Monthly Archives: December 2013

Marked

A disclaimer from the start: Rivka Spicer is my flatmate. That might make you think I am biased in this review but her books generally make me want to throw them across the room and I’m happy to tell her so. This is my genuine opinion and the fact that she is currently making my dinner has no bearing on the text below 😀

This week, I have been reading… Marked, by Rivka Spicer.

Marked is the sequel to Sage, and this is now looking to be a trilogy even though she was hoping to wrap things up in two books. The series, called The Last Ancient, follows Sage, a young witch at a boarding school in Yorkshire. The school is open to magical and non-magical pupils alike but the ‘norms’ don’t know about the witchcraft lessons. Sage goes through the usual teen drama of boys and bitchy boarding school girls, but there is also a prophecy about to become heart-breakingly relevant.

Some background: The magic that the witches use in the TLA universe is drawn from The Source (essentially Earth-magic crossed with The Force, and the living energy of all things) and some witches are ‘Ancients’ who channel this magic into the world to be used by the witches. If there are no Ancients then the magic is cut off. There is currently one known Ancient left, and The Coven (who are the high-ups that make the rules and are a little bit corrupt) are desperate to have little Ancient babies to ensure the continuation of the magical heritage. And then there are the Witchfinders (including a Witchfinder General) who, well, track down witches and kill them. So there’s political peril as well as physical danger.

The title Marked refers to the few witches with a strong enough bloodline themselves to be considered a Consort for an Ancient and able to produce children that will continue channelling the magic. The Consorts are all marked in some way – a birth mark, a difference in their magic – that proves they are Consorts.

Right then. I’ll try and keep things as spoiler-lite as possible, but as it’s a sequel there are some things you need to know. Sorry. The events of Marked take place six months after the end of Sage, towards the end of the same school year. Sage is almost eighteen, and has come to terms with her power and begrudgingly accepts that her future is to some extent out of her hands. She is in love and thing are looking rosy. Oh dear. That does not last long.

I found Marked to be a bit more dialogue-heavy than Sage, but then there are lots of important things to discuss, and more characters to do the discussing. It doesn’t affect the flow of the book really, but there were a few points where I wanted them to stop talking and get on with it! On the other hand it’s still just as funny even in the darker sections, and there are some laugh out loud moments. All I’ll say is… fake ninja moves…

Marked deals with a couple of serious issues in a real world setting. Sage is essentially being subjected to an arranged marriage and as a British citizen she has human rights, but they don’t apply in witch society, which is big on Tradition and Ceremony. So, unable to explain properly why she needs help, she is limited to an extremely emergency extraction plan from the women’s refuge as her real-world way out. She doesn’t take that way out, but I’m glad she investigates the option. This is where TLA differs from Harry Potter: while the witches live in secrecy, they still inhabit the real world and interact with it. They aren’t in a weird parallel bubble universe. The witch pupils still have smartphones and use the Internet (there is an official witch forum called Coven.net) and drive cars. They still call the Police if they’re in trouble.

An underlying theme of the book is Sage’s worries about being so young and being expected to marry and immediately start having children to preserve the bloodline and keep the magic in the world. She is frightened and angry and torn between her ultimate duty and her own personal ambitions. While they do overlap in places, Sage herself is quick to point out that she is not even eighteen and doesn’t feel ready for motherhood and matrimony. Call her again in ten years.

On top of the angst is a tournament to win Sage’s hand in marriage. She faces the possibility that she will be married off to a stranger, even though she is in a relationship with a suitable Consort already. This immediately raises her suspicions because The Coven seem determined to keep her apart from her lover, Dean, even though he is Marked and the two of them were planning to be married (eventually) anyway. So that’s interesting…

We veer a little bit into Hunger Games territory because Sage is a teen fighting a powerful oligarchy and it turns out she isn’t the only one who doesn’t like the way that the witches are being governed. So book three is going to be a belter. I hope Ben is still in it (he probably will be given he is present in the final scene of the book) because he has the best hair, and he always calls Sage ‘my Lady’ because he’s a gentleman. I also want him to have a happy ending maybe more than Sage. He’s been through a lot.

