Gamification of the library experience: Escape from Mr Lemoncello’s Library

“Knowledge not shared remains unknown.” – Luigi L. Lemoncello

Mr Luigi Lemoncello, the world’s most famous gamemaker, has completely redesigned Kyle Keeley’s local library. When Kyle and his friends are invited to an exclusive sleepover before the library opens, they find they have to solve Mr Lemoncello’s ultimate puzzle: how can they escape the library, using only the resources inside it?

Escape from Mr Lemoncello's Library

I was fairly sure I’d like this book just on learning the title. After reading the first few chapters, I was certain I would love it. I am the kind of person who will read a book just because it has “library”, or “bookshop”, or “museum” in the title. So I hadn’t initially realised it was written for children (ages 8-12) until I went hunting for it at my local library (appropriately enough). But it being a children’s book wasn’t going to put me off—I’d just discovered the Artemis Fowl books for the first time, and had read them obsessively. I get rather cross when people talk about being “too old” to read a certain book.

And how glad I am I found it, nestling among the low-hanging books of the children’s bookshelves. This book has everything. A tightly plotted adventure, literary references galore, outrageous puns, and a healthy does of parable-type moralising. It even has a few irresistible puzzles for the reader. Above all it’s a love letter to libraries and the power of stories and knowledge.

For adults, it’s a fun afternoon read to make us fall in love with reading again. For children, it’s a must for encouraging them to read books and visit their library. Although they might be disappointed if it doesn’t contain a holographic tiger—I’m certainly hoping my local library will be installing a Book Nook Café soon.

Favourite quotation: “A library doesn’t need windows, Andrew. We have books, which are windows into worlds we never even dreamed possible.”

Chris Grabenstein, Escape from Mr Lemoncello’s Library (Yearling, 2014)
 

Advertisements

Quotation of the month – Johnson on the mutability of language

I’ve always been fascinated by the tension between prescriptivism and descriptivisim, so it was a surprise to discover the Preface to Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary only recently. I had difficulty choosing which part to quote, because the whole thing is so perfectly phrased in that poised but passionate 18th-century way. The whole text is well worth a read, and available on Project Gutenberg and on the British Library website.

Samuel Johnson's Dictionary Second Edition
Title page to the second edition of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language

“…with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay, that it is in his power to change sublunary nature, or clear the world at once from folly, vanity, and affectation.
With this hope, however, academies have been instituted, to guard the avenues of their languages, to retain fugitives, and repulse intruders; but their vigilance and activity have hitherto been vain; sounds are too volatile and subtile for legal restraints; to enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride, unwilling to measure its desires by its strength.
…The language most likely to continue long without alteration, would be that of a nation raised a little, and but a little, above barbarity, secluded from strangers, and totally employed in procuring the conveniencies of life; wither without books…men thus busied and unlearned, having only such words as common use requires, would perhaps long continue to express the same notions by the same signs, But no such constancy can be expected in a people polished by arts, and classed by subordination, where one part of the community is sustained and accommodated by the labour of the other. Those who have much leisure to think, will always be enlarging the stock of ideas, and every increase of knowledge, whether real or fancied, will produce new words, or combinations of words. When the mind is unchained from necessity, it will range after convenience; when it is left at large in the fields of speculation, it will shift opinions; as any custom is disused, the words that expressed it must perish with it; as any opinion grows popular, it will innovate speech in the same proportion as it alters practice.” – from the Preface to Johnson’s Dictionary (1755)

Immersive and convincing historical fiction: A Pearl for My Mistress by Annabel Fielding

 

Both Hester and Sophie are trying to escape. Hester dreams of travelling. She has left her family and her home, abandoning her working class vocabulary and Northern accent to become the perfect lady’s maid. Sophie longs for independence, to free herself from the rigid shackles of her aristocratic upbringing. In trying to escape, they find each other. But it’s 1934 in England, so can their relationship survive the threat of war, financial instability, and slander?

