The 5 best books I read this summer

I’ve done a lot this summer. I went on holiday to Menorca, I saw the overgrown ruins of an old cottage back home in Solihull, and, most excitingly of all, I read a lot of books.

Some of them were distinctly average – Cary Elwes’ memoir of The Princess Bride, As You Wish, was wonderful for learning bits and pieces about one of my favourite films, but the writing was dodgy. And some books I read were kind of bad – I only got three pages into Anne Rice’s Queen of the Damned before I cringed so hard that the cringe ran all the way down my arm and flung the book back onto the shelf.

Overall, though, it’s been a very good season for reading for me. Here are some absolute gems I gobbled up.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

cloud-atlasThere’s a reason Cloud Atlas got a Man Booker nomination, and it’s because it’s bloody good – my favourite read of the summer, I’d say. Through the stories of six different people, all from different points in time, Mitchell weaves a tale of interconnected lives, exploring how deeply linked the past, present, and future can be. Sounds complicated, but it’s really not – just sit back and let Mitchell take you for a ride through 19th-century Polynesia all the way through to a post-apocalyptic future, and be touched by each story in its own unique way.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

the haunting of hill houseIt’s rare that a scary story actually, you know, scares me, but Shirley Jackson has managed it. Written in 1959, The Haunting of Hill House is the grandmother of all those haunted house stories that have now become movie clichés. Four strangers stay in the spooky and bizarrely-architectured Hill House for a season to see if they spot any ghostly goings-on that previous residents have reported. And lo and behold… they do. Jackson’s prose is absolutely charming, the characters are believable – and the protagonist’s anxiety all too real – and the events that unfold are spooky as heck.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

a monster callsIt wouldn’t be a list of books I liked if it didn’t include a top-notch piece of YA fiction. Patrick Ness has impressed me in the past – More Than This and The Rest of us Just Live Here got firm five-star reviews from me – and A Monster Calls was no exception. 13-year-old Conor starts to get visits every night from a huge, monstrous yew tree at a time in his life when he really doesn’t have time to be dealing with monsters. While the monster seems sinister and violent, he only seems to want to tell Conor stories… You’ll easily devour this one in a day or so and be sobbing by the end, if my experience is anything to go by.

Animal: The Autobiography of a Female Body by Sara Pascoe

animalI’ll admit, I’m getting a little tired of ‘part memoir, part ____’ books, but it doesn’t seem to stop me from reading them. Comedian Sara Pascoe’s part memoir, part exploration of the evolutionary psychology behind our attitudes towards gender and sex is exactly that, and it’s hilarious. As a feminist text it doesn’t entirely stand up – it’s very much a ‘pop feminist’ kind of book, not exactly a set text on a gender studies course – but for a brief and fascinating introduction to the world of evolutionary psychology and how it affects (or doesn’t affect) our view of gender roles, it’s excellent. It’s also very honest, and very, very funny.

Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban

riddley walkerFor me to read and enjoy a post-apocalyptic story, it has to be very good. Enter Riddley Walker. Hoban has taken an approach to post-apocalyptic landscapes that I haven’t seen before: protagonist Riddley lives a good two or three thousand years in the future after a nuclear war destroyed the world as we know it, and humanity has been sent back to the iron age. But there are still hints of what the world used to be like… and hints that it hasn’t all been lost. Most interestingly of all, though, is the language that Hoban has used – the entire book is written in a future version of a south-eastern English dialect. Like a rural Clockwork Orange.

Add me on Goodreads for more opinions on books and whatnot, or comment below with your own recommended summer 2016 reads!

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Jupiter Ascending review: What happens in space, stays in space

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When a film is amazing, we create a fandom. When a film is terrible, we create memes. But when a film like Jupiter Ascending appears, equal parts amazing and terrible, we form a cult and bow down to our new glittery, poorly scripted overlords.

Boasting an abysmal Rotten Tomatoes score and also some of the most stunning visuals in a movie this side of Avatar, Jupiter manages to blend high-octane (and high-budget) action and SFX into what can only be a teenage girl’s fanfiction about her favourite space opera. And, bizarrely… I don’t even think I mean this as a criticism.

