A Crown of Swords by Robert Jordan

This is the seventh Wheel of Time book, which I read almost back to back with the eighth – it’s a comment against both of them that I can’t easily remember which events happen in which books without checking a synopsis to remind myself.

I didn’t not enjoy this novel, but I feel that it’s generally moving in a direction I don’t enjoy so much. There’s a lot about Rand as the Dragon Reborn trying to expand his influence by combatting the Forsaken. He has Min with him more often this time, which is nice, because I kind of like her and she makes his scenes more enjoyable – however, they do also share a romance, which is kind of eye-rolling (everyone loves Rand) and it contains one of the stupidest sex scenes I’ve ever read.

As always, I was more interested in the goings on with the Aes Sedai. Here the faction in Salidar debates whether or not to return to the fold with the White Tower, which, of course, Egwene and Siuan are staunchly opposed to. Egwene as Amyrlin also changes up the dynamic a little, and as much as I felt the previous book just kind of made her Amyrlin pretty randomly without much explanation (and Egwene herself not seeming to question it) I was pleased that that was given more context here.

Something I enjoyed, which adds an element of tension to things, is that the temperature gets hotter for everyone as the novel goes on. The Dark One is effecting the climate, and so everyone has to deal with uncomfortable heat and the droughts and other problems that follow. It helps make everything feel more connected, and I like seeing how the world changes, even if it’s a relatively minor thing. Nynaeve and Elayne are both trying to find a solution to this in their portion of the story (along with Mat) and they end of encountering a group of women who can channel, but are separate from the White Tower.

All things considered, it wasn’t a bad installment (and I was glad Perrin and Faile weren’t in it) but it just didn’t captivate me quite as much as some of the previous ones. It feels like a while since there were any really clever or interesting developments, and unfortunately, I know this doesn’t get much better in the next book either… Even the relatively exciting bits, like the return of a certain character (which I won’t spoil) are handled in a quite an underwhelming way. I’m still entertained as I read, but it’s not at its peak.

Rating: 6.8/10

Buy it here.

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Spider-Man/Deadpool Omnibus

Spider-Man and Deadpool are two of my favourite characters in the Marvel universe, so I was very curious about this volume. Marvel encompasses so many different types of story, and I feel that the adventures of Spider-Man feel much more rooted in reality than those of Deadpool, and I love crossovers that clash two very different feeling things.

There are quite a lot of different stories in this collection and I appreciated the variety – the first one sees Deadpool hired to assassinate Peter Parker, not knowing he is Spider-Man, while also being friends with Spider-Man. another has them sharing an adventure with Penn and Teller, one sees Deadpool appearing in a comic intentionally done in the style of the earliest Spider-Man comics, and my favourite has Spider-Man going down a darker, morally ambiguous path, while Deadpool starts to get more of sense of needing to do what’s right. In the midst of all that, they also clash with a character named Itsy Bitsy – the humanoid spider “daughter” of them both.

What I liked about this comic most of all is that it seems to go out of its ways to analyse the characters while comparing and contrasting them. Spider-Man and Deadpool are very different people and it’s interesting to see how they both respond to intense situations – you get a good sense of who each of them are at their core, and I loved that. Their relationship is explored in a lot of detail too, and the bond between them is one that I really felt – for me, that’s one of the most important things for keeping me invested in a story. They’re great together and I always enjoyed their semi-playful bickering, though not as much as I love the moments of true affection.

The only problem with this comic is that it is not really accessible to people who don’t have a pretty detailed knowledge of the Marvel universe. I’ve read some Deadpool and Spider-Man comics before, and I thought that I would know enough to fare well, but there were quite a lot of references to things, and aspects of their lives that you’re supposed to be familiar with, but I just wasn’t. This sometimes left me feeling alienated and confused. It did what I suppose it’s supposed to do – made me want to read more so that I could understand it, but it was a bit off-putting. I suppose I shouldn’t complain though – it was obviously written with an audience who is better versed in Marvel than me. Occasionally, it felt just a little too silly as well, not to a large degree, but enough to weaken my immersion (but what do I expect from crossover comics?)