At the end of Marked there’s a bit of a cliff hanger and I literally sat in my chair and went AAAAAAAARRRRGHHHHH!!! but luckily there was no one else in the house. Rivka’s books often have that effect on me – when I finished Carnevale I almost threw my reader across the room – but this time it was just in frustration that the book stops RIGHT THERE. With Carnevale it was because of my hatred of a character and his continuing manipulation even after being a total douchebag. Speaking of Carnevale, that series is vaguely linked to TLA because a couple of characters appear or are mentioned, but according to the author there isn’t going to be a total crossover.

So, yeah. Read ­Sage and then read Marked and then you’ll know what I’m going through right now. And read Masquerade and Carnevale as well and let me know what you think of Tristan.

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The Left Hand of God

Seven o’clock already?! Where does the time go..?

Thought I’d get back to the books a little. I don’t want this blog to become a diary. I have kept various online diaries over the years and while through them I have made some great friends, I’m more interested in keeping a little distance between my soul and the keyboard these days.

So… The Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman. I feel I’m slightly behind the curve on this one since it has been out since 2010, back when paperbacks still only cost £6.99. But I have read it now. That’s what counts. I mostly loved it. That is to say, I really like it, and parts of it I loved, and there wasn’t anything I didn’t like, but there were dips. I do really want to read part two, The Last Four Things, which I suppose is a positive thing. I’m rambling. (Amazon reviewers of part two are polarised)

I suppose what stops me giving this a full on 100%-joy rating is the uneven tone. I’m still not sure if this is a YA book or not. I don’t mind; I’ll read YA and there’s some great stuff out there, but Hoffman can’t quite seem to make up his mind. The protagonist is fifteen years old, but this is not necessarily a clincher. Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy begins with a youthful protagonist but there is no doubt in my mind that Hobb is writing for a grown-up audience. He also breaks the fourth wall sometimes in trying to give a description of something, and having myself been trained out of using “you” narrative at school this knocks off a few points.

I like the premise and I like the characters. This is good. Cale is a very shady protagonist. When we meet him he is surly, insubordinate and brutish. Pretty much like any teenage boy. The Sanctuary is an unforgiving place and we quickly learn about the realities of life there. I wouldn’t necessarily say we immediately sympathise with Cale but we can understand why he’s so closed-off. There are some bits of the early plot which are far-fetched but necessary for the real action to get underway (the rope, the simplicity of the escape etc) which at the same time feels churlish to mention because I also hate when small plans go HIDEOUSLY WRONG just to add more suffering. So I don’t know. Maybe it’s because of his age. But then as Cale later explains, he’s a tactical genius. Of course his plan goes without a hitch.

I think Vague Henri is my favourite character. He starts off as a cautious (though not truly cowardly) and weedy character with a bit of Cale hero-worship going on. He is the first to grow up, I think, after his experience with Riba in the desert, and Hoffman keeps Henri’s feelings in check without adding an obvious second romantic subplot. Kleist – the third escapee – doesn’t change much. He is grumpy, he always wants to do the opposite of what the others do, and he only stays with them because he doesn’t want to be alone. He has some layers but he’s usually too contrary to let you see them.

The setting was also a little confusing. Hoffman’s website describes it as an alternate-history story which stops references to the Norwegians being totally out of whack. But how far back? Hoffman says he read up on the battle of Agincourt for the Battle at Silbury Hill, which makes sense given what happens, but the actions of the Redeemers seem a little like the most extreme parts of the Spanish Inquisition. And then there’s the weird steampunk vibe you get from the description of Kitty Town:

“There were bawlers with their loozles, mawleys with their ya-yas hanging out for all to see; there were benjamins in jemimas calling out ‘Yellow, come and get get.’ There were burtons and their naked pikers, middlemen calling for agony, Aunts with their bung nippers covered in rouge and shouting for a half and half. There were Hugenots selling bum-baileys to the highest bidder and nutty lads with long tongues looking for a pigeon in a packet of two.”