There’s so much to say about this film. A lot of it has been said already. But there is still so much to say.

Significant-seeming plot points are introduced and dropped (What’s with the bees? Who are those lizards? Why does Channing Tatum have angel wings? Why am I asking these questions?), a climactic scene somehow manages to frame an ornate couch as the central character in the shot, and the majority of the most serious lines make the whole cinema burst into laughter.

I want to see it eight more times.

Mila Kunis’ eponymous Jupiter is the ultimate Mary Sue: an average young girl plucked from mediocrity because it turns out she was very important all along, who somehow picks up kick-ass fighting skills over the course of a few hours at the expense of growing a personality. To her credit, Kunis carries the character well; it’s just a pity there’s not a whole lot of character worth carrying in the first place.

The closest thing we have to a villain is Eddie Redmayne, who only just about qualifies as such, swishing around in a number of sparkly capes. His performance makes me regret every time I have used the word sashay in my life, because every other instance of sashaying simply pales in comparison to the way he swoons around the set in a floating trail of silk. He gasps out his lines like he’s using his last dying breath to push his character’s bizarre Oedipal complex, and he stares out at the audience with a waxily botoxed face. I feel like Redmayne probably auditioned for this film as a joke that he just kept going when he got the part.

For some reason, Channing Tatum is genetically part wolf. There is no reason for this. It doesn’t add a single thing to the plot. We the audience just sort of… accept it. He skates around in anti-gravity rollerblades – until the end when he gets his aforementioned angel wings, of course – and he and Kunis do their utmost to create the chemistry between their characters that the script neglected to include.

Frankly, the entire cast deserve Oscars for managing to take the whole thing seriously.

And yet, in spite of its dodgy dialogue and generally iffy storyline, Jupiter is definitely a film worth seeing, in the most literal sense of the word. The scenery is spectacular and the wardrobe has been lifted straight from an interstellar high-end designer catwalk. Heck, I don’t even have a problem with that beautiful couch being the focus of the shot.

It also, somehow, gives us a lot of things we’ve been asking for from action and sci-fi: an explanation for why no one cares that a city got destroyed, characters held accountable for treating women like commodities, a glimpse into the messed-up bureaucracy of galactic capitalism. If the movie was actually good, this blog could well have been an extended thinkpiece about how the Wachowskis have shaped the future of sci-fi.

Jupiter Ascending is a dreadful film with a feeble script and highly questionable plot. Please, please watch it.

I’m a big fan of terrible movies – why not subscribe to Just Another Magic Monday for more? Or comment below and tell me what you thought of this spaceship wreck of a film! 

10 things I learned writing 50,000 words in 30 days

Long time, no blog – sorry, everyone! I assure you I have a legitimate excuse, and it’s this:

All my ‘spare writing time’ has been taken up writing a 50,000-word novel in the space of a single month.

That means a month of planning and getting my head around a brand new story for most of October, and then writing an average of 1,667 words every day in November. And that’s not including the words I write for my day job.

For those who aren’t aware, National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, happens every year, and it exists purely as a challenge for writers. If you write 50,000 words of a novel in that month, you’re a winner. It doesn’t matter if you’ve written something awful, or if you haven’t finished your story, or even if it’s not a novel – the point is that you’ve written something.

This year, for the very first time, I won. On the 1st November I began writing my novel – a young adult, coming-of-age tale about a directionless nineteen year old boy joining a band – and by the 30th, I had written a clean 50,127 words. I have never been more proud of myself.

It’s been a difficult and tiring month, but it’s also been fantastic, and I’ve learned an awful lot. Here are ten of those things I’ve learned.

1. Writing is wonderful.

By far, the most important thing that this month has done is to remind me why I love writing. Because I do love writing. The thrill of watching a story come to life, helping my beloved characters navigate their world, picking the right words and phrases to get across the right feeling – when you’re a writer, nothing can match it.