Though I wish that I could have chosen a slightly more accessible crossover between Spider-Man and Deadpool, or perhaps that I had just read more comics about both characters first (they already know each other at the start), I still had a lot of fun reading this comic, and there was some genuine emotion and character development here. It was also pretty funny too (with a particularly hilarious Tommy Wiseau joke). I can’t recommend it to casual readers, but huge fans of the two characters will love it.

Rating: 7.7/10

Buy it here.

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Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates

I was aware of the Everyday Sexism project from its very earliest days. For those who are unfamiliar, Laura Bates was using both the Everyday Sexism website and its social media platforms to raise awareness for the misogyny that women faced every single day of their lives, but which otherwise might not get much attention.

A lot of what the project talked about in its early days was street harassment and it went a long way towards bringing this to the attention of otherwise oblivious men, and of highlighting how harmful such behaviour can be – but that wasn’t all that was covered, and that isn’t all the book covers either. Everyday Sexism looks at the ways in which misogyny has infiltrated practically every aspect of our lives, and sometimes in insidious ways.

Throughout the book, statements submitted to the original website are included, which gives everything a very direct, human perspective. For example, she’ll write about how many employers continue to discriminate against female staff despite it being illegal, due to the fact that most workers won’t be able to afford to take their employer to court, and then she’ll back it up with examples.

The book is admittedly mostly UK-focused (and she is a UK writer, so it makes sense), but I think she does a fantastic job of illuminating the breadth of the problem. From the sickening and dehumanising levels of misogyny found in newspapers like The Sun, through to the appalling statements made by even so-called progressive politicians, the author does a fantastic job of underlining how deeply rooted this really is – but by tying it into the submissions to her project, she really strongly reinforces that this is ruining people’s lives and isn’t just an academic matter.

If you’re looking for an entry-point for feminist reading, this is probably the best place to start. I have been very conscious of the sexism in our world for many years now, but she made an excellent point that I had never considered before – namely, that sexism is the form of prejudice that is most widely considered acceptable, with different forms of misogyny arising from countless public figures, and there rarely being any substantial consequences for them. Heavily recommended.

Rating: 9.3/10

Buy it here.

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Out of Office by Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen

I am a huge advocate for employers letting their employees work from home whenever it’s possible, and so I was naturally very curious about this book. Not only does it look at the many different ways that businesses have approached home working since the pandemic, but it also explores the deeper history of workplace developments and how new things that should have made life easier for workers, have sometimes been twisted so that they actually make things harder. I learned a lot from it.

The authors talk about how home working has loads of benefits: better work-life balance for employees and so better mental health, no expensive commutes and so more money too, a broader talent pool for employers, and more accessibility for those who wouldn’t be able to come into an office for health reasons. To me, it’s obvious that this is the way forward for work, and it’s great to see it being advocated through this book.

Although it also raises things that we need to be conscious of, because home working does actually pose a bit of a risk to workers. For example, there are some employers who have grown to expect more from employees when they are working from home, arguing that they have no reason not to check work emails when they are at home and out of hours, because they still have access to their work computers. The lines become blurred and more and more work is then expected of people. There are also instances of work places not making their offices accessible, because they think allowing home working is an easy accessibility catch-all. Meanwhile, it also raises that remote employees can often be seen as kind of second class citizens and be passed over for promotions and other opportunities, in favour of those who come in.

It was a really interesting analysis and one that reinforces that we should be striving for a world where people’s entire existence is not filled by the necessity of work. Home working is a step in the right direction, but there is still a lot of work to be done.

Rating: 8.4/10

Buy it here.

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New Moon by Stephenie Meyer

When I started reading Twilight, I did so with extremely low expectations. I only ever heard about it mentioned in the context of being one of the worst things ever written. As it happens though, I thought it was okay. Sure, Edward is a complete loser who doesn’t deserve Bella’s love, but he had his moments, and I thought that vampirism was explored interestingly enough, and that Bella was comically endearing in the way that she looked down on all the other teenagers (even if that would be annoying in real life).