…What? Followed later by the crowds at the Red Opera, it almost felt like droogs were going to come bursting out of the woodwork:

“All the spivs and gangs of the city were there – the Suedeheads with their red and gold waistcoat and their silver-coloured boots, the hooligans in their white braces and black top hats, the rockers in their bowlers, monocles and thin moustaches. The girls were out in force too, the Lollards with their long coats and thigh-high boots and shaven heads, the Tickets with their shaped red lips like a cupid’s bow, their tight red bodices and stockings black as night.”

And yet the armies fight in full plate and use longbows. It’s all a bit of a mish-mash. Not to mention the Rabbi in the Ghetto with Payot and a wide-brimmed hat who plays chess, and the city of York, and Memphis come to that, though that could be in reference to the Egyptian capital and just a symbolic thing. It’s all very confusing.

A good story though, and I nearly finished it last night but with sixty pages to go I stopped myself because I didn’t want to be up too late. I had to drop it like it was burning hot when I got to a page break (in the middle of the longest chapter!) because there was no chapter end forthcoming. I finished it when I got home from work this afternoon.

Next on the list a YA book I’ve been waiting for: Marked by Rivka Spicer. I’ve been watching her write this for ages and she kept teasing me with little hints but now she’s finally got it edited and out so once I’ve done some work I’ll dive into that! Oh, it’s about witches.

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Advent-ure

I love Christmas. Not an unusual opinion.

I’m sitting in my living room with Rise Against coming out of the speakers, looking at the log fire and contemplating the next festive activity with a cheeky glass of white wine. I think what it will be though is washing up and tidying, because with me and Rivka both busy on various projects, the housework goes by the wayside a little. And neither of us particularly likes doing the dishes. Ugh. Ah well, I earned some grown up points earlier so I feel I ought to earn so more so I can save them up and have a childish tantrum some time in the next week.

Anyway, Christmas. I’ve been making some things this year, from my stores of fabric and craft items, and I’ve really been enjoying it. You might know from Twitter, or from other vague mentions in posts, that I do a fair bit of sewing and crafting. So making presents and decorations is almost a busman’s holiday, but with the added pleasure of seeing someone realise I took the time to make them something instead of just clicking on Amazon or something. I’ve not made everything, I’m not a machine for heaven’s sake, but I have some things that I want to get finished this weekend and in the next week.

Haha, I did just order something from Amazon though, because I can’t make ceramic baking beads. But I’ve made some stuff. And I posted an international parcel today! That’s even more grown up points for me! I stood in the queue at the Post Office and filled in a customs form –

That really annoys me because I want the present I sent to be a surprise and I have to write on the label what is in it. Like, I understand the reasoning, and I am happy to do it, but it ruins the magic of “oh wow a surprise parcel! What could be in it?”

– and everything! I did parcel corners on the wrapping, too. I’m an epically good wrapper. I love ribbons and bows and neat wrapping. I think I like the wrapping of the gifts the best. It’s like wrapping up all the potential and all the best bits of the holiday (religious aspect notwithstanding) and then the presents sit about for a week or two reminding you that they’re there, waiting to be given. Looking all pretty, and possibly colour co-ordinated. And sparkly, on occasion. I can even wrap bottles (properly!) despite the wide availability of bottle bags. I’m big on personal gift tags.

Oooh! Maybe I should make truffles again?! I made some awesome cherry ones the year before last. They were hella tasty. Mmm tasty wine.

Well, time to go do the dishes. Rivka has helpfully piled them up for me on the worktop. Then I don’t know what to do… early night maybe. Today has seemed so long with all my productivity!

PS Been singing Kick it up a Notch for 36 hours straight. I think I got this!

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Dyl-icious

Time for a quick visit to Addison’s Cabinet of Obsessions!