A Pearl for My Mistress Annabel Fielding.jpg

When I began this book I imagined it would be an easy read; your average romantic novel. How wrong I was. This book is so much more than a love story. Yes, the pace nips along nicely and the story is totally immersive, but the historical context adds great depth and intrigue, and the prose is beautiful, elegant, and expressive.

This book is not merely set against a backdrop of the 1930s, but is completely immersed in the time. Fielding’s writing is so evocative that it’s easy to imagine every last detail of life in 1930s England. A Pearl for My Mistress is clearly thoroughly researched, and the historical context is effortlessly intertwined with the plot. Fictional narrative merges with real-life events and characters, moving seamlessly from intricate details of high society life and working class drudgery to broader political themes. While the details are intricate and informed, they never overpower the story. The political climate of the era is profoundly complex, and so the book benefitted from a range of viewpoints. I imagine Lucy, given her support of the Blackshirts, is a somewhat divisive character, but her motivations are perfectly justified, even, at times, sympathetic.

My only gripes were very minor—the commitment to telling the story in the voice of both Hester and Lucy meant some immersion was lost when they were together and the reader had to jump between the two perspectives. I was sad, too, that Hester faded a little into the background towards the last third of the novel.

There’s so much to love about this book: the vividly described historical context, the convincingly flawed characters, the sensual, sentimental, and oh so relatable descriptions of love (which Fielding describes beautifully as like “velvet”). I also loved Fielding’s descriptions of writing and reading, and the power of words and legends to inspire and even control. Fielding’s passion for the era and for the writing process itself is infectious. This is no simple romance, but a story about misplaced trust, self-destructive behaviour, and how characters can survive and thrive against manipulation on a personal and political scale.

Favourite quotation: “Lucy Fitzmartin lay in the darkness, feeling absolutely no inclination to sleep. Her mind was ablaze with stories, with thoughts, with possibilities. She could feel the spectres of a thousand plots at her fingertips. Words flared up in her head, colliding and intertwining with one another, forming sentences and paragraphs of the stories yet to be written. Now she had someone to read them.”

Annabel Fielding, A Pearl for My Mistress (HQ Digital, 2017)

Thank you to Annabel Fielding and HQ Digital for a copy in exchange for an honest review.

The Alphabet of Heart’s Desire by Brian Keaney

I loved the concept of this. Take one unexplained event from the life of a literary genius, add a splash of fact and a generous dose of fiction, and bake, until the resulting mix has increased in size and scope a hundred times over. The Alphabet of Heart’s Desire follows three disparate characters and their intertwining lives in early 19th-century London. Tuah, an ex-slave; Anne, a prostitute; and a young Thomas de Quincey. Weaving through the story, dealing out pleasure and pain in equal measure, is the ominous presence of opium.

Brian Keaney The Alphabet of Heart's Desire

I was really excited to read this, having been introduced to Thomas de Quincey’s work while at university. I haven’t read ‘Confessions of an English Opium-Eater’ (which inspired this novel), but I loved his morbid satirical essay ‘On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts’. In preparation for this I tried to look up my study notes, but all I could find was an elusive reference to it in an essay on the poetry of Browning. Disappointing for me now, but no doubt at the time I thought my passing reference was very witty and intellectual.

The narrative is told from the perspective of each of the three main characters. Each character has an individual, if slightly contrived, voice. Tuah’s speech is peppered with the Bible verses introduced to him by the ship captain who taught him to speak English. Anne’s speech is full of the grammatical idiosyncracies one might expect from your run-of-the-mill 19th-century street urchin. She is a street urchin with learning, however, and every word that might be considered too erudite for her is italicised. I found this a little distracting, but I think it emphasises that however much she may learn the ways of the upper classes, she will never leave behind her impoverished roots. While Thomas might use those words naturally, for her they come from a world beyond her own. She cannot forget it, and neither can we.

The characters themselves are well developed, and while they do give a cross section of 19th-century society, they do not feel stereotyped. By far my favouite character was Archie, whose philosophy and wit were sunshine among the clouds. I thoroughly enjoyed his conversation with Tuah about reading having “cured” him of his hunchback. Seeing Tuah’s puzzlement, he responds, “You are tempted to point out that it is still there…Literature is the great leveller…for when I read I stand as straight and true as any man.”

