My Favourite Five Reads – 2016

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Some people evaluate the passing year in wins; others in sales, gigs, or publications. I have a tradition of summing up a year in titles. Out of the (nearly) fifty books I read in 2016, here is my annual list of best reads.

My Favourite Five

David Copperfield by Charles Dickensdavidcopperfield

I blogged about this one shortly after reading it. (Read it here).

I  confess that I loved  this book so much I was compelled me to buy a special (used) Folio Society edition as a keepsake. (Hey, don’t judge me. I write Victorian fiction. It’s an investment in a resource, right?)

 

JonathanStrangeMrNorrellbySusannaClarkeJonathan Strange and Mr Norrell  by Susanna Clarke

Gosh, I loved this book, but it isn’t one I readily thrust into friends’ hands. I’m not entirely sure others will love it as much as I did. It is weird and dark and really long. I put off reading it for years, because its oozing footnotes seemed like they’d be a dreary chore to read. (They weren’t!)

Ultimately, its brilliant premise won me over: What if once upon a time English Magic existed, but it faded into obscurity and is all but forgotten? And what if one man seeks to revive it for the good of the realm?

Mr Norrell is a magician and a pernickety, reclusive man who, after years of rigorous solo study, performs powerful magic that makes him an instant celebrity. Soon the English government is calling on his services to rectify civil disasters and gain military advantage over enemies. English Magic is making a comeback so big he has to take on a student. Enter the charismatic Jonathan Strange, quite a different character altogether. Together, they do great good for England, and all is well until the teacher and the pupil clash.

Susanna Clarke’s world building is extraordinary thanks in part to the footnotes I mentioned. She references a fictitious canon of books of magical scholarship. It’s fascinating how much plausibility and texture this quirky little device added. I listened to the audio version (which was exquisite), and surprisingly the footnotes weren’t a bother at all. (Reviews of the digital version indicated that the footnotes were a nuisance.) In an interview with the New York Magazine, she explains how she achieved such realism in a book about magic. “One way of grounding the magic is by putting in lots of stuff about street lamps, carriages and how difficult it is to get good servants.”

So who is Susanna Clarke? Here are some fascinating facts:

  • JS&MN is her debut novel (but she works in publishing).
  • She put ten years into the manuscript, sometimes fearing she’d never finish it.
  • After two rejections by publishers, Bloomsbury offered her a £1 million advance on an unfinished manuscript! (2003)
  • She (apparently) hasn’t written another novel.

Clarke didn’t have a name for the book’s genre, though there are plenty of possibilities offered, from pastiche to fantasy to alternative history. I believe it is gaslamp fantasy, which means it is an alternative history with a magical twist. (Read about gaslamp fantasy here.) The subplots were intriguing; the characters unforgettable; and the settings vividly eerie in their coldness. Set at the dawn of the Nineteenth Century with the Napoleonic Wars brewing and raging, Lord Byron and Lord Wellington play important parts in the book.

If you’re not up for  a 36-hour audio book or an 800-page book, check out the BBC’s TV mini series. If I haven’t convinced you, consider this article that says Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is “just as magical as Harry Potter.” I’d love to know if you’re as smitten as I am. [For grown-ups (and precocious younger readers who love footnotes)]

The Lie Tree by Frances HardingeTheLieTreebyFrancisHardinge

Winner of the 2016 Costa Book of the Year, this was another title in my  gaslamp fantasy binge. I’d seen a flurry of articles about Frances Hardinge online, and was intrigued by the woman who wears a fedora for its sense of adventure.  She’s a master storyteller: her writing in The Lie Tree is utterly captivating, the plot is surprising, and the themes are big and important—everything we bookworms hope a book could be.

