This week I caught up with Alex of Spells and Spaceships, creator of Norsevember and the SFF Badge Collection.
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Alex is an English sci-fi and fantasy blogger over at Spells & Spaceships. He started his blog back in November 2019, during the pandemic, and since then has made a huge impact on the blogging and writing community!
I was really excited to speak to Alex for a couple of reasons. His review style is totally different to other blogs I’ve seen, awarding various badges to describe books. I also love his ‘one sentence review’ which gives a quick insight into what a book is like, without having to read the whole thing first. I haven’t seen other blogs do this and it’s a great idea (I might borrow the ‘one sentence review’ for my blog!).
Alongside this, Alex has created two reading challenges: Norsevember and the SFF Badge Collection. Norsevember encourages more people to read Norse-inspired fantasy as well as sharing information on Norse myths, history and culture. The SFF Badge Collection is a really fun reading challenge, awarding virtual badges when you read a book matching a prompt from the collection.
If that wasn’t enough, he’s also a big advocate in the writing community, regularly sharing other bloggers reviews and book offers on Twitter. In this interview, I caught up with Alex to find out more about him, his blog, the events he hosts as well as his reading habits!
First of all, tell me about yourself.
I live with my partner, little boy and cocker spaniel near Derby in the Midlands, England, so we’re pretty central. The Peak District is close and there is lots of countryside (and those great country pubs) not too far away. Although I can’t get to the seaside as quickly as most, I’m about 2 hours away from both London and Manchester.
I work in the manufacturing industry in a very logic-based, organisational and technical role and have recently earned a promotion, which makes the day go really fast because I’m so busy. I’m naturally more of a creative though and have had to work hard to adapt to this sort of environment. My creativity urge is fulfilled with my blogging and is why I enjoy thinking up new events. I’ve always been a reader and had a book ‘on the go’ but sometimes that meant the same read for weeks at a time, especially at uni where my love of books temporarily waned for a few years – compulsory reading of dreary 19th century political history will do that to you.
Tell me about your blog.
So, my blog is called Spells & Spaceships. I deliberated over a number of different names but felt it had a nice ring to it and liked how it looked written down. Swords and Spaceships might have been more apt in hindsight based on my reading but it’s a name that’s stuck and I’m happy with!
I started in November ‘19, just before COVID hit, which I think maybe helped grow my blog. I created a fair amount of content in my first year that hopefully helped keep people busy!
I’d followed some book bloggers and publishers on my personal account for a while and wanted to make a dedicated account to mainly just focus on the bookish, slightly nerdy side of my interests rather than a general football and music account that my friends follow. Starting reviewing was partly a way to become more involved in the community, support authors and keep track of books I’d read in more detail.
What type of books do you usually review? What are your favourite genres?
I read mostly fantasy. My love of history is actually where my interest in fantasy comes from. As a really small kid I adored visiting castles and I have such extremely fond memories of learning about the history of the British Isles; the Middle Ages, Vikings and the Wars of the Roses. I loved swords, conquest, knights and battles — and I still do!
When I first watched The Lord of the Rings with my Grandpa, I was instantly hooked on the combination of a world that felt familiar in many ways, combined with one that was totally epic fantasy, with magic, monsters and wizards. I decided to read the Hobbit, which I guess was my gateway book. 9 year old me struggled with the actual Lord of the Rings trilogy, somewhat unsurprisingly.
Over time, I’ve developed an interest in fantasy inspired by other periods — but I do think a familiarity can only heighten the enthusiasm. Since visiting Morocco for example, I really want to read something inspired by the colourful and amazing markets of Marrakech, a place that felt incredibly magical, with its antiques, music, animal sounds, hand crafted designs, embroidered carpets and coloured glass.
Sci-Fi can also be fantastic when I’m in the mood, too. Anything can happen — you can ask the what if questions and speculate on the future. The most beautiful and wondrous part of nature to me is the night sky. I can stare for ages at the stars and feel utterly blown away and humbled by how incomprehensible and unknowable the universe is. To be taken up there in a great space opera is a way to explore that.
You’d think I might be a big fan of historical fiction given my above statements, but generally I don’t like to know what happens in the end! There are some fantastic series, and some that look right up my street (The Last Kingdom for example), but the genre probably makes up perhaps 5% of my reading. Horror can be completely unique and exciting too, but I am extremely picky when it comes to that genre.
Where do you find books to review?
My TBR is almost exclusively populated by Twitter and Instagram now! Before, I used to enjoy browsing a book shop and picking up a completely unexpected surprise title. There’s still that magic (and that smell) about book shops and I will often buy something I’ve seen recommended by another blogger. There’s just something comforting and relaxing about it, don’t you think?