New Moon, was quite a contrast to the first book because Edward, and indeed the whole Cullen family, are not present for most of the story. Though I missed the vampirism, I actually really appreciated the change in direction here. With Edward gone, Bella mourns their relationship and ends up trying to reintegrate into normal teenage life again. She even starts to form a bond with Jacob Black (who appeared in the first book) and I actually thought the two of them were pretty cute together.

Unlike Edward, Jacob makes Bella feel relaxed, is laid-back, and doesn’t take himself too seriously. Their relationship felt much more real, and though it didn’t seem to be a romantic connection on Bella’s part, I was really rooting for the two of them because I was invested in their friendship and felt that they had the capacity to enhance each others lives. It was a lovely story about overcoming loss and finding comfort in new connections… at least at first.

After a while, Jacob starts to becoming strangely aloof and disrespectful towards Bella, just like Edward. I won’t spoil it, but a new supernatural element is introduced. There’s a lot of mystery about what happened to Jacob, and as I didn’t really know, I found this quite compelling and intriguing. I really wanted the rift between them to be healed, which I guess shows that Stephenie Meyer can make a compelling relationship, even if she didn’t do it with Edward.

Sadly, I thought the ending was extremely disappointing. I guess, partially, it was just a case of things not turning out the way I wanted them to turn out. Without spoiling anything, I’ll just say that even though I already thought Edward was a predatory loser in the first book, by the end of this one my respect for him had plummeted even lower. He does not deserve Bella’s love, and I just felt it reinforced toxic behaviours that are already really prevalent in our society.

In the end, because I was so disappointed by the final 25% or so of the book, I don’t know if I really liked this any more than the first one. It’s got some weird eye-rolling religious stuff rather shoe-horned in as well, which left a bit of a sour taste for me. I thought the book had the capacity to go in a pretty interesting direction, but didn’t really live up to it. I still enjoyed it overall, but I’m not left keen to read the next one.

Rating: 6.6/10

Buy it here.

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Doctor Who: Deceit by Peter Darvill-Evans

The thirteenth of the Doctor Who Virgin New Adventures novels is quite exciting for a number of reasons. For one thing, it sees the return of Ace, and after the circumstances of their departure in Love & War, I was very curious to see how it would play out. It also features a prominent appearance by Abslom Daak, a Dalek killer character from the comics.

Ace’s appearance in this novel makes me happy. She’s one of my favourite Doctor Who characters and I find her story very interesting. It’s really cool to see how she’s changed in her time since leaving the Doctor. At this point, she’s a little older, having left the Doctor a few years ago, and her personality is a little different to reflect that. The development all felt very true to the character and her return heightened my enjoyment of the novel – although the reunion between her and the Doctor was a little anticlimactic. Not as much is made of their past problems as I thought might be.

I also felt a little bad for Bernice. She does a lot more than in a few of the other novels that have featured her since her introduction, but just as she spends a lot of those stories side-lined by being possessed or whatever, here she doesn’t get the focus she deserves because Ace is in the spotlight. I wish she had had more of a chance to develop on her own before Ace was brought back, but that’s more of a mark against the last few novels than it is against this one.

Abslom Daak also just feels kind of dumb. It’s cool to have him there, for sure, but I never really warmed to him. I think he might be an example of a character who is more entertaining in comics than they are in prose. He actually kind of annoyed me a lot of the time for just being a super macho angry tough guy.

The storyline itself sees something strange happening on the planet Arcadia, tied into its dystopian corporate past. It’s one of those situations where the thing that’s actually happening isn’t made clear until towards the end, but the planet has a bunch of people living a seemingly idyllic non-technological life, but it slowly becomes clear that all is not as it seems and it is far from the paradise it’s presented as.

Partially what impressed me about this novel was the world-building. Arcadia is a really cool planet with a cool history, but even beyond that, there are loads of references to the Doctor Who universe that make it all feel very big and inter-connected. The afterword makes it clear that the author (who was the New Adventures editor) wanted to make the universe a consistent and believable setting that followed certain rules and I admire that. Not many Doctor Who writers go to such lengths.

