Saturday, 30 January 2016

Book Review: Streets of Sin - A Dark Biography of Notting Hill by Fiona Rule

AD* | A short walk away from London’s West End lies Notting Hill - one of the capital’s most exclusive residential districts and a celebrity hotspot. But this outwardly genteel enclave has its shocking secrets.

Streets of Sin delves into Notting Hill’s distinctly murky past, and relates the deplorable scandals that blighted the area from its development until the late 20th century. Bestselling London historian Fiona Rule sheds new light on notorious events that took place amid the leafy streets, including the horrifying murders at Rillington Place, the nefarious career of slum landlord Peter Rachman, the Profumo affair, and Britain’s first race riots, and reveals what life was life in Notting Hill during its dark years when murder, extortion, and disorder were everyday occurrences.

Although I'm a voracious reader and book blogger, I've barely skimmed the surface of non-fiction. Most of the books I review seem to be either YA or your run-of-the-mill romances (because that's what I normally get asked to review) so it was nice to sink my teeth into something completely different for a change.

Exploring London

History fascinates me. I don't pretend to know a lot about it (I've barely even studied it) but I always jump at the chance to delve into the past when I get the opportunity. In addition to that, London has always been one of my favourite places. I'm lucky to live close enough that I can easily visit it by train, and as you may remember from my 2015 year in review, last year I was able to explore the city a lot more than I had previously.

My travels in London usually take me to more touristy hotspots, but on occasion I do explore slightly further afield. One of these adventures took me to Notting Hill. My first impression of Notting Hill was one of comfortably affluent London townhouses, old iron railings (the sort people chain pushbikes to) and the communal gardens, as mentioned several times in the book.

Shocking tales

I'm too young to remember even the most recent of events covered in Streets of Sin. In my lifetime, Notting Hill has been little more than the sought-after district I saw myself.

Perhaps that meant the more shocking events in the book had more of an impact for me as I didn't previously know about the vast majority of topics covered. Who knew the grand exterior hid such a murky past? I definitely didn't!

From dabbles in non-fiction history books before, I've found that a lot of them can be very dry and analytical. That's great for a reference book, but if you'd wanted to be reading something more like a historical narrative it can quickly put you off a book. However, I had no problems like that with Streets of Sin. Fiona Rule is a highly engaging writer, and it's clear she's very knowledgeable and passionate about the subjects she writes about. The book reads like a series of mini-stories, all interconnected by the common theme of Notting Hill. From the early days of Notting Hill Farm and James Weller Ladbroke's grand ideas, right through to the slums and later, the race riots and eventual upgrading of the area, Streets of Sin is packed with fascinating tales from Notting Hill's rich, vibrant history.

Rating: 4 stars.

A must for history lovers and Londoners alike - Streets of Sin is available to buy now.

* I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review 

Will you be reading Streets of Sin? Let us know in the comments below!

Friday, 29 January 2016

Preview: Super Bowl 50

First published on Kettle Mag here.

The regular season is over, we’ve had the trials and tribulations of the post-season games, and now it’s just two weeks till Super Bowl 50.

Following Sunday night’s Conference Championship games, we now know the two teams who will go head-to-head at Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, California (home of the San Francisco 49ers) on February 7th.

Conference Champions

In the first game of the evening, we witnessed another chapter added to the long-standing rivalry between the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots, as the two greatest quarterbacks of this generation squared up in Colorado. In an incredibly intense game, Broncos QB Peyton Manning defied his age and injuries and, alongside the stellar defence, pushed his team to take the AFC Championship.

Meanwhile, over in Charlotte, things were only just getting started as the Carolina Panthers took on the Arizona Cardinals. QB Cam Newton led the Panthers to an early lead, and despite their best efforts, the Cardinals never recovered. Carolina easily took the NFC Championship title, with the final score 49 to just 15.

So with defending champions New England now out of the picture – who will lift the Lombardi Trophy?

Carolina go 15-1

Perhaps the most obvious choice are Carolina. Going virtually unbeaten in the season so far (with the exception of the loss to Atlanta in Week 16) they have a pretty impressive track record. What makes that even more impressive, is that almost everyone was writing them off in the off-season. They lost their top receiver, Kelvin Benjamin, to injury during practice last summer. Yet despite that, they still managed to go 15-1.

Cam Newton has been unstoppable this season. He set a new NFL record by scoring 45 combined touchdowns in the regular season, as well as leading all the quarterbacks in the league on rushing yards with a total of 636. Unsurprisingly, he’s the runaway choice for MVP.

But the Panthers haven’t won a Super Bowl yet. They lost their only other Super Bowl appearance in the 2003-2004 season to the Patriots.