2. Writing is bloody difficult.

I already knew this one, though I didn’t know quite how difficult it would be to write a complete novel. I’ll be honest: I’ve begun more novels than I can count, but this is the first time I’ve seen a first draft right through to its epilogue. And boy, it was hard. There were scenes that have no logical ending and important bits of information that I had no clue how to convey. On top of all that, there was also the challenge of squeezing out a thousand and a half words of this same story every single day. It’s not easy.

3. 50,000 is a lot of words.

Short novels, including those in the young adult genre, can be a minimum of about 40,000 words. 50,000 is literally the length of a novel – and there’s a reason why writing it in a month is considered such a challenge. Spread out across five different Google Docs, I’ve got an entire (though patchy) young adult novel from beginning to end that spans six months of the protagonist’s life. There’s a lot going on there.

4. 50,000 words is hardly anything.

I reached 50,000 words… and no way is my novel finished. There are incomplete scenes and huge narrative gaps that need filling up. And then there are the things I haven’t even begun to include. I know every tiny detail of my characters lives – I can tell you what they were like in school, what they eat for breakfast, their most far-flung daydreams and fantasies – but barely any of that makes it into the story. I only have 50,000 words, after all.

5. The more often you write, the easier it gets.

One piece of advice that professional writers give is always to write something every day. This month’s experience has driven home just how good that advice is. The first week or so of NaNoWriMo was the hardest, purely because I wasn’t used to writing 1,667 words of a novel every day. After that, however, things got easier. I settled into a routine and before long I was spouting two or three thousand words on a Saturday with hardly a second thought. Let’s just hope I can keep that up in the future.

6. The key to beating writer’s block is careful planning and skipping over the tricky scenes.

Writer’s block hits everyone differently, so this lesson is in no way universal, but it’s certainly what worked for me. Not being allowed to start writing in October (however much I desperately wanted to) forced me to over-plan, jotting down the order of nearly every scene or narrative bump in the story. When I got to writing it, this turned out to be invaluable. Stuck on where a scene should go? No matter. Put down a ‘PLEASE FINISH’ in square brackets and move on to the next one. Don’t dwell. Keep it moving. Keep writing.

7. Support is everything.

There’s a reason why I could write 50,000 words in November but hardly even one thousand every other month of the year. NaNoWriMo offers a unique and brilliant portal to thousands of people who are in the exact same boat as you. There are concrete goals, stats to follow, and a huge array of forums to talk about what your novels are doing. All in all, the support does wonders for motivation.

8. There are a lot of flavours of gin out there.

Don’t worry, I learned this through doing research for a gin-loving character, not through looking to drown my sorrows (yet). Research is everything!

9. Your characters’ world is, unfortunately, your world.

For better or worse, absorbing yourself in a novel means taking on your characters’ world and getting right inside their heads. You get to learn all kinds of details about them, and think carefully about what their next move is and why. It makes for good writing but it can get a little… intense. On the one hand it got the cogs turning in my head all day every day, making it easier when I sat down to write something. On the other hand, I felt absolutely miserable every time my protagonist was going through a rough patch. Swings and roundabouts, I suppose.

10. It’s never over.

50,000 words certainly isn’t enough. But even when I’ve finished those awkward scenes, added in the extra ones, and filled out all the gaps, I’ll still have several more months of work to do. I need to shuffle the story around, proofread it, re-write about half my words, and generally edit the heck out of it. The writing process is never truly over.

If you’ve ever fancied writing a novel, regardless of how good your writing skills are, I urge you to try NaNoWriMo next year. You’ll learn more things than you can imagine and you’ll come out of it with a decent chunk of a novel written. I promise it’s worth the pain.

Feel free to add me as a buddy if you have a NaNoWriMo account! And stay tuned on Just Another Magic Monday, as I’m hoping to blog a bit more about my writing process in the future.

Media I’ve been consuming in August

As you know, I’m a media junkie. Here’s where I’ve been getting my fix in August.