The writing is good and often wryly funny, although I was rarely completely absorbed by it. The highlights are certainly the descriptions of early 19th-century life in London. Particularly the more unpleasant aspects. Racism, child sex, rape, torture. Keaney certainly doesn’t shy away from describing these in vivid, macabre detail, confronting the reader with the gritty reality we are often all too happy to ignore.

For me, the pacing felt a little off. I enjoyed exploring the backstories of each of these characters, but wasn’t fully invested until Thomas and Anne finally meet. It was a shame not to spend more time with this and the fall-out of their relationship. Since the consequences of this are not explored, the ending comes abruptly and is a little anti-climactic.

An enjoyable read for fans of literary historical fiction but this didn’t quite live up to my expectations.

Favourite quotation: “he lay down flat with his ear to the ground and listened. At first it was no more than a whisper, like the sound of the wind breathing through the sedge beside some ancient and forever sunless sea. But gradually the murmur grew and Thomas knew it then for what it was: the footsteps of all those who had ever walked, or ever would walk upon the face of the earth. He listened harder, knowing there was a meaning in those endlessly changing patterns, if only he could understand it.”

Brian Keaney, The Alphabet of Heart’s Desire (Holland House, 2017)

Thank you to Brian Keaney and Holland House via NetGalley for an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

Quotation of the month – Walter Moers takes us to Bookholm

I cannot recommend Walter Moers highly enough. His books combine fantasy, adventure, mystery, and stupendous writing. Reading his books you feel he has conjured a wild dream just for your enjoyment. Underlying it all is a huge sense of heart. Of love. Of passion for the wonder found in those small joys in life: from the taste of a perfectly ripe apricot to the alluring scent of old books.

Walter Moers The City of Dreaming Books

To Bookholm:
“You can smell the place from a long way off. It reeks of old books. It’s as if you’ve opened the door of a gigantic second-hand bookshop—as if you’ve stirred up a cloud of unadulterated book dust and blown the detritus from millions of mouldering volumes straight into your face. There are folk who dislike that smell and turn on their heel as soon as it assails their nostrils. It isn’t an agreeable odour, granted. Hopelessly antiquated, it is eloquent of decay and dissolution, mildew and mortality. But it also has other associations: a hint of acidity reminiscent of lemon trees in flower; the stimulating scent of old leather; the acrid, intelligent tang of printer’s ink; and overlying all else, a reassuring aroma of wood.
I’m not talking about living wood or resinous forests and fresh pine needles; I mean felled, stripped, pulped, bleached, rolled and guillotined wood—in short, paper. Ah yes, my intellectually inquisitive friends, you too can smell it now, the odour of forgotten knowledge and age-old traditions of craftsmanship. Very well, let us quicken our pace!” – Walter Moers, The City of Dreaming Books (Vintage Books, 2007) p.10.

Mind-altering and vocabulary-expanding: Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon

When Diana Hunter dies during interrogation, Mielikki Neith is charged with uncovering what happened. When Neith opens the record of interrogation, she expects to be able to experience Hunter’s consciousness essentially as if it were her own. A routine investigation. But inside Diana’s mind she finds four others, none of which should be there.  

Gnomon by Nick Harkaway.jpg

Of all the novels I’ve read this year, Gnomon is by far the most ambitious, conceptually and stylistically. Nick Harkaway is surely the intellectual love-child of M.C. Escher and Umberto Eco.

I find it nearly impossible to describe Gnomon. It’s a thriller, a mystery, dystopian (or utopian?), literary, verging in moments on academic. It’s the story of a society governed by The System, where everything from your neighbours to your washing machine monitors and reports you. It’s the story of a woman, Neith, an inspector. It’s the story of Diana Hunter, novelist, rebel, victim. No, it’s the story of both of these, and an Ethiopian retired-artist-turned-games-designer, a Roman alchemist, and a Greek banker. And a shark.

This is an important book. It’s a book about surveillance, individuality, race, free will, identity. It cannot help but deal with current political and social issues because it is a novel that, for all its magical realism, deals with the real world.