Will the Broncos manage to keep them from their first win?

It could be a close game. Carolina have SuperCam, but Denver has the league’s best defense. Depending how things play out, this could definitely make for an interesting game!

Manning's last chance

However, it’s no surprise that Denver’s most important factor is number 18. Peyton Manning is widely recognised as one of the all-time great quarterbacks – some even hail him as the best QB in NFL history. He’s one of the NFL’s most prolific passers, he’s won MVP a record 5 times… but he’s only got one Super Bowl ring (with the Indianapolis Colts in 2007). When you compare that to Patriots QB Tom Brady’s four rings, it’s no surprise that Manning’s after his second.

But this season hasn’t been plain sailing for Manning. At 39, he was the oldest starting QB in the league this year, and with every passing year more and more people are questioning how long he can maintain the high level of health and physical fitness required to stay in the NFL.

At the start of the season things didn’t look good for him. Manning struggled early on in the year, and got benched after breaking the all-time passing yards record (previously held by former Green Bay Packers QB Brett Favre). After a takeover by back-up QB Brock Osweiler, Manning returned in Week 17, and hasn’t looked back since.

This season is likely to be Manning’s last – but will he manage to end his career on a high and get that one last Super Bowl ring?

Who do you think will win? Let me know in the comments below! 

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Book Review: Solarversia by Toby Downton

AD* | Solarversia is the story of an epic year-long game played by 100 million people inside a virtual world modelled on the real world Solar System. Given three lives, three vehicles, and told to master The Science of Solarversia to stand a chance of winning, players compete for the £10m grand prize, and the chance to help design the next game, starting in 2024.

Nova Negrahnu and her friends Burner and Sushi cannot wait to start playing. But when an international terrorist organisation sets its sights on the game and it’s creator, Nova finds her life turned upside down, as the line between simulation and reality blurs. Can she navigate between playing the game, coping with all the issues an eighteen-year-old girl faces and avoid the very real and present danger mounting outside Solaversia?

Sci-fi isn't usually my thing. I mean, I'll read it (of course, I'll read anything) but it takes something really special for me to give a predominantly sci-fi book a five star rating. On top of that, this book is billed as the next Ready Player One, another book that I haven't read.

But despite all that, I really enjoyed Solarversia.

Blend of fantasy and reality

What I liked most about this book was the quality and detail of the writing. The author had obviously gone to great lengths to root his idea in the real world, and his research is clear to see in the concepts discussed within its pages. But it's not just that. The world itself is spectacular. Worlds within worlds, reality combined with myths, legends and folklore from an imaginary planet and races of creatures - all made up, yet all meticulously thought out and seamlessly integrated with reality. And that's just in the game part of the story.

I think the thing that drew me into this book the most was this blending of fantasy and reality. Solarversia blurs the line between the two in every way possible, turning everything upside down and making you forget what's real and what isn't. And what's even scarier - at the rate technology is advancing, this could all become reality sooner than you might think.

Set in the UK

Another thing I liked was the setting. Fantastical worlds aside, the real-world part of the story was predominantly set in the UK. The main character, Nova, lives in Maidstone (or the 'Stone, as it's referred to in the book) though she moves away to university in Nottingham partway through the book. I've said it before, but I still find it a nice change when books like this are set in the UK. Nowadays when places are namechecked in a book, 90% of the time they're in the US, so it's nice to imagine the events of the book happening in places I'm familiar with and (in some cases) have visited. It all helps to make the book even more real for me, which in the case of Solarversia confused the boundaries between the game and reality even further!

The plot twists were unexpected - without giving any spoilers, there were a few big things that really took me by surprise, as well as a few little things. I have to say that I liked certain characters a lot more than others. I felt characters like Burner and Charlie could have had a lot more of a part - even minor characters like Jools van der Star could have featured a lot more. I know Downton is keen to pursue the Solarverse, so maybe their backstories will be explained further at some point in the future. Or so I hope, anyway.

Rating: 5 stars.

Solarversia is available to buy now. If you want to hear more about the Solarverse and the year long game, visit the website.

* I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review 

Have you read Solarversia? Will you be signing up for the game? Let me know in the comments below! 

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Book Review: The Gift of Charms by Julia Suzuki

AD* | In a secret land, far away from the habitation of man, dwell the world's remaining dragons -- hoping the dragsaur beasts have vanished forever. Here they try to live their daily lives, but all is not well and their talents are fading.

Things change, however, when, from a strange egg, Yoshiko is born - a dragon with a unique destiny.

Great adventure lies ahead as many challenges must be overcome, leading to a dangerous mission to the human world in attempt to return to the clans their missing magic!

Can Yoshiko make it in time?