The protagonist Faith, 14 and stuck in a ‘training corset’, grapples with heady topics: societal conventions and  limitations on women, the discovery of the flaws in her father’s character, the clash of science and religion in Victorian England, and the mob mentality of people. Big ideas, fresh characters, and lovely writing made this one deliciously memorable. [MG]

TimWintoCloudstreetCloudstreet by Tim Winton

I mistook Cloudstreet as an ordinary tragicomical family drama, which didn’t overly excite me even if it’s considered a modern Aussie classic and one of Australia’s favourite books. But when I saw it classified as magical realism, I was instantly intrigued. I knew I had to read it as research for my  WIP Finding Graceland.

The audio version is performed to perfection by Peter Hosking, who brought Tim Winton’s lush writing into full Technicolor splendour. Read it—you’ll never forget the characters or how the book gripped your  heart. [For grown ups]

EchoPamMunozRyanEcho by Pam Muñoz Ryan

I mentioned above I was seeking magical realism books to read, and this was one of them. I loved its light touch, but most of all I was impressed with the book’s beautiful structure.

Echo tells the stories of three young people in the WWII era, who are connected by, well … an enchanted harmonica. Now, as weird as that sounds, it is an amazing tale, full of music and heartbreak, pathos and redemption.The whole thing is bracketed in an original fairy tale. The ending is one of the most satisfying I can remember. Don’t let the harmonica-fairy tale thing throw you. This book is swoon-worthy.  [MG/YA]

Over to You

Have you read any of the titles above? Leave your thoughts in the comments. Happy reading in the coming months!

Image Credit: Ian Schneider, CC0, via Unsplash

The Arty Hearts Notebook Winner!

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Last week’s post about the beautiful designer stationery by The Arty Hearts included a share-n-win opportunity. Readers who shared the post and tagged me were entered to win a luxe notebook.

Displayed above is the beautiful tropical flower range created by designer Katrina Read at The Arty Hearts. The notebook on the bottom featuring lush banana palms and flowers now belongs to …

Jacqui Halpin!

Enjoy!

You can check out The Arty Hearts range here. Available in specialty stores around Australia. Follow them on Instagram and Facebook!

Image ©The Arty Hearts, used with permission.

All I Want for Xmas is The Arty Hearts Stationery

Dear Santa,

I’m ready to let you off the hook for last year’s gift-giving bungle ( An inSinkerator?  For me?  Really?? )  I’m a writer, not a plumber.

This Christmas, just leave a stash of summery stationery from The Arty Hearts under my Christmas tree, and we’re all good.

We’ll pretend Christmas 2015 never happened.

And Santa, when  I say ‘a stash of stationery’, what I mean is a haul. A big, bright, beautiful collection like this…

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from The Arty Hearts.

Or how about this…

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Swoon.

The Arty Hearts produces boutique stationery for the true paper lover. Their products feature the gorgeous artwork of Australian designer Katrina Read. Her stationery is luxurious: premium paper and quality workmanship. Her bright designs are on-trend and so cute: shells, pineapples, tropical flowersflamingos, watermelonFRENCHIES!

(Ooh, Santa, remind me to talk to you later about a Frenchie puppy for Christmas 2017.)

Who wouldn’t love to carry this sweet little Pocket Planner? Four darling pads of peel-n-stick notes in a slim folder decked with soothing greenery. I feel breezy and cool just looking at it. A pretty green pencil holds it all together, so it’s sturdy enough to endure a daily ride my handbag.

Open Pocket Planner – Palm Design

 

Closed Pocket Planner – Flower Design

No doubt, Santa, you’re aware one item of stationery is never enough. So I’ll take a gorgeous weekly desk planner to give my work space a pop of colour and pizzazz … And a few luxe notebooks, large and small…

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… Matching pencils, cards, wrapping paper, gift tags, shopping lists …

We have achieved Paper Nirvana. Thanks heaps, Santa!

BTW, I’ve been a very good girl this year.

Lots of Christmas cheer,

Ali

PS: Santa, you might consider shopping for the Missus at The Arty Hearts. I hear last Christmas’s Dust Buster didn’t go down too well.

