Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

Elizabeth Gilbert seems great, and I really liked her Big Magic podcast. I hoped that the book that preceded the podcast would be in a similar vein, and in some ways it was. But overall, this book really failed to deliver.

It’s pretty unclear if this is a self-help book, a lyrical exploration of creativity as a driving force in life, or a memoir of Gilbert’s own experiences with, and opinions of, the creative process. It fails to live up to any of these genres, sadly.

Sadly, because throughout it all Gilbert seems great. She seems to value and advocate for creativity being an important element of a good life, and she shares personal and sweet anecdotes of her own journey to live a creative life. She speaks kindly of old flames and fellow authors alike, and seems like someone you’d happily sit next to at a dinner party.

But Big Magic is untethered, unstructured, and speaks sweepingly of the wrong ways to be creative (including: seeking achievement, going to college, or failing to appropriately dedicate yourself to the abstract Idea the Universe has granted you) from only her own opinions and background. Her anecdotes are long-winded, personal without being relatable, and (although generally kind in tone) they come across dismissive of all other processes, reactions or attitudes to creative work. She is both kind and smug. Directive and vague. Abstract and particular. It is a useless and frustrating combination and left me completely incapable and unwilling to finish the book.

Worthy of note is that Big Magic includes a long and impassioned portrayal of what she calls Magical Thinking – Gilbert advocates for the Universe containing abstract Ideas which seek to be borne to life by creative human endeavour. From my background in medicine, magical thinking is pathologically associated with Schizophrenia and schizotypal personalities. Gilbert’s descriptions of having a responsibility to Ideas to bring them to life are sweet, but veer closer to pathological as she describes a book idea that she failed to complete and believes left her to be written by another author. Harmless enough, but I found it grating and, frankly, crazy nonsense.

Overall, the Big Magic podcast (which features interactions with everyday people seeking to cultivate creativity in their life, with Gilbert offering a mix of cheerleading and advice for their pursuits) is leagues ahead of its namesake book. 3 stars, and I didn’t even finish it.

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Cinder by Marissa Meyer

Honestly, I wanted to like this one. I love gripping dystopian stories, strong female protagonists, and clever twists on known tales. Sadly, this had none of those. I feel cheated having finished it, believing it to be dystopian YA or kickass sci fi. It’s actually a romance, and not a great one at that.

spoilers ahead!

Cinder is a retelling of the well-worn story of Cinderella. It’s set in a futuristic version of Earth, complete with a rival race on the moon and technology not just prevalent in society but also implanted in people. The reality of the world is richly described, but never really explained or justified, so the collection of details in Meyer’s world-building feels meaningless and unoriginal. The story follows the inner life of title character Cinder, but fails to give her any significant character development or internal motivation. The final kick in the face to readers is that the story is clearly only a set-up for a series and is incomplete and unsatisfying as a stand-alone narrative.

I think the most off-putting aspect of this book is it’s overly-descriptive narration. I’m not a particularly visual person – I’d rather read about emotion or motive than have any characters’ outfit described to me – and Cinder is excessively visual. It reads as though Meyer had imagined a movie and then text-described every scene. The doctor character wears a hat and it is described at least half a dozen times, to the point where I was sure it had plot significance but nope, he’s just wearing a hat.

Now this seems harsh. But I have good reason to cringe at excessive description: it’s distracting. It pulls you from the action, and from the connection to the characters, when you have to fixate on trivial details like the rain outside or the doctor’s hat. It robs you of the chance to use your own imagination and feel more connected to the story. And it feels like you’ve been dragged on a tour of someone else’s imagination – my major beef with the Lord of the Rings series too.

The entire story is filled with details that are introduced and then turn out to be meaningless. A plague with an unknown cure, except the cure is swept aside for romantic plot lines and then never mentioned again. The death of a sister and a robot sidekick that both happen out of scene and both fail to pack any emotional punch. An escape plan hatched and tossed aside without any storytelling significance. It feels as though every single plot point or scene could be removed from the story, and the narrative lose nothing.

There’s a few good points: the story is well-paced, the world of the story is complete and internally coherent (if a bit dull and unoriginal), and the multiple characters feel complete (if boring). But even as a romance this story falls flat. There are too few scenes between Cinder and the Prince to become invested in their love story. And there is endless reiteration of Cinder’s feeling of unworthiness: a dismal attitude to have in female-led YA, written by a woman!

Sorry Marissa Meyer, but I’m not a fan. Three stars because despite all that, I did finish the book.

