Robyn Reviews: The Left-Handed Booksellers of London

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‘The Left-Handed Booksellers of London’ is a fun, light-hearted YA fantasy adventure perfect for anyone looking for easy entertainment. There’s little depth to the story or characters, but the plot is fast-paced and entertaining. With the current trend in fantasy for dark, gritty stories, it’s nice to see a more cheerful take on the genre.

The story follows Susan, a just-turned-eighteen-year-old from just outside Bath who’s moving to London to start an art course. She’s also hoping to use the opportunity to finally track down her dad – a subject her mum will never talk about. However, when Susan arrives in London and goes to meet one of her mum’s acquaintances, she finds herself being rescued by a mysterious maybe-wizard named Merlin – and from there, her time in London starts to go in a very different direction than she’d planned.

Susan is a likeable enough protagonist – very much a reluctant heroine who spends the majority of the book very confused. None of the characters are ever developed in depth, but Sarah serves her narrative purpose well. Merlin and Vivian are far more interesting characters, but while details are tossed out here and there neither is fully explored. I’d happily read an entire follow-up novel about Vivian and her life when Merlin isn’t dragging her around the country because everyone’s trying to kill his latest crush.

The concept of left and right-handed booksellers and their magic system is brilliant – quite unique, and who in the reading world doesn’t want the bookseller to be the hero of the story? Again, the pace means this isn’t explored, but it’s a great take on the secret-protectors-of-normal-people-from-secret-magic trope. The rest of the worldbuilding borrows heavily from general European mythology and folklore: Fenris from Norse mythology, a variation on vampires, goblins, the power of May Day. It’s a crude mash-up but works well, blending familiar elements into something new.

The plot is the main focus. I haven’t read any Garth Nix for years – I believe I once read Sabriel, but so long ago I can barely recall it – but if all his books are in this vein, I can see why he’s so popular with younger teenage readers. The plot is conventional, with relatively predictable twists and turns, but entertaining, with witty dialogue and a teenagers-uncover-adult-incompetence slant so popular with younger readers. There are sad and tense moments, but for the most part it’s upbeat and humorous. Given that the main character is eighteen, I’m not sure if the aim was to have an older target audience, but the light tone and superficiality make it read like a younger book.

Overall, this is a fun YA fantasy adventure great for light entertainment. Recommended as a holiday read or when you need a light pick-me-up – or for a more reluctant teenage reader.

Thanks to Netgalley and Gollancz for providing an e-ARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Orion
Hardback: 24th September 2020

Book Review: The Sun

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The Sun, by Sue Lord, is an adventure story for children. Set in a future England which has been ravaged by war it tells the tale of ten year old Danny, a D-class citizen of New London. Following an unexpected run in with a group of law enforcers he escapes underground where he befriends a group of Lowers. Subsequent events lead to an evacuation of the tunnels in which they live and Danny finds himself leaving the ordered world he has always known under the huge, protective dome that covers the city. Danny and his new friends set out on a difficult journey to find the mythical Sun in which the Lowers believe.

Life in New London is strictly controlled with all citizens being routinely drugged to maintain health and suppress emotion. The desire of the rulers of this city to keep all acting in a socially accepted, prescribed manner reminded me of current practices where unruly children are offered drugs in an attempt to make them behave as required by those with power over their lives. As with other dystopian fiction, this story is strongest where it can highlight a current, questionable practice that is being implemented on a few for the supposed greater good and demonstrate a possible effect should it became more widely used and accepted.

The Lowers have acquired knowledge from books which they use to navigate the barren landscape outside the dome. As their journey progresses they encounter plants and animals for the first time. There is plenty of drama and humour amongst the group as they search for their dreamed of utopia. Their experiences of eating food rather than nourishment tablets and the effect this has on their digestive systems is described in highly amusing detail.

Adjusting to self sufficiency is a challenge but Danny soon comes to realise that the health, safety and order imposed in New London came at a high price. However, not everyone on the outside is good and the travellers face as much danger from human survivors of the war as from the landscape and wildlife.

The author wrote this book for her grandson, Freddie, who would have been four this year. Her hope is that it will help to raise money for S.A.N.D.S., the Still Birth and Neonatal Death Society. If you would like to support her then The Sun may be purchased in paperback format or on ebook from Amazon.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Horse riding

This week’s Remember The Time Blog Hop is a Wild Card. Here I recall one of my embarrassing moments from back in the day. 