Where to Buy

The Arty Hearts boutique stationery range is available at boutique retailers around Australia. Check out their store on the HardtoFind website and follow on Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram.

Share to Win a Notebook!

Start your new year right—with a fresh, clean page in a cheerful new notebook. I have one deluxe notebook from The Arty Hearts to give away to a randomly selected winner.

Share this post on Twitter or Facebook before 15 November, and tag me (not at the beginning of the tweet or only I will see it). @Ali_Stegs

All Images ©TheArtyHearts, Used with Permission

Fun Gift Idea – Busy Bee Stationery Subscription

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Stationery lovers are the easiest people to shop for. Seriously—give them something as simple as a nice notebook or a well-weighted  pen, and they will love you for life.

But if you want to give a gift that is full of surprises, consider a stationery box subscription. Busy Bee Stationery sends out monthly boxes of coordinated stationery for the diehard paper addict in your life (or for you).

I stumbled upon Busy Bee on Twitter and was immediately intrigued by the gorgeous range of high-quality products and the fun possibility of receiving a box of carefully curated stationery every month. Busy Bee’s Twitter and Instagram showed hundreds of loyal and happy customers. Here are a couple of shots from @beestationery’s Twitter feed:

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This one shows the August box, one of my favourites.

Taking One for the Team

In the name of dedication to the craft of blogging and thorough research (I swear my addiction to paper had nothing to do with it!), I dutifully subscribed to Busy Bee. Living in Australia meant my box had a bit further to travel, but the wait was worth it. I received all kinds of fun products—many that I use constantly, some that I’m saving for special occasions, and a few that will make nice gifts because they are not my style.

Over the months that I subscribed to Busy Bee, I received a wide range of products, from photo album and scrapbooking materials to desk accessories. There was washi tape, blank notecards, and several items from the Santoro’s huge Gorjuss range.

Most of all, I enjoyed the traditional paper products and office supplies, including:

stamper

So cute in pink!

A date stamper

It adds a quaint library-esque touch to my hand-written letters, and it’s fun to use in my journal. It reminds me to use some of my other stamp pads and ink.

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The Arty Hearts products are designed and printed in Australia!

A set of summery notebooks

These soft-covered notebooks  from The Arty Hearts are almost too pretty to use with their beautiful watercolour covers, but the premium paper inside beckons. These came in a beach-themed pack, which included beachy notecards and this cute nautical pen.

notebook

Bullet journalling, here I come!

A Leuchtturm notebook in magenta

Leuchtturm notebooks  have been on my wish-list ever since I learned that they are fountain-pen-friendly. The paper is thick enough tp prevent bleed-through. The bonded leather cover gives the notebook enough oomph to handle the occasional trip in my beach bag. It arrived in the bullet-journal-themed box with a gorgeous lettering brush pen in matching pink.

A set of 10 Staedtler fine-liner pens

I rely on my writing calendar to keep me on track and accountable, but that doesn’t mean it has to be boring. Washi tape and coloured pens make it bright and inspiring. This set of pens is perfect for the job.

faves

The orange Jetstream pen came in my first Busy Bee box and has been a favourite ever since.

The Write Drink coaster

This little guy has a permanent spot on my writing desk. The retro typewriter adds a cute touch to my work area. A simple treasure.

A pack of Write Notepads & Co pencils

These chubby white pencils are the best. Harkening back to elementary school, they help me get in touch with my playful inner child. A two-holed sharpener was included.

My Review

A Busy Bee Stationery box subscription is a fun gift for the stationery fiend. The products are excellent quality. Brands I received included: Leuchtturm, Santori, Pink Paislee, The Arty Hearts, Caran d’Ache, Graphique, Staedtler, and more.

I loved the premium quality notebooks best of all, and the desk products (erasers, sharpeners, stamps, and writing tools) were most suited to my tastes. These simple things make my heart thrum.