I saw someone on Twitter mention how they like to go and buy a brand new book and sit in a coffee shop for 2 or 3 hours reading as much as they can. That really appeals to me and is something I’d love to do in the future. None of my friends nearby are readers, but then who wants someone chatting to you whilst you’re immersed in a story?
I’m quite impulsive and I do miss picking a book up based on the cover and blurb alone, which is now rare seeing as I know of almost all the most popular published SFF due to social media.
That is where the beauty of self-publishing comes in though, which I’m often alerted to through tours. The only tour group I’m signed up with is Storytellers on Tour, ran expertly by Timy and Justine. Their featured books always look so intriguing and there are lots I’ve either bought or added to my TBR even when I haven’t directly participated. I don’t take part as often as I’d like, partly because I’m a massive procrastinator so whenever I have a deadline, I put it off and a book might start to feel like homework, which affects my enjoyment. I therefore only take part in tours when I’m particularly enthusiastic about the book.
Tell me about your review style.
I’d say I have quite a mixed review style. I recognise that various approaches can be effective so really do write a review based on my mood. Sometimes if it’s something I particularly enjoyed it might be quite an emotive, passionate review with less ‘academic’ merit. Equally, I may feel if I’m making a strong point about something, I need to back that up with a more considered assessment. By and large though, I believe the people who will be reading my reviews aren’t going to be giving them a grade; they’re first and foremost looking to find out whether a book would suit them, and that’s what I try to keep in mind with my style of review.
One way I do this is with ‘The One Sentence Review’ in which I sum up how the book felt for me in one sentence before the full review. I also designed highlight stickers – I think I have around twelve in total – and I use these in a graphic with the book cover to show what the main themes were for me. The standout highlight will be slightly larger than the other two. For example, in an immersive book with strong characters and their relationships with one another, it might be ‘characters you love’ as the main highlight, with ‘relationships’ and ‘page turner’ as the other two highlights. If it has horror elements, maybe the ‘dark themes’ sticker might be used. I’m hoping this gives an immediate insight into what type of book it is even if someone picks out the bits they want from the review itself.
Do you give your books star ratings? How do you feel about rating books?
Great question. It’s one that has really wracked my brains a few times when I consider how to rate a book. There are nuances to books you don’t need to consider when rating a microwave or a vacuum cleaner with a 1-5 star rating.
Not all star ratings are created equal and I struggle with the vast spectrum of how much I enjoyed a book boiling down to one of these ratings, where a 4 star can be a brilliant read that just had something missing, down to a generous borderline 3 that was pretty good but you wouldn’t continue the series. 3 stars however are pretty uniform for me in that I appreciated parts and there were perhaps some good ideas but I just don’t feel passionate about it or feel like I’ve really gained anything from reading it.
I’ve tried to address this annoyance with star ratings in two ways. One of them is more for me and the other for potential readers.
The one that’s more for me is I created a spreadsheet with all the books I’ve read (it’s also got all of my TBR on there so I can pretend to be in control!). It’s colour coded and in addition to the standard star rating, there is a score out of 10. There are about 6 books that are at the top with 10, which I’d consider my favourites I’ve read.
Occasionally there’ll be an 8.5 that I decided to give a 5 star to because there was something about it that stood out ahead of others or I can recognise it’s a better written book, despite enjoying it the same as something else. It’s a pointless exercise, really; nobody is going through my Goodreads ratings and comparing the books – but it helps me to have a list in descending order to remember how I felt about a particular book. A 7/10 and an 8.5/10 might both have 4 stars from me on Goodreads, but I enjoyed one a lot more than the other.
So how do I use this in a way that helps other readers? What is my alternative to the star rating?
Well, despite having the star rating out of 10 for myself, I don’t use this on my review, but what I have pretty much translates to this, as well as giving me an option to show something is actually an 11/10 for me! I made a blog post about it here but what it comes down to is a review sticker, which includes things like ‘a lot to enjoy’ (3.5 stars), ‘I really enjoyed this book!’ (3.5-4.5 stars), and ‘excellent read’ (4.5-5 stars). I then have for example ‘good enough for the shelf’ which is books that are strong enough to keep the physical copy on my shelf of roughly 20 books or so, while I also have ‘superstar read’ which I have so far only used twice. It helps me differentiate between how much I enjoyed a book and give readers of the blog a better idea on where it sits for me.
How has being a book blogger changed your reading habits? Has it exposed you to a new favourite genre, or a favourite author?