The story unfolds through various interweaving narratives (think David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas). Narration shifts through various third person and first person voices, and yet each voice is so distinct that you never have to wonder whose story you’re reading now. What are these separate narratives? Are they past lives? Are they a history of how the current society developed? Are they narratives constructed by Hunter’s dying mind?

Tension ebbs and flows, and the pace is relatively sedate, with long explorations of mythology, politics, catabasis, and steganography. Yet once you read the end of a narrative you find yourself desperate to know what happens to that character next. It’s impossible to race through this novel, not least because you have to keep pausing to look up words, and yet it’s also impossible to stop reading. Frequently I found myself emerging, gasping for air, shocked by whatever revelation and just unfolded in my mind.

Ultimately I love that the whole book could be construed as a metaphor for reading. It’s about the alchemy that occurs when someone else’s words arrive fully-formed in your brain. That magic of interpretation, ultimately of adoption, as the story you read is weaved into your own narrative, your own identity.

Gnomon makes you work hard but the payoff is beyond worth it. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Favourite quotation:

“[T]his is a real possible future. It’s not a nightmare, it’s a truth. It already exists in the overlap of our technologies and our fears. It only needs the right flow of events for us to act the dream and make it real. Imagine how safe it would feel to know that no one could ever commit a crime of violence and go unnoticed, ever again. Imagine what it would mean to us to know—know for certain—that the plane or the bus we’re travelling on is properly maintained, that the teacher who looks after our children doesn’t have ugly secrets. All it would cost is our privacy, and to be honest who really cares about that? What secrets would you need to keep from a mathematical construct without a heart? From a card index? Why would it matter?” (loc 3107-3113)

Nick Harkaway, Gnomon (William Heinemann, 2017)

Thank you to Nick Harkaway and William Heinemann via NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

 

Adventures in Archives: What’s the point?

Don’t worry, I’m not trapped in the grip of an existential crisis (at least, no more than usual). But as I’m listing accident record books at Milton Keynes Museum, identifying dates and creators and getting distracted by obscure treatments, I often find myself thinking: “what am I doing this for?” (And no, the correct answer is not, “my boss told me to”.) Perhaps it’s more relevant to ask, “who am I doing this for?” It’s a useful question to keep in mind, because the more I am aware of my audience, the more I can ensure I’m recording useful information. Of course, at this early stage of the archiving process, the details I’m recording will likely not be seen by the general public until the collection is properly catalogued. But it’s hard to avoid wondering what these records might eventually be used for. Greater minds than mine have much more to say on the “point” of archiving, so I will simply try to identify some potential uses of this particular collection—the accident record books of Wolverton Works.

WWO41cover.jpg
Cover of accident record book Milton Keynes Museum WWO/41, 1931-32.
History of Wolverton Works

The first point is probably the most obvious. These books were vital documents in the running of Wolverton Works, updated on a daily basis. What insights can they give us to the Works themselves? Much of their usefulness will depend on what other records are available. There may well be much more detailed information about staffing and departments elsewhere. However, taking the record books in isolation, they communicate a range of information including who worked there, for how long, and even their salaries. We can see how First Aid functioned at the Works, and perhaps gain an insight into how the Works as a whole functioned. There are also clues to the way the Works changed over time: in 1923 ownership changed from London and North Western Railway to the London Midland and Scottish Railway. This is accompanied by a change in the way accidents are recorded—a coincidence or a change in procedure?

Family History

Knowing how captivated I am by the names in these books, I can imagine how amazing a resource this would be for someone researching their family history. In the books used between the 1880s and 1920s, there are indices by surname for each book, meaning that detailed research needn’t even be that time-consuming. I’ve already stated elsewhere how these books are as much about people as they are about accidents. There’s a great deal of practical information here, including the names and ages of workers, where they worked, how long they’d worked there, what their salary was, sometimes where they lived. But there are also personal stories—who was the victim of some horseplay on the shop floor, who was temporarily employed as a munitions worker during the First World War. There are some touching details, like the person in 1944 who suffered from “D.A.H” (I’m guessing disordered action of the heart). They’re worried about their husband, who is a prisoner in Japan.