A couple of boxes contained scrapbooking or photo album decorations, which are not my cup of tea. They were lovely products, but I have no use for them. There were also a couple of boxes which included Gorjuss products. The pencil-case, desk set, pens, and stamp set are sweet and good quality, but are more suited to someone much younger.

All in all, I think the Busy Bee Stationery Box subscription is a super service. The items are useful and fun. The service from Busy Bee is tops. They are quick to respond to questions and issues. The Busy Bee community is vibrant too, with customers invited to share their gorgeous photos on Twitter and Instagram. They’re on Pinterest too!

A Gift that Keeps on Giving

The stationery addict on your Christmas list will swoon for this gift. The cost of a monthly box of goodies is US$39.90, with free postage in the US. Worldwide shipping is available at standard international fees. (Postage to Australia made the subscriptions quite expensive for me. Sadly, I had to cancel my subscription, but I totally enjoyed my few months of ‘research.’)

Over to You

Okay stationery addicts, bookworms, and word-nerds, what do you think is the ideal gift? I’d love to hear from you for inspiration for future posts. Please leave a comment or fill in this quick survey about gifts for readers, writers and stationery addicts.

Image Credit: WerbeFabrik, CC0

STEM – Making Room For Girls

 

ada_lovelace_portrait-1 CC011 October is Ada Lovelace Day, a commemoration the plucky Nineteenth Century woman who pioneered computer programming. Ada was the daughter of brooding poet Lord Byron. Ada’s mother, who feared her daughter would inherit some of her father’s flamboyant poetic tendencies, put Ada on a strict diet of mathematics and logic.

The result was a fabulously gifted mathematical mind. Her mentor, Charles Babbage, referred to her as “The Enchantress of Numbers.” The efforts to curb the Byron flamboyance were not as successful. Apparently, Ada was odd. (As a Quirky Kid advocate and die-hard fan, I suspect today we would celebrate — or at least allow for — her neuro-diversity).

Ada Lovelace Day & STEM

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, all areas that have remained relatively closed to women and girls. 11 October provides an occasion to encourage girls to study STEM subjects and celebrate the noteworthy achievements of STEM career women around the world. It’s also a day to consider:

How do we entice girls to study STEM subjects?

How do we break down the stereotypes that say STEM subjects are “for boys”?

Both can be encouraged by putting inspiring STEM books in the hands of both girls and boys. Give them exciting books about girls like Ada Lovelace. Introduce them to stories that incorporate maths, natural sciences, engineering and technology.

Recommended STEM Books for Kids

Case_Missing_Moonstone_Wollstonecraft_DetectiveMystery lovers will enjoy The Case of the Missing Moonstone, written by Jordan Stratford and illustrated by Kelly Murphy. This rollicking Regency romp stars Ada Byron and Mary Shelley (who wrote Frankenstein) as they put their superior minds to work on solving a whodunit. (MG)

4/5 Stars

 

 

 

 

 

The_Lie_Tree_FHardingeFrances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree by  is a brilliant book about a 14-year-old aspiring natural scientist growing up in Victorian England. This story has fossils galore, freaky flora, lashings of fantasy — and murder. Oh, and we mustn’t forget the very clever girl. (Upper MG)

I can’t recommend this book enough, which falls into my favourite genre, Gaslamp Fantasy.

5/5 Stars

 

 

 

 

Flavia_de_Luce_1No STEM list would be complete without the wonderful Flavia de Luce Series (also known as The Buckshaw Chronicles in some places)

by Alan Bradley. She’s debuts in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. This precocious eleven year old protagonist plays with poison—literally! She’s a budding chemist who lives in a manor, which houses its own laboratory, thanks to some bygone relatives who specialised in this branch of science. Her brand of naughtiness sometimes verges on outrageous, but she’s a delightful amateur sleuth nonetheless. MG, 4/5 stars