⭐️⭐️⭐️

3 stars

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

I just finished Carry On and it was sweet and lovely. But the more I think about it, the better I think it is. And I guess that’s a mark of complex, layered storytelling and a powerful writer.

I read Fangirl last year at a time when I was particularly miserable. I wanted an easy read that would be a sweet escape and distraction from everyday life. And I flew through it – I read it in two days, and then turned back to page one and started again. It’s not that the storytelling is surprising, or rich, or so evocative that I had to live through it again immediately. It’s that it felt so true and real and resonated with me, particularly at that miserable time.

It’s that realness that sticks out in Carry On too. Rowell writes ‘just another saviour story’, but makes the characters sing with quirks, recognisable voices and wonderful drives to help one another and figure themselves out. She layers her wonderful story with tropes of saviour tales but gives them her own spin – I mean, the orphaned/parentless saviour but there’s no big reconciliation with his parents? This story was a glorious patchwork of the writer’s nerdy love for words, for storytelling, for great character writing, and for nerdiness itself (using the spell names to make endless dry and silly jokes, even in the middle of action scenes, was just brilliant).

Simon is not a memorable or dashing hero, but he does feel like a real person even in a world of magic and prophecies and dragon wings. Baz is, of course, my favourite – as the gorgeous, misunderstood bad boy is often designed to be – but he too felt real; flawed and frustrated and afraid. This book is written in alternating, chapter-based first person point of view, which gives you great insight into each character’s voice, fears and ambitions. The World of Mages and even the plot line of prophecies and saviours feels secondary to this character-driven tale. Which is a real strength of this story as these characters are complex and funny and heart-achingly sweet. They are the heart of the book, and at the forefront of every unfolding storyline; the mark of a fabulous writer and a joy to read.

This book also reminded me of the power of an End Note. Because I love all the behind the scenes, ’story behind the story’ details. It makes storytelling feel like a living, breathing thing – a real action, or calling, or passion – to hear the author speak about their work in their own words. So thank you, Rainbow Rowell, for your gorgeous reminder of how nerdy love of stories can build such a rich set of characters and sweet story. Excuse me while I head back to page one to live it again.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

5 stars

My journey begins…

I was a complete bookworm as a kid. I’d stay up late, torch under the bedcovers, reading just one more chapter. I packed multiple books for every holiday. I would visit the library with my mum and leave with ten books at a time. In primary school I was on first name terms with the school librarian – she’d let me have first look at the new books in exchange for helping her cover them in protective contact paper.

But then I grew up and got busy. While studying at university I read seemingly endless textbooks and journal articles. Work came with more reading (not for pleasure) and mentally taxing days that I thought left me with no energy left to concentrate on a story. Netflix was invented, and who can resist that? So I barely read a book a year.

I’ve overhauled my life recently – walked away from my job, up and moved to the other side of the world, and had a long hard think about what matters most to me. And one of those things that matters most is stories.

I absolutely love stories and storytelling. I love that feeling of getting wrapped up in the world of a book and the souls of its characters. I love that smug joy that comes from noticing fantastic writing techniques. And I love that thrill of realising something new about myself or about my world through the power of an author’s words.

I recently went to stay at my parents – on short notice with only carry-on luggage, and no books! I scoured my teenage sister’s bookshelf and found Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard. I devoured it. And I had this wonderful moment where I realised I felt just like I did when I was ten years old and read The Wind Singer by William Nicholson for the first time.

The Wind Singer was my favourite book (and favourite series) until Harry Potter showed up (well, Prisoner of Azkaban at least). It was this fantastic mix of dystopian world and hints of fantasy, with lyrical writing and a pragmatic, clever female protagonist. It made me notice that authors are clever – that they can invent a whole brilliant world and make it real. It made me fall in love with dystopian fiction and with powerful female protagonists. It made me desperate to read its sequel – I remember being disappointed when I didn’t receive it for my birthday, not remotely caring that it hadn’t been published yet.

Red Queen reignited that feeling. That awe of Aveyard’s world-building and soulful character-driven storytelling reminded me of how much I just love stories. So here I am, stoking that fire that used to fuel me as a child. I am reigniting my love of books by reading more of them. No matter how busy life gets, no matter if work leaves me feeling like Netflix and Snooze is a better end of the day escape. I will return to the world of stories.

And I’ll write reviews to keep reminding myself of why I love storytelling, why this matters so much to me. Hopefully you’ll find a little of your own fiery love for stories along the way too.

xx Katie