WWO68 1944y
Milton Keynes Museum WWO/68, March 1944. Rest prescribed for D.A.H. from worry about husband imprisoned in Japan.
Women and the Works

This topic has fascinated me since I started, and more details are revealed each week. Each book is a little insight into women’s history: which job roles women were allowed to do, and in particular, how this changed during the world wars.

In the early record books, women were infrequently listed. Men were listed just by surname, but women were recorded as Miss/Mrs plus surname. This changes in 1941/42, as finally “sex” is listed alongside name (the women are still listed as Miss/Mrs). In the course of just a few years, women go from being listed a few times per book to multiple times on each page. Suddenly women at the works are no longer anomalies, but are playing intrinsic roles. This is surely indicative of more widespread changes in attitudes to the jobs women were able to do.

WWO63mfy.jpg
Milton Keynes Museum WWO/63, May 1942. Showing the addition of a column indicating the sex of the person being treated.
History of Medicine

Most of the information in these books is of course not just about railways, or people, but about the risks they faced, the accidents that inevitably occurred, and the way these were treated. It seems that nearly every malady or accident you could think of is listed in here, and these tell stories in themselves. Lead poisoning seemed a particular risk. You can tell what time of year it is just by whether there are more wasp stings or chills. You can study the various treatments offered, and even how these change over time. Warm olive oil for earache is an extremely common one, and who knew brandy was the way to combat an “attack of malaria”?

Looking at the accident record books over a long period of time, from the 1880s to the 1940s, there are a number of changes, which must be symptomatic of changes in management, ownership, or legislation. Between the 1880s and 1920s, a huge amount of detail is recorded for each accident, including lighting conditions, how long the person injured had been on duty, and a judgement on whether the incident was “accidental”. After the 1920s, far less information is recorded, and the type of incidents also changes—there are far more common maladies, like earache, toothache, and nausea, in addition to the lacerations and fractures one would expect from industrial accidents. The incidents listed become more what you might expect from a school matron than a railway works. In fact, from the 1940s, there are separate record books for illnesses and accidents. Is this because there were more dedicated medical staff on site? Changes to the medical benefits offered to employees? At this point the books start being called “Ambulance Room Records”—was there an actual ambulance on site? Ambulance trips themselves are infrequently mentioned in the record books. You can see that we’re in a bit of a catch-22 situation here—these accident record books can help us understand medical history, but you also need a basic understanding in order to interpret the books.

Milton Keynes Museum WWO/39
Milton Keynes Museum WWO/39, November 17th, 1930. Dose of brandy for an “attack of malaria”.

Anyone looking at these records will bring something new. One of my favourite uses of archives is as an inspiration for the visual art, like this incredible work on archives and landscape by Jeremy Bubb. Who knows what these personal histories concealed inside marbled book covers could inspire. I find it amazing that such specific records, even with no other context, can illuminate so much. What will the documents we take so much for granted today, the signing in books, the receipts, the post-it notes, tell future archivists about our lives?

Part One of Adventures in Archives: Milton Keynes Museum
Part Two of Adventures in Archives: Soundscapes and Tissue Paper
Milton Keynes Museum website

 

The Faith of William Shakespeare by Graham Holderness

Graham Holderness examines the faith of Shakespeare’s plays and life. He offers a Protestant reading of a number of Shakespeare’s plays, utilising his extensive knowledge of Christian texts and historical context.

The Faith of William Shakespeare by Graham Holderness

It’s been well over a year since I last read a book about Shakespeare. During research for my Masters dissertation, I devoured every book about early modern theatre I could lay my hands on. After a much-needed break, it was a joy to return to Shakespeare criticism with such an accessible and informed book as The Faith of William Shakespeare.

Holderness begins by outlining the theory of the English Reformation. It’s concise and informative, an excellent breakdown of an extremely complex topic. I found myself wishing I had read this overview while studying the early modern period, and I will certainly be returning to it for a refresher course.