Can we all just stop for a second and talk about how amazing Dylan Saunders is? I mean really. You may not know who he is (for shame!). If you’ve ever heard of Team Starkid – the people behind A Very Potter Musical among other things – you should recognise Dylan as Dumbledore, and Tootsie Noodles and Pincer (Starship), Green Lantern in Holy Musical B@man and now he has a lead role – FINALLY – in Twisted, the StarKid production which is Aladdin told from Jafar’s point of view. I mean, he also exists in the real world and he does a great job at being a person. But with extra Dylan-y goodness.

A lot people think he looks a bit like Sean Astin. But Dylan is more than just a good looking actor. Dylan has this voice… he didn’t sing a lot to start with (a travesty!) in AVPM but it was through having the best two songs in Starship that I got really hooked on his vocals. Kick it Up a Notch is the best villain song I’ve heard in a while and that is all down to Dylan. He sings the whole song while also operating the mouth parts of the giant scorpion puppet above his head. The guy must have biceps of steel!

Just… listen. The arpeggios he does go right down my spine. If I’m having a tough day or I’m really stressed out, I put this song on and I can just feel myself unwinding. I’ve had it on repeat today and I am now so chilled!

The other main song he has in Starship is a duet with Meredith Stepien who is playing a robot called Mega-girl and she sings it in her character voice which is amazing. Meredith is so good at keeping character, I couldn’t have done the whole show without laughing or slipping, but she does it, and the two of them really carry the song beyond just a normal love song. It’s called The Way I Do and if it wasn’t for the obviously contextual space and sci fi references it’d be a great first dance song for a wedding.

I actually can’t get over his singing. I am so gutted I passed on a chance to go down to the central belt and see him live when he was on tour with George Watsky. I hope he comes back.

Twisted is so good. It’s incredibly obscene (the opening song is a parody of the opening to Beauty and the Beast, except no one is pleased to see Jafar…) and it has some stand out performances. Dylan is my favourite, obviously, but I always have a soft spot for Jim Povolo (the guard captain) and Jeff Blim as Aladdin was so good at being a charismatic douchebag. It is becoming my favourite StarKid production, though I do love Holy Musical B@man for the total homoeroticism between Joe Walker (Batman) and Brian Holden (Superman) in the song To Be A Man. Brian Holden was hypnotic in that scene, and I’m more of a Joe Walker fan. Starship will always be my proper favourite, though, because it has the right combination of epic consistency, a great story and of course fabulous vocal work.

I always wish I could show the drama club at work what really really excellent theatre looks like at a vaguely grass roots level. But I can’t because of all the swearing. I think that’s a shame because they all inspire me to keep going with drama and singing and costuming, and I’m already their age. I want the kids at drama to see what they could become. AVPM would be alright, and …most… of Starship, but no way would HMB and Twisted make it. Apart from Dylan’s sections. He swears less than the others (even in Twisted). 

Anyway… Dylan just has this range… he can be roaringly furious and desperately sweet, he can do villain and hero equally well, and he does this thing with his face… it’s like a half smile that is too adorable. But I wouldn’t ever call him adorable to his face should I ever ever ever in a million years see him in person. He has this solid manly aura. He’s too macho for adorable. But a real sweetheart. He’s basically lovely. Dare I say, he has usurped Nathan Fillion’s position in my list of idols? Yes. I’m going there. Dylan Saunders is right up there. In Starship he plays two characters – the evil Pincer and the simple Tootsie, and he is so good at both it’s almost like he’s two different people (well duh, but I hope you know what I mean).

He does non-musical, non-StarKid roles too, including The Lion in Winter back in 2010, which is one my all-time favourite plays/films. So add more gutted-ness that I couldn’t see him acting in that. America, eh? So far away…

He has an album out soon. It was funded on Kickstarter. It’s called Confluence and when he’s not too busy doing everything else hopefully it’ll be out soon. I’m really looking forward to it because obviously it is Dylan singing, but it’s a proper showcase for what he likes as opposed to having to follow the script. The voice is a window to the soul, or something. I could have gone to America. I could have put in what, thousands of dollars for the Kickstarter rewards that involve breathing the same air as – OK I know I’m getting creepy now. But he and the other StarKids (I actually don’t like calling them that) have just really woken me up properly to theatre again. But Dylan is my favourite obviously.