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“So,” my boyfriend of a whole week said to me, “J and I are going riding tomorrow afternoon. Would you like to come along?” Well of course I wanted to join them; I wanted to spend all the time I could with this adorable guy (who stopped being quite so adorable in my eyes pretty quickly but, at this stage, was my dreamboat). “You can ride, can’t you?” he asked. “Yeah, sure” I replied confidently. I had been on a horse before, I knew the rules; or so I thought.

Growing up it was my sister who adored animals. Over the course of the years that we lived with our parents she had a rabbit, a cat and a dog. What she really wanted though was a horse. She just adored horses. She read the books, watched the films and, every year, would ask Father Christmas to deliver her a pony. On Christmas morning she would wake up and pull back the curtains in our shared bedroom, hopeful that there would be a horse grazing in my parent’s back garden. I mean, wouldn’t this be just the perfect place to keep one?

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My sister had a best friend who also loved these equine creatures. They would spend hours playing with their large collection of Sindy dolls, each of whom was given their own toy animal to ride. On fine days in the summer they would set up gymkhanas on the front lawns of their parents houses, which were just a few doors apart. Occasionally there would be a disaster when the front leg of one of the competitor’s mounts would snap off going over a jump, resulting in copious tears and the immediate application of glue and sticky tape. The dolls were dressed in jodhpurs and tweed jackets more often than the fancy dresses that other girls chose for their improbably proportioned mini mannequins. My sister would get frustrated that their legs could not be properly flexed to sit astride. Getting feet to fit in the plastic stirrups was an irritating challenge.

And then my sister’s friend was given a real pony, kept in a field a few miles from her house. Naturally, my sister got to ride it. On one memorable occasion, I was invited along as well.

Lady was a calm and docile creature. I was shown how to mount, start, stop and steer. For the short time that I was permitted to walk her around the field she did as I asked. I thought that all horses would be like that. I thought that I could now ride.

Thus it was that, ten years later, I borrowed my sister’s riding hat (unsurprisingly my head had grown and it was uncomfortably tight) and set off for a hack with my boyfriend and J. Although I noticed that my brightly coloured, puffy anorak did not look as appropriate for the planned activity as their country jackets, it was not until we arrived at the stables that I began to feel that first inkling of concern over what I had so confidently let myself in for. It became obvious that these guys rode regularly; the horses that had been selected for them were active, sleek and huge!

The stable hand saw through my act immediately, but my pride was at stake. I assured her that I was competent and she reluctantly handed over the reins of the horse that had been tacked up for me. From this moment on, my troubles began.

The guys had taken their reins and mounted in what looked like one, fluid movement. My horse kept moving around the yard with me when I tried to approach the stirrups, leading me on a merry dance. The stable hand retrieved the reins impatiently and gave me a leg up in order that I may board the beast. Determined to avert a fast approaching farce, I confidently kicked my horse on and we set off at an unexpectedly sudden, fast trot. This was not a speed that I had experienced before.

The poor creature must have wondered at the dead weight bouncing around on it’s back; I dread to think what I must have looked like. I was holding on for dear life while my boyfriend and J assessed the situation incredulously. This hack was obviously not going to turn out as they had expected.

We reached the woods in which we were to ride and a short canter was proposed. My mount had obviously had enough and was no longer cooperating; this was probably just as well. J set off, by now showing his exasperation at my performance. My boyfriend glanced from friend to me and silently accepted that he had been conned. He knew that he couldn’t just abandon me and was gentlemanly enough to forgo his planned amusement to ensure that I came to no harm. We walked sedately along a few paths before calling it a day and returning the horses to the stables. I was mortified, but also silently relieved that I was still in one piece. At the very least, I had avoided falling off.

From the stables we drove to our university to attend a lecture. I had to carry my riding hat into the hall and was asked several times about my day by other enthusiasts. My boyfriend listened attentively as I tried to bat off interest without being shown up as the fraud he now knew me to be.

When I moved to England a few years later I decided that I would like to learn to ride properly. I booked some lessons and enjoyed the schooling I received until a pony decided to head towards a pole at speed and then stop, sending me somersaulting over his head. Winded but otherwise uninjured, I returned to the saddle but did not book another lesson. As far as I was concerned, horses and I were done.

The humiliation I felt at my experience with my boyfriend taught me a valuable lesson. It is probably as well that things did not work out in other ways between us as I would not have wished to live with the shared memory of that day. From then on I was a lot less cocky about what I could or couldn’t do, even if it did mean missing out on a few adventures. I had also learnt a healthy respect for animals larger than me, particularly lively ones, which stood me in good stead when my daughter developed a passion for all things equine.