Holderness follows this with an analysis of faith as presented in a selection of the plays. His analysis takes the play, and the world of the play, as a whole, honing in on specific instances in which faith is explored. As he explains,
“Shakespeare’s plays are creative unities that need to be seen or read as a whole. If there is a religious vision in Shakespeare, it will be found not in isolated references and allusions scattered throughout his work, but in the overall structural design…This book takes the play as the basic unit of religious thought and feeling…”
Much of his analysis takes the form of identifying “echoes” within the play text of Protestant and Anglican religious texts. These echoes are sometimes quite vague, and sometimes very detailed. They are as often echoes of sense and philosophy as they are specifically linguistic echoes.

I particularly enjoyed his chapter on The Merchant of Venice, which investigates the presentation of Shylock. His exploration of mercy through the interaction of Portia and Shylock was especially convincing. His chapter on genre on King Lear was excellent. He rightly acknowledges that King Lear moves between Romance, fairy tale, history, and tragedy, and Holderness cleverly uses this to justify a Christian reading of the play. He ultimately claims the play’s philosophy is Calvinist, although I felt this conclusion was abruptly made with just a few paragraphs of explanation. Perhaps Holderness assumes that we read the chapter with Calvinism in mind, but bringing this in earlier would have made the conclusion more convincing. His chapter on The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest as reworkings of earlier tragedies has a huge amount of potential, but ended before being fully developed. I would have liked to read more on this.

While The Faith of William Shakespeare deals with complex ideas, it is very accessible. The book assumes the reader does not have an extensive knowledge of either the religious context or the plays themselves. Since Holderness is looking at the plays as a whole, some of his book is spent paraphrasing plots. I was concerned this might be frustrating with plays I knew particularly well, but it rarely detracted from the analysis and was useful in the plays I was less familiar with.

The Faith of William Shakespeare bucks the current trend of arguing for Shakespeare to be a Catholic or atheist, and instead sets out to prove he lived his life as a Protestant. Holderness acknowledges that the plays are a poor route to knowledge of Shakespeare’s life, but they are also the only evidence really available. Often his readings are broadly “Christian” rather than specifically Protestant (or Anglican, or Calvinist, or Lutheran), which sadly works against his “Shakespeare is a Protestant” argument. However, just because I did not end the book convinced that Shakespeare or his plays were Protestant, does not mean this was not an enlightening and interesting exploration of one of the key issues in Shakespeare criticism.

Favourite quotation: “The feather does not stir, and yet she lives, ‘a soul in bliss.’ In an agnostic or atheist reading this is the delusion of an old man desperate to keep his dead daughter alive. In a Christian reading, assured that Cordelia’s sacrificial death, like the death of Christ, has the power to ‘redeem all sorrows’, Lear may die in sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life. This, finally, may be the happy ending that is continually trying to get out of this bleak and nihilistic tragedy.”

Graham Holderness, The Faith of William Shakespeare (Lion Books, 2016)

Thank you to Graham Holderness and Lion Books via NetGalley for a copy in exchange for an honest review.

Fantasy with a healthy dose of reality: Court of Twilight by Mareth Griffith

Ivy is not having a good week. She’s just lost her job at the Eirecom call centre. Strange men are loitering outside her flat. And now, her reclusive, plant-obsessed flatmate has disappeared, and Ivy might be the only person who can find her.

Court of Twilight Mareth Griffith.png

Blending contemporary life with ancient mythology, Court of Twilight is an inventive fantasy novel set in modern-day Dublin. The book follows 20-year-old Ivy, newly unemployed, as she searches for her flatmate. Along the way she relearns everything she thought she knew about fairytales.

The success of Court of Twilight hinges on the characterisation of Ivy. Thankfully, Ivy is convincing and extremely relatable. She is doggedly determined, and takes everyday and otherworldly challenges in her stride. I love the blending of normality with fantasy here—Ivy is as likely to be hunting for a new job as she is hunting down fairytale life forms. There’s a grounded realism you don’t often experience in fantasy novels.