Some readers will probably think that this is a little too fan-orientated, but I think it’s an example of Doctor Who novels at their finest. Great characters, cool setting, high stakes, and lots of references for those who know where to find them. It even ties up threads that have been running through various New Adventures, helping the whole series feel more comprehensive. All round, a great read.

Rating: 8.9/10

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The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

This is a book that was loaned to me by one of my very best friends and other than the fact that she had recommended it to me as a book that was good, I knew absolutely nothing about it apart from the title. I hadn’t even read anything else by Kazuo Ishiguro before.

When I started it, I initially thought that it was a piece of historic fiction – set during a period when the Britons and the Saxons were finding it hard to accept one another, it tells the story of a older married couple who want to head out to visit their son. The problem is that they don’t really remember their son and, indeed, everyone seems to be having trouble remembering things because of a strange fog that erases memories.

The fog was the first hint that this novel wasn’t entirely set within the confines of reality, but as it went on, I thought it felt a little more like a folktale, and even ended up tying into Arthurian legend in a pretty significant way. In the end, it felt like it was making some pretty profound comments about the behaviours of great nations and the things done in the name of war and peace.

I’ll admit that the writing style felt perhaps a little bit too dry for me – never quite going very deep into the emotions of its characters, just giving you a very surface level look, like you’d get with characters in folktales. At first, I thought this was pretty interesting, but by the middle it was starting to drag quite a bit – fortunately, it had such an interesting ending that I didn’t feel bored of it for long.

The two main characters, Axl and Beatrice, are kind of funny at times, the Axl prompted more than a few eye rolls from me. Throughout the book he almost exclusively refers to Beatrice as “princess” which might lead you to believe that he is a really loving and supportive husband, but then every time she’s worried about something, he tells her it’s fine and she doesn’t need to worry, but she’s right pretty much every time. It’s almost certainly intentional, but I found myself thinking that she could do better throughout. One of my favourite characters meanwhile, was Sir Gawain, who’s a shifty little old man – it’s probably the most interesting interpretation of the character that I’ve ever seen.

All in all, I thought it was quite an interesting and unique read. Blending fantasy, history, folklore, and legend, I can’t think of any novel that feels even a little similar. The pacing could definitely be better, and there were some chapters that didn’t really do much for me, but all things considered, I really like what the author was doing with this book.

Rating: 8/10

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A Diplomat’s Diary by Julia Cruger

This another book to receive a new digital edition as part of the Reclaim Her Name campaign, which sees books by female authors which had to be published under male names originally, finally published under the author’s actual name. All of the books vary significantly in style, genre, tone, and quality – A Diplomat’s Diary is one that I enjoyed, but also found lacking in some areas.

The novel is all about a Russian diplomat who keeps a diary, but who intentionally doesn’t write about his political work in case it falls into the wrong hands. Instead, he writes about the people that he meets and, ultimately, about the romances in which he becomes untangled. Something that immediately struck me about this book, was that it was so atmospheric. I was so drawn into the ice cold Russian world of the past, that I just wanted to read more and more.

Unfortunately, I felt that the story never really felt like it lived up to the high standard set by that initial impression. Don’t get me wrong, the author is obviously a very good writer, and it was their writing style that kept me interested throughout. It’s just the actual story never really felt like it was especially interesting or exciting. Even as I read each new chapter, I found I sometimes hadn’t really retained what happened before, because I wasn’t so deeply enticed.

Overall, reading A Diplomat’s Diary was still a positive experience for me. Some actors are good enough that they can make you enjoy even a bad film, and some writers are good enough to make you enjoy even a dull story. It’s not especially long, so it doesn’t outstay its welcome, but let’s just say that I’m glad I got this book for free via Reclaim Her Name, rather than actually paying for it.

Rating: 5.8/10

Buy it here.