I've read quite a few children's fantasy books in my time. And, funnily enough, a lot of those seem to have included dragons. That's because dragons are one of those things that kids love to read about. Whether it's classic tales of princesses and dragons and knights in shining armour, or well-loved franchises like How To Train Your Dragon, the beasts seem to be a staple of children's fiction.

This is the first book in Julia Suzuki's The Land of Dragor series. Suzuki is a self-published children's author, and The Gift of Charms won her the British Arts Council Award for 2014 - a great feat for an indie author.

Fantastic fantasy world

Despite this, I was a little dubious starting this book. I find that reading children's books as an adult can be very hit-and-miss - I either get them and enjoy them, or I don't.

Luckily I needn't have worried though. For a children's book it was very detailed, and the crafting and precision that had gone into the world-building was superb. I could really picture the landscape and locations in Yoshiko's world, which is really integral in a book aimed at children.

The characters were also great. Yoshiko was a really well-rounded character, relatable to many children I'm sure. Throughout the book he changes as his character develops, which was lovely to read during the course of the story. The supporting cast were also good. I'd like to see more of 'The Twins' and Yoshiko's friends in the following books, as I think they have a lot of potential Suzuki could explore.

A little predictable

My only criticism is that the plot was a little predictable. Now, I know that the plots of children's books often have to be predictable because of the young age of the target audience, but it can be nice if something happens that surprises you when you're reading it. Unfortunately this book lacked that, but since it was still a good plot, I can forgive the predictability.

All in all, the good points far outweigh the only criticism here. I think there's a lot of potential and scope for expansion in this series... Suzuki could well be on to a winner.

Rating: 3 stars

The Gift of Charms is available to buy now.

* I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review 

Have you read The Gift of Charms? Let me know in the comments below!

Saturday, 2 January 2016

5 books I want to read in 2016

Everyone has books they'd like to read. Most people just pick up a book that takes their fancy when they've finished their current book, but I'm rather more organised than that.

That's because, owning over 800 books (that's excluding the ones I've previously read and kept), I kind of have to be organised. So to retain some semblance of order among my many books, I made a master list of all the books I own and haven't read yet.

This, combined with the invaluable tool that is Goodreads, allows me to keep track of the books I own and have yet to read. Ever since I joined Goodreads, I've taken part in their annual reading challenges. In my first year on the site, 2013, I set myself the rather ambitious goal of reading 100 books in the year. For bookworms, that doesn't sound like a lot, but when you consider I read literally anything, long or difficult books can soon slow me down. Sadly I didn't complete the 100 books that first year (I managed 80) so I reduced my goal for the following year.

My 2014 goal was 50 books, but what with one thing and another, I only managed 36. So when it came to the time to set my 2015 goal, I was adamant I was going to read 50 books. And I not only completed my goal, but I surpassed it, reading a total of 54 books last year.

For this year, I've stuck with 50 books again. I know it's definitely attainable for me, but it's not too high that I'm speeding through books just to add to my total (I had a bit of that in 2013, and it's just not worth it).

Now, with all that in mind, I think it's important to set yourself reading goals. Last year I wrote a blog post about 5 books I've been meaning to read forever, and looking back on it now, I realised I've read one of those five during the last year. So - what 5 books am I going to try and read in 2016?

1. Ghost Hunter by Michelle Paver

The last book in the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series, a series of children's books surprisingly recommended to me by my boyfriend, and a book I've been meaning to read for a little while. I read book 5 in the series, Oath Breaker, back in July of last year, so it's high time I reached the conclusion of this series.

2. First One Missing by Tammy Cohen

I can't remember where I first heard about this book, but it instantly piqued my interest. I quickly got a copy, and it's been sitting enticingly on my Kindle ever since. I haven't read a really gripping thriller for a while, so I'm looking forward to starting this.

3. Blog of the Dead: Sophie by Lisa Richardson

Another one that's been sitting on my Kindle for far too long. I try to make a habit of reading books from authors I know personally, and since Lisa is a fellow graduate from my university course, it would be rude not to read her book! Plus it's set in Folkestone, Kent, where I lived for a year, so it will be nice to read about places I know and recognise.

4. Spooky New York by S.E. Schlosser

I love paranormal tales, I've always wanted to go to New York, and my boyfriend bought me this book. What's not to love? Plus it's been sitting on my shelf for a year and a half (ever since he bought it back from NYC) so it's about time I picked it up!

5. The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

Everyone raves about how good this book is. I've been intending to read it for a while, so I figure I might as well try to read it in 2016. After all, I try my best to read as wide a variety of books as I can, and books aren't as popular as this without good reason.

What books are you planning to read in 2016? Let me know in the comments below!