury your gays’ trope, some Irish stereotypes – but on the whole it is a vivid, detailed, unputdownable novel. The book’s most astonishing achievement is its multifariousness: it has moments of appalling devastation and breathless high spirits, no-nonsense practicality and emerging aspiration, frosty distance and, finally, joyful warmth.

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Hilary McKay’s The Skylarks’ War is multi-faceted, vivid and gut-wrenching. A historical novel reminiscent of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse and Katherine Rundell’s Rooftoppers. 

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Into The Jungle: Stories for Mowgli by Katherine Rundell // an immersive re-imagining

Spoiler: this almost-reboot wins over a cynic (though to be fair it is written by one of my favourite children’s writers of all).

38812918Author(s): Katherine Rundell
Publisher: Macmillan
Publication date: 20th September 2018
Source: I received a NetGalley copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Any quotes taken from this copy may be subject to change in final editions.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Everyone knows the story of Mowgli, the wild boy who leaps from the pages of Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 classic The Jungle Book. But what about the stories of those around him?

What of the mother-wolf who raised Mowgli as her own? What of Bagheera, the elegant and mysterious black panther, or Baloo, the good-natured bear with a fondness for honey? What of the elephants and the shrewmice and all the creatures in between?

Mowgli is hungry for their stories, but as he listens, he learns that there has, perhaps, only been one constant in the life of the jungle: danger. There have always been animals like Shere Khan, and the great ape with red eyes who lives on the mountain…

Katherine Rundell is no stranger to the wild. She braved the Amazon rainforest to rapturous applause with Costa-winning 2017 children’s novel The Explorer. Here Rundell turns her attention to another vivid and intrepid adventure, this time set in India among some very familiar names indeed. It’s certainly a handy commission between original creations, a useful siphon for a little excess exuberance. It seems Rundell wasn’t quite done with the jungle after finishing The Explorer. 

Or perhaps the jungle simply wasn’t done with Rundell.

For the world of Into The Jungle is intoxicating and fiercely alive. In its stretch of wonder you can almost hear the rustling undergrowth, the bristling insects, the argumentative birds. There are landscapes conjured here from the rough Seoni hills to the open plains where the snake stream meets the elephant pool.

The book is framed as a series of stories being told to Mowgli. We hear that before she was wolf-mother, Raksha was a courageous pup. We meet a young Bagheera and a young Baloo. Kaa gets a human-centric escapade and even a jerboa named Jolt makes the overmighty aware of the creatures at their feet. Rather cleverly, these stories are then tied up in an overarching adventure which gives the novel a little more punch.

Into The Jungle has more time for female characters than its forebear, though it leaves any explicit criticism or acknowledgement of Kipling’s complex post-colonial reputation firmly in the author’s note. After all, this is a project set to coincide with further pop cultural versions of the 1894 original, including Disney’s live-action Jungle Book sequel and Netflix’s Mowgli. This is not a radical reinterpretation of a Victorian monument, but it is not saccharine, and it is very well-written. I am continually astonished by Rundell’s ability to immerse the reader. Her prose is expressive (“his spine rose and fell like a mountain range”; “the jungle at night shone gold and silver and deep-water blue”), and effective even in moments where you barely notice it. It’s a rare writer who can make you forget you’re only reading.

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Acclaimed children’s writer Katherine Rundell squares up to Rudyard Kipling in the vivid, immersive and energetic Into The Jungle. 

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The Lost Magician by Piers Torday // genre-hopping storytelling with some subversive twists

Today on the blog, it’s time for more children’s lit!

40126361Author(s): Piers Torday
Publisher: Quercus Children’s Books
Publication date: 6th September 2018
Category:
children’s
Source: I received a Netgalley copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Any quotes taken from this copy may be subject to change in final editions.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

They may have survived the Blitz, but when Simon, Patricia, Evelyn and Larry step through a mysterious library door, it is the beginning of their most dangerous adventure yet.

There they discover the magical world of Folio, where an enchanted kingdom of fairy knights, bears and tree gods is under threat from a sinister robot army. The many stories of the Library are locked in war, and the children’s only hope is to find their creator – a magician who has been lost for centuries… 

Piers Torday’s The Lost Magician emerges from the same school of fiction that recently produced Patrick Ness’ Release and Katherine Rundell’s Into The Jungle. It is a writing back to a classic, even canonical, work in the form of a novel aimed at a young audience. While Ness took on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and Rundell squares up to Rudyard Kipling, Torday tackles C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. 

In terms of critical acclaim, Torday certainly has clout. His first novel for children was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Award and nominated for the Carnegie Medal, while its sequel won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. Not content with merely interrogating one of the most beloved children’s books of all time, Torday also takes the opportunity here to explore themes of war, knowledge and the power of the written word.

There are nods to Narnia everywhere. Four children go to an old house, the home to a professor, to escape the effects of the Second World War. The youngest child stumbles into a magical world, which seems a bit choosy about when it can be accessed, and is not believed by their older siblings. Smaller allusions are scattered throughout the book. Larry, Evelyn, Patricia and Simon even share the same initials as the Pevensie siblings.

But it is not a retelling. Rather than a landscape of perpetual winter full of talking animals and Turkish delight, the reader is greeted with a subversive and surprising note which casts a niggle of doubt over the entirety of the magical proceedings which follow. The world of Folio is a sprawl of larger-than-life fairytale figures (ironically in the case of Tom Thumb) and vaudeville villains. Torday’s bold, brash approach draws on a wild variety of characters and styles, allowing the Three Bears to appear in the same chapter as a War of the Worlds-esque amassing of the forces known as Unreads. The core, rather unsubtle conflict is between sides known as Reads (who represent a rich tradition of human storytelling), Unreads (robots who prefer the concrete and abhor imagination) and Never Reads (the most dreaded of all).

For me, The Lost Magician was a little didactic and the genre-jumping occasionally jarring, but it’s a book many will extol. I liked the book most when it was rooting itself in historical fiction. It teases out familial relationships and acknowledges details sometimes not seen elsewhere, like dyslexia not being a barrier to love of storytelling. For all its outlandish technicolour, the prose was perhaps at its best when at its simplest and most grounded: “It was a kind of manor house, of which there were many in that part of the world, and to the children it just looked very old and very smart. The stone was honey coloured, blazing in the afternoon sun, and there were roses clambering up the side…”

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Piers Torday’s interrogation of a children’s classic combines magic and adventure with subversion and a swirl of historical fiction. It’s not the most subtle of books, but will find fans among children and adults alike (and have more clued-up readers wondering, “Which one is supposed to be Jesus?”). 

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