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Opening Time Capsule 2

In 2014, I wrote a blog post called Time Capsule, then in 2019 wrote Opening the Time Capsule where I read what my past self had written and answered the questions they’d left for me. Following on from that, I wrote Time Capsule 2 and, gosh, now it’s time to keep the chain going and see what I asked myself five years ago:

Same first question as last time: is everyone still alive? That’s the most important thing!
Sadly not – at your Bath Christmas meal in 2022 you received the news that Jon had died. Only in retrospect, do I realise that this is quite a melancholic question to open with.

Hopefully I’m still alive too. Does my phone still work though? I’m setting a reminder to do this in my current phone, so I hope I still have it in 2024 – it will only be eight years old, so I feel like it should be fine.
Yes, I am alive and well – although COVID-19, a terrible mutation of a virus that barely anyone knew of in March 2019, almost killed me in 2021. So did a case of urinary constriction in 2020. They were a pretty unlucky couple of years, and yes, even my phone broke in that window of time, but with the magic of modern technology, the next phone (kindly given to you by Chloe and Liam in exchange for a Nando’s) managed to retain the reminder.

I have full faith in you, my future self, to still be writing this blog, so, tell me, what’s the best blog post I wrote in the last five years?
Ironically, while I asked myself in 2014 if I still updated the blog in 2019, I didn’t ask back then if I would in 2024. I do still update this blog, of course, but not on any regular schedule, just as and when I have something to say, with the rest of the posts just being book reviews. The best post in that window of time was Emotional Ambience, where I wrote about one particularly amazing moment I experienced during my trip to Portugal in 2023 – my first visit overseas and honestly some of the best days of my life.

What’s happening with your Finger Puppet Show? I trust that the hiatus will be over.
Gosh, it is, but only just. The hiatus you refer to came to an end a short time after the blog post you wrote, but then it was on hiatus again when I was unable to access my puppets in the pandemic. I did very, very irregular updates for a few years, but now I update weekly again.

When was the last time you saw: Amy, Ben, Chloe, Christian, Dalfino, Davey, Egan, Edward, George, Hayley, Kat, Liam, Mairi, Rory, Sarah, Sophie, Stacey, Stephanie or Tasha? Make sure to reach out to anyone you’ve not seen in a while!
Good news. You see, or speak online, with all of these people at least semi-regularly.

How is your mental health doing? I worry that if a lot of your friends go away, you will become sad and depressed – but right now you feel good and happy: don’t forget, if you are depressed, that you’ll always become happy again. Friends always come back eventually and there are always new friends to make!
My mental health is pretty much the best it’s ever been. I’m living in the golden age of life. In fact, I don’t really worry about how it will effect my if friends move away anymore. I don’t think the effect on me would be too negative these days.

Are there any people who are important to you, but who I don’t know yet?
There certainly are!

  • Lydia: I guess she doesn’t technically count, since you already knew her when you wrote the Time Capsule, except back then, she was just someone you met once and barely knew, and now she’s one of your closest friends. In fact, just a few months after you wrote this post, she reached out and got back in touch, and you’ve seen a lot of each other over the last five years.
  • Neus: Neus is Rory’s partner, who you met in 2021 and have become good friends with since, to the extent that she invited you to come on the holiday to Portugal mentioned above, and of course, I’m always going to think highly of the person who helped facilitate one of the highlights of my life!
  • Malena: You meet Malena in 2022, through Rory and Neus. When we first met, I remember thinking “Gosh, she’s really cool, I hope we become friends one day” and that’s exactly what happened, with the trip to Portugal as the catalyst. The two of us just get on very, very well
  • Laura: Davey’s now wife. This is another one that might not strictly count, because you knew Laura when you wrote the 2019 time capsule, but it’s only over the last couple of years where you’ve grown to count her among your own friends, rather than just a friendly acquaintance. Lately, you’ve had quite a few nice dinners out with Davey and Laura, and they’ve each been an absolute delight.
  • They’re not the only ones either – Lorena, Lorette, Isabella, Emilie, Lin, and Lauren are all people who have come into your life and enhanced it for the better too. I continue to be very lucky when it comes to encountering the very best of humanity

Where are you working these days? Have you had many changes of job since 2019?
Gosh, loads of them. In fact, you’ve gone through four since you wrote the original blog post. Although my current job, which involves writing about video games for a business called Network-N is easily my best yet and I’ve stayed for over two years (my longest lasting job so far).