Occasionally Ivy is a bit slow on the uptake when it comes to acknowledging the magic being revealed around her. But just because I know Ivy’s in a fantasy novel, doesn’t mean she does. I expect magic around every corner, but she’s more worried about how annoyed her flatmate will be if she kills of all her plants. I loved Ivy’s relationship with her flamate, Demi. These are not sisters who have sworn to defend each other until death. They’re two people who have been thrown together by circumstance, whose friendship has slowly blossomed in spite of their various idiosyncrasies. But Ivy won’t let anything or anyone stop her from helping Demi.

Characterisation elsewhere was also strong. Each person has their own individual agenda, and even the characters we like the most act questionably. There’s a great deal of moral ambiguity, which makes Court of Twilight an arresting and unpredictable read. There’s a level of threat beyond classic “good versus evil”, which was refreshing. Pacing is leisurely, but this was never a problem for me, particularly as the build up to the denouement was excellent.

Everything about this felt new and imaginative—the concept of the novel as a whole, the kind of threats faced by the characters, the concept of the fantastical elements. I never knew where it was going and I’m desperate for the sequel so that my questions can be answered.

Favourite quotation: “Ambrose, for his part, didn’t look terribly happy, either…Then again, Ivy had never seen Ambrose in anything remotely close to a pleasant mood. Perhaps being irritable was simply a permanent feature, like a receding hairline, or a bulbous nose.”

Mareth Griffith, Court of Twilight (Parvus Press, 2017)

Thank you to Mareth Griffith and Parvus Press via NetGalley for an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

 

Innovative magical textbook: Sorcery for Beginners by Matt Harry

Owen Macready is your average 13-year-old boy. In fact, he prides himself on his averageness: average grades, average looks, average life. When Owen obtains a magical spell book, however, his life becomes anything but average. He must keep the book safe from the evil Euclideans and mafia henchmen, protect his friends, and try to bring his family back together.

Sorcery for Beginners by Matt Harry

Boy finds spell book, boy finds he can do magic, boy must fight evil in order to save the world. It’s been done before, you might think. But Sorcery for Beginners, like its protagonist, is far from average. The book is formatted as a textbook, so that the reader can learn magic along with Owen. Owen’s story is presented as a case study, demonstrating the practicalities and pitfalls of learning magic, and the values expected of magical candidates. Accompanying the case study there are instructions for spells, diagrams, and tidbits of trivia.

It’s a clever way of presenting a classic good versus evil story in a refreshing way. The illustrations and typography by Juliane Crump are fantastic—I especially love the pages outlining how to do spells, and the images of the Codex Arcanum. The trivia asides are often very funny:
Cryptozoology is the study of animals whose existence has not been proven (or accepted) by the world at large. It is but one of many so-called Arcane Fields, which include Sorcery, Alchemy, Time Manipulation, Paranormal Studies, Inter-Dimensional Travel, and Cryptocartography. Each is deserving of its own easy-to-read help guide, but I do have a life, you know. (p.402).
Occasionally, however, both trivia and illustrations were a little distracting. I found it off-putting that sometimes the illustrations do not match up with what is described in the text (on pp.359-360, for example, a “line of dark figures” is replaced with a helicopter in the illustration). When in a particularly tense sequence, having to break the flow of the story to read an informative footnote broke my sense of immersion. This could have been helped by having more trivia towards the beginning of the book, and less at key plot points.

The plot itself is action-packed with plenty of excitement to keep you reading. The prose is lively and accessible, and the characters engaging and relatable, especially Owen and Perry. I particularly enjoyed the imaginative spell-casting, which combines some sort of Tai Chi-inspired somatic movements with magical objects and incantations in various languages.

There were a number of formatting issues in the kindle edition I read, which I understand have now been resolved.

Overall, a hugely enjoyable read, ideal for fans of Eoin Colfer and Lemony Snicket.

Favourite quotation: “Old English is an early form of the English language that was used by residents of Great Britain between at least the mid-fifth century and the mid-twelfth century. Its alphabet was comprised of runic letters and pre-dated Latin. To read it is to be amazed that the Brits ever learned how to communicate.” p.28.

Matt Harry, Sorcery for Beginners (Inkshares, 2017)