I’ve been listening to: Patrick Wolf

Patrick Wolf

In August, I listened to Patrick Wolf. I don’t think I listened to anything else, and that’s not an exaggeration. It’s actually quite worrying. Wolf has been on my radar for several years, but it looks like I started listening to him properly at just the right time. For the uninitiated, Patrick Wolf makes artsy music that spans genres, to say the least. Most of the time you can expect a combination of electronica and classical instruments with a bit of folk thrown in for good measure –  and that’s just for starters. The Bachelor sounds like a protest album against a hopeless war that humanity is fighting in outer space; Lupercalia is a beautiful confession of love; and I don’t know what the hell’s going on in this video but I kind of like it.

I’ve been watching: The Great British Bake Off

Bincident

Who hasn’t been watching the Bake Off? Personally I’m an avid fan and watch it every year, but from its steadily growing viewing figures it looks like everyone else is doing the same. And boy was it worth watching this year. Last week’s bincident provided more drama (and outright anger) than the series has ever seen before. Though I was sad to see Iain and his beard leave, I sort of have to agree with the judges – he didn’t present anything, and I’d be concerned about how well he’d handle the pressure later on when things heat up.

I’ve been reading: This Reddit thread

I don’t head over to Reddit very often, but when I do, it’s for things like this. Hundreds of people on a single thread, discussing their darkest secrets. Sometimes the human condition is illuminated by art; other times, simply by listening to those around us. [NB: Be warned that this thread is very NSFW.]

I’ve been literally consuming: Hasselback potatoes

Hasselback potatoes

Every week I cook a meal for my family that they usually haven’t had before, and my favourite of those so far has definitely been these delicious Hasselback potatoes. I adapted a recipe from FoodNetwork, stuffing thick-cut bacon in the wedges and topping them with spring onions and fresh parsley. The result? Crispy, mouth-watering potatoes rich with flavour. I’ll certainly be making these again, although I’ll probably add more bacon and a bit of soy cheese.

What have you been listening to, watching, reading, and eating this month? Comment below – I’d love to hear! Also, do subscribe if you’d like to keep updated with this blog. 😊

The top 4 movies about rock stars

Before I start this post, I’d just like to say a quick thank you to the lovely people who have followed this blog or subscribed to it by email. I didn’t expect to gain this many followers so soon and your support is really appreciated. So, thanks guys!

Now, let’s talk rock stars.

Sweat, calloused fingers, tinnitus… For musicians, it’s just another day in the life, and it’s a far cry from the cosy lives of Hollywood stars. But every now and then, the right actors and director will come together and make a truly spectacular film about rock stardom that looks just like the real thing. Here are four of my favourites that get it right.

4. The Runaways

The Runaways, aka the film where Kristen Stewart surprised us all by being really, really good. The movie follows the rising success of Cherie Currie as she joins Joan Jett’s band, the eponymous Runaways, and they set out for stardom. Visually lively with a wild musical energy, it’s safe to say that The Runaways is a lot of fun.

3. Velvet Goldmine

There’s nothing quite like Goldmine if you want a gorgeous, decadent movie about rock stardom, following such musicians as definitely-not-Bowie and definitely-not-Iggy Pop. In terms of story, it’s a raucous coming of age tale that follows a young Christian Bale as he starts his music journalism career and gets to know all the celebrities. The cinematography is stunning – and I’m not just talking about that famous roof scene – with fabulous stage costumes and sweat-drenched crowds that really capture what it’s like to be at a gig. The music is pretty fab, too.

2. Almost Famous

Almost Famous is America’s heterosexual answer to Velvet Goldmine: young lad wants to be a music reporter, travels with famous (made-up) rock band, falls in love with groupie. As rockstar movies go, however, it’s quite touching. Along with the cute romance, there are some scenes that just make you smile – the music troupe has a tendency to look like a big happy family at times.

1. Spinal Tap

Everyone’s favourite rockumentary easily makes the number one spot in this list. Director Rob Reiner takes on heavy metal with fictional band Spinal Tap, in a way that even real rockstars found a little too convincing. From the hilarious lyrics to the charming Stonehenge set design, this is definitely a movie that goes up to eleven.

What are your favourite rock star movies that I’ve managed to totally forget about? Comment below!