Have you had a chance to visit any other countries yet?
Yes! My trip to Portugal was my first time overseas. I never would have guessed that that would be where I go first, but it was such a perfect holiday that I wouldn’t change anything about it.

What’s a particularly rewarding experience you’ve had in the last five years?
Well, you know, it’s funny because one of the questions in the first time capsule was “Where do you live now?” and I didn’t include it in the second one because I assumed I’d still be in Corsham – little did I know, less than four months after writing this, I’d be moving to Bath to live with the friend now known as Eilidh. Funnily enough, this time capsule popped into my head shortly after we started living together and I imagined that the entirety of our time together when be encapsulated within the period before the time came to “open” the capsule. As it happens, I was wrong, and I hope we can live together for many years yet. Nothing is more enriching than living with a fun-loving person who shares many of the same interests and with whom you can chat with long into the night on just about any subject.

Of course, there have been many rewarding experiences of the last five years, but getting to live with Eilidh is definitely the one with the largest positive impact.

What do you know in 2024 which would be the most exciting piece of information for me to know in 2019?
Again, it’s funny because in the first time capsule I asked “Has there been anything new, Waltons-wise?” and then I just didn’t think it was very likely that there’d be anything before the next one so I didn’t ask again, and I was wrong – there have been two new Waltons movies and they were both amazing. They even had Richard Thomas.

Being quoted in the trailer of two games published by Playtonic is something that would have excited me endlessly, had I known it back then.

Finally, just as I said in my last time capsule, make sure to create a new one to be opened in 2029! You’ll be approaching 40 by then. Oh my.

I will absolutely be writing a new time capsule for myself to open in 2029. The process of going back and answering the questions of my past self has been a very positive one both times, because it has helped me to appreciate all that I have gained in the years that followed. I can only hope that the next five year period will be as positive as the last two.

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On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder

This is the fourth book in the Little House series of novels, and it’s one of my favourites so far. I thought it was a big step up over both the second and the third books, but I didn’t think it was quite as magical as the first – though to be fair, that’s a pretty high bar.

While Little House on the Prairie featured a not-so-good portrayal of the indigenous people living in the area that the Ingalls moved to, On the Banks of Plum Creek manages to avoid that problem all together. This is about the Ingalls coming to a new area, building a new home, and contending with nature and the elements. It was actually quite similar to the first book in that regard, but perhaps a little more grown up.

One aspect of the book which I’m sure some reader will find particularly unnerving is its focus on a swarm of locusts that infested the area. I’ve known for years that things like this can and do happen, but I’d never really thought too much about how something like that would actually feel. You can tell the author actually lived through this experience, because it’s described in harrowing detail. If you’re afraid of bugs, I suspect this will be a very difficult read.

I also enjoyed all the detail it provided about how they dealt with the snow and extreme colds during in the depths of winter. It’s the kind of thing that helps you to appreciate all of our modern conveniences, and which highlights how really inhospitable the world can be. They were living in something called a dugout during the period of their lives detailed in this book – I’d never even really heard of this before, but it was fascinating to me.

Speaking of the winter, this book contains a really beautiful chapter about Christmas. They all go to the church for a Christmas service and, gosh, it captured the spirit of the festive season perfectly. It was one of the cosiest, most heart-warming things I’ve ever read and easily my favourite part of the book. I think I’d go so far as to say that I think that chapter is the best thing Laura Ingalls Wilder ever wrote (or, at least, of what I’ve read by her so far).

Essentially, I think what I liked about this was that it was a return to the series roots – it’s about a pioneer family out braving the wilderness and trying to survive. The first book was that too, but reading it was a very different experience, due to it being through more of a child’s perspective. The second was about the her husband’s rougher time growing up, and lacked the element of nostalgia present in the others (as she never lived through it herself), and the politics of the third didn’t age so well. This book is why I love Little House, and I hope to see more like this in the later books.

Rating: 8.5/10

Buy it here.

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