For Younger Children

Engibear‘s Dream and Engibear’s Bridge, written by Andrew King and illustrated by Benjamin Johnston, are the most delightful picture books about engineering. Honestly — read the sweet stories and feast your eyes on the amazing artwork. I dare not to be inspired! Be sure to check out the app and the website. (PB/JF)

screen-shot-2016-10-13-at-1-52-23-am     screen-shot-2016-10-13-at-1-52-12-am    5/5 Stars

STEM Careers Focus

And for something a little different and way cool …

screen-shot-2016-10-13-at-1-35-04-amThe Tech Girls Movement has created two books called Tech Girls Are Superheroes, which are available for free to school girls in Australia. Full of excitement and derring-do, these books are inspiring and downright fun.

Written and produced at QUT in Brisbane! Yay for homegrown books! The website offers resources for teachers and breaking news about STEM teaching and careers.

 

 

 

My own STEM story for middle grade readers is underway (a little more slowly than I wish). Watch out for updates about Winifred Weatherby Saves the Century.

 

Porotait of Ada by Alfred Edward Chalon [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, CC0

The Nerdy Pleasure of Punctuation

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my-twitter24 September is National Punctuation Day, and it has me worrying that my love of punctuation makes me seem … well, persnickety.

 

I know it’s nerdy to enjoy punctuation, but a Grammar Nazi I am not. I don’t get riled by other people’s misplaced apostrophes or their lack of an Oxford comma. I see the error, and move on.

I don’t shame people who overuse quotation marks or argue with those old-timers who insist on two spaces after a full stop. Indicating a plural with an apostrophe saddens me, but it doesn’t ignite a burning urge to deface property with a red Sharpie or muster a mob to lynch sloppy punctuators.

Poor punctuation does not spoil my day. Unless it’s my own. My typos rattle me and leave me writhing in embarrassed angst, muttering about jots and tittles and the futility of crying over misplaced pixels.

I never indulge in self-congratulatory punctuation pride. We all make mistakes, sometimes because we rush, and sometimes because autocorrect takes over.

Aesthetically speaking…

quotation-39627_640I enjoy the elegance of a well-placed semicolon, the possibility offered by the ellipsis, and the playful quirkiness of the interrobang*. Hyphens make my brain hum.

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Top: Dumb quotes Bottom: Smart quotes

Despite my dual-nationality, I have an engrained allegiance to double ” quotation marks to set off speech. The Commonwealth’s single ‘ quote marks don’t work for quotes inside quotes—at least not elegantly. Curly quotes (aka smart quotes) beat straight (or dumb) quotes any day.

National Punctuation Day

This is my kind of literary celebration! Established thirteen years ago by American Jeff Rubin, National Punctuation Day celebrates, “… the lowly comma, correctly used quotation marks, and other proper uses of periods, semicolons, and ever-mysterious ellipsis.” NPD is featured in Chase’s Calendar of Events, incorporated into schools, and receives national (US) coverage in major outlets such as Huffington Press, USA Today, and NPR.

I had trouble deciding how to do such an occasion justice. I considered…

… doing a round-up of interesting books about punctuation,

screen-shot-2016-09-24-at-3-28-43-pm      screen-shot-2016-09-24-at-3-27-46-pm       screen-shot-2016-09-24-at-3-26-46-pm

… linking to a challenging punctuation quiz,

 

… sharing some of my favourite punctuation pins from my Word Nerd board on Pinterest,

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… listing some cool punctuation trivia,

For instance, did you know the original name of the hashtag is octothorpe?

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Or that there is a dedicated Apostrophe Protection Society?

… advocating for new punctuation marks,
andorsand            Interrobang

… or defending the use of emoticons.

 

I decided to keep it short and simple. The last thing I’d want is someone to accuse me of being persnickety—or obsessed.

* The Internet offers several spellings for interrobang |interobang | interabang. The first seems to be the most popular, so I changed the graphic to reflect that.