In the meantime I’m busy playlisting up Dylan’s beautiful voice (and face) so I can bliss out. Ah…..

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TFRK – Goulash

I can vouch for this – it’s blinkin’ tasty!

Rivka and Ivory

Tales from Rivvy’s Kitchen – Beef Goulash.

It’s taken us a couple of attempts to get this recipe right. The first time, I followed the recipe I had and put in 2 tablespoons of Paprika. It was so hot we couldn’t eat it! The second time I varied the recipe a bit and it came out a little runny, so this was the best version I’ve come up with.

700g Stewing/Braising steak
30g Plain flour
Oil to fry
1 Onion, chopped
2 Cloves of garlic, minced
2 Red Bell Peppers, diced
2 large Tomatoes, diced
2 Tbsp Tomato Puree
2 rounded Tsp Paprika (smoked or plain)
75ml Wine
300ml Beef Stock
300ml Sour Cream

Method

Preheat oven to 170 degrees.

1. Roll the cubed beef in the flour until coated and brown in the oil in a large frying pan. This may need to be done in batches. Set aside.

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NaNo Fail Mo

Right, so, “Why failing NaNoWriMo was a good thing”.

This was my fifth year of doing NaNo and the first year that I have not reached 50k in thirty days. At the moment my wordcount stands at about 31k. Now, that’s not really that bad for a month’s work. Averaged out it’s just over a thousand words a day.

The reasons I didn’t get my purple bar this year are legion: there were days when I wrote nothing because I had family visiting that I hadn’t seen for over a decade and I didn’t want to be rude; there were a couple of days I didn’t write because one of our friends had had a bad time and was round at ours and to be honest making sure she was OK was more important than my wordcount; there were days when I was just too tired after work.

Work is the main reason. I’m not saying that my work is more tiring than anyone else’s. There are people who work longer hours than me at more difficult jobs that Win every year. This year, though, for me, was super tough. It was like a perfect storm of distractions, complications and epic busyness. I signed up for some stuff at work that takes up more time, because I feel like I should be committed to personal development to keep me working to the best of my ability. I carried on helping at the Drama club. I had my actual job to do. I think I’ve had more late finishes at work this November where I’ve actually been doing work-related things than I’ve ever had.

I did not write a single NaNo word at work this year. Last year I wrote half of it at work. Oops. It usually becomes an obsession. I’m super-competitive and no more so than when I’m competing against myself. A CHALLENGE?!?! Bring it on. Fifty thousand words in thirty days is a good challenge. It involves writing (duh) and it is a target that is so easy to manage or totally fail at based on personal discipline. Last year, and the year before, my work suffered because I was so determined to get my writing done. An anonymous community of strangers judging me for my word count was more important to me than the work and the people around me. Failure was not an option.

So this year’s failure I’m counting as a Win for personal development. My work stayed the priority over my skewed and disproportionate pride and competitiveness. I’ve had a good month and I’ve really enjoyed the writing that I have done: I rediscovered my first ever NaNo and am closer than ever to finishing the complete draft for that story!

It was third year at university and I lived in a flat with all girls and a couple of them –OK, me and one other – were sort of into Twilight a little. Not totally obsessed. Not like Twihards. But we read the books and liked them a proportionate amount. Anyway, that November my other flatmate told us about NaNoWriMo and she said she was going to do it. So we all signed up to keep her going. So I wrote about what I knew. I based the main character on myself, wrote it in the first person, and off I went. Fifty thousand words later there were vampires and werewolves and shape shifters and trips to Norway and London. And danger! And romance! And a lot of kissing. It was a product of its time and in some ways so shameful but right now it’s at 70k+ and thus officially the longest thing I’ve ever written and I am super proud of myself.

So enjoying some pressure-free writing was more important to me this month. I am desperate to try and keep writing more regularly and at least get this vampire story finished so I can leave it be for a while and let it settle, and get on with some more grown-up ventures. Like the other unfinished drafts. And… the new sci fi thing… I accidentally started writing… um… oops?

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