Just like my sister, she dreamed for many years of having her own horse one day. If it does ever happen, it will not be on my watch.

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Read the other posts in this week’s Blog Hop by clicking on the link below.

Letting go

The sun made an appearance yesterday. It took a while to warm everything up after an unseasonably cold week, but by the afternoon it was feeling quite pleasant outside. After a lazy morning spent escaping into the world of my book I was ready to go out and enjoy some fresh air. We decided to cycle up the hill for a walk around some local gardens that open to the public at this time of year. A gentle stroll in beautiful surroundings sounded ideal for the sunny afternoon.

My son complained that I cycle too slowly. I am well aware that my fitness is not what it was this time last year. I have put on weight and find it harder to push myself physically. There always seem to be reasons to take it easy: joints that ache, muscles hurting, tiredness from lack of sleep. Perhaps I am being too kind to myself. If I am to enjoy the long cycle rides that I accomplished regularly throughout last summer then I will need to put more effort into my workouts at the gym.

The gardens were lovely; well worth a visit. Masses of flowering rhododendron bushes with carpets of bluebells make for a colourful show. We wound our way through the undulating paths and marvelled at the colours and scents. My son was as taken with the massive oak trees towering above as with the flowering bushes. These were proper trees with a history, not just planted to be felled for wood after a few years growth.

We found a seat with a view over the countryside beyond the gardens and enjoyed the coffee we had brought in our flask. We vied with each other to invent bad puns, playing with words as is our habit. Wandering slowly back to our bikes we discussed a return visit if the weather holds; I will be surprised if we manage this. There never seems to be enough time or good weather to get out and about as we would wish.

The downhill ride home was not fast enough for my son. He wants to experience the excitement of speed, impatient with my restraint. It seems that I am now always aware of the potential for accident and injury; wary of risk and adventure. I see bumps and bruises, broken bones and lacerated skin where he sees an attempt to escape limitations, to feel freedom and exhilaration, to fly.

Letting go of our children happens gradually yet the realisation that they are moving on can be a challenge. My daughter is away camping with friends this weekend. She is preparing for a big summer trip, a chance for her to demonstrate her ability to act independently. My son is also fighting for more independence but does not show the same day to day sense as his sister. He rails at my demands yet shows little initiative. I wonder if I make it too easy for him; would he rise to the occasion if given no other choice?

As parents we try to treat our children equally and fairly, yet they are individuals with differing requirements and abilities. They are so sensitive to favouritism it can be hard to offer the experiences from which they will benefit the most. More and more I find that the best days out are those spent with each child alone. It is not just that they can each have my undivided attention, but also that the day can be tailored to their interests. Enjoyable family times that used to be the norm are now few and far between.

The dynamic of the family changes when one child is away. We missed my daughter at dinner last night; her banter with her brothers ensures that conversation is amusing and flows. My boys interests are harder to share; I do not keep up with the latest in car engineering or computing. It is left to my husband to answer their questions despite his normal reserve.

My son wants to spend time in my company, for which I am grateful, but cannot mask his impatience at my unwillingness to grasp at life as he does. He cannot see that I have been there, done that and moved on. He cannot understand that my excitement and anticipation have waned. I cannot explain why this has happened; I have lost my desire for adventure.

It used to be that my appetite for advancement was insatiable. I sought out new experiences, new places, with focus and determination. Now I feel no need to push and dig and fling myself forward; I want to enjoy the here and now rather than what is to come. I am not trying to stand still, to hold life back. I am willing to learn and to stretch my mind, it is the focus of my interest that has changed. I can no longer summon the energy to follow others with eagerness; I wish to make my own path.

Today I have awoken to another sunny day, one that is forecast to be warmer. My husband and younger son were up and out early, cycling to our local pool for a morning swim together. Perhaps I will manage some time in my garden with my hens before preparing a big dinner for when my daughter returns.

I need to allow my children to move on, and to establish a life for myself that does not revolve so closely around them. It will be quite a few years before they no longer need me but the balance is shifting. I learn as much from them these days as they do from me. In so many areas of their lives they are leaving me behind and I must let them go.

For now though, the we are at the start of a week long holiday. With no work and no school we have the freedom to go up and out as we please. Perhaps we will indulge in a few days away, plan a mini adventure. I must make the most of this time with my children. This now time is precious, whatever the future may hold.

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