The biggest change is that it’s introduced me to self-published books, which I didn’t really even know about in the past. I assumed every book was published traditionally, or with a small indie publisher for those books that flash up on social media ads for example. I pretty much still stick to my favourite genres but it has encouraged me to discover some books I may not have tried before.
I discovered Brian Naslund through Twitter with his debut Blood of an Exile (this is an affiliate link) and I recently finished the full trilogy (Dragons of Terra) which was unbelievable. I’d insta-buy anything else he writes so you can definitely count him in that elite rung of faves.
What upcoming and new releases are you most excited about?
I’ve just started Shackled Fates by Thilde Kold Holdt, which I’m extremely excited about, and I believe it is not actually released yet? Then there’s The Everspring by Joshua Gillingham due for release later this year (follow up to The Gatewatch).
The Sandman Vol II has just been released on audio too, which will be my next listen, I’m just not finding the opportunity recently.
Another book that sounds amazing is Empire of the Vampire by Jay Kristoff. I don’t usually jump on the hype train, but it really appeals. I play a lot of Warhammer Total War and I love playing as The Vampire Counts – maybe this plays a part in my intrigue!
How have COVID and lockdowns changed your reading routine?
Being completely honest, neither have affected my reading routine whatsoever. I’ve worked all the way through the pandemic as usual and having a toddler I stayed in most of the time anyway. There are a few friends I’m a little envious of who rubbed it in sending pictures watching TV and staying in bed while “working from home” – I’d have definitely made better use of that time (better use for us readers anyway!).
Are there any books that you would never have come across if you were not a blogger? What are some of your favourites?
Genevieve Gornichec and Thilde Kold Holdt are two authors with fantastic Norse Mythology books I adored. Genevieve’s Angrboda story The Witch’s Heart was delightful – it isn’t something that would usually be my thing because I tend to go for action-packed reads, but it was magical and really stuck with me. Thilde Kold Holdt’s Northern Wrath is just brilliant – mythology, history and fantasy combine so well with some awesome POV characters. I’m reading the ARC of book two (Shackled Fates) and it promises to be even better!
I don’t think I’d have encountered any of those authors (and more) without being a book blogger (or at least active in the community on Twitter).
What would your advice be to new authors? Any dos or don’ts that you’ve come across while reading?
I don’t have any dos or don’ts in terms of what content or style to use when writing because I’m just one guy and art is subjective. My advice would be more geared towards self-publicity and the use of social media.
It goes without saying that in the modern age, your public persona matters. I think this counts more for self-published authors and newer trad pub authors; to me, and I’m sure a lot of other readers, it helps draw us to your book when we know you’re a nice person and enjoy your personality. Genuine engagement is also much more important than followers, when it comes to attracting new readers.
Being genuine and talking with readers, celebrating others’ successes and just showing that you’re a person is going to come across much better and help you sell more books than endless hashtags and writer’s lifts, retweets and asking questions you don’t care about the answer to — all of which seem to get people followers (but no natural engagement!)
Also… if you’re going to ask a blogger to review your book, please do it with some thought and at least ask nicely. You’d be amazed how many authors are shocked that we aren’t scrambling to pick up their book when they do little more than paste the Amazon link in a hastily written copy-pasted message.
What’s your favourite reading spot?
It was a hammock in Koh Samui, Thailand. I stayed in the middle of nowhere, with nature and trees all around. I could see little lizards chilling out on the beams above and birds in the jungle, with running water. It was amazing. Inevitably, I fell asleep sooner than I’d have liked. Obviously I can’t just nip over there when I want to read so these days, I have to admit it’s in my bed! I don’t have much reading time in the daylight hours, but I think I’d feel too guilty anyway if I went to the countryside without my dog. The thought of a shady spot in a summer beer garden most definitely appeals though…
What’s your blogging routine? How do you keep track of your books to review?
I write all my reviews in the couple of days after reading a book, while it’s fresh, so I never actually have a backlog to work through. If I finish a book, there’s usually something I want to say about it soon after, so I write a lot of my thoughts down and it transforms into some semblance of a review, which I then eventually mould into something coherent!
What are some of your proudest achievements as a blogger?
Well, I don’t like to brag but I’ve been quoted by Neil Gaiman twice on Twitter *smug face*
In seriousness though, I would definitely say spreading the word about good books. I know from readers telling me, I’ve brought extra sales to self-published authors and helped promote their book and that certainly means something. When you love a book and put time into a review, and the author loves the review, it makes their day etc. — that to me feels like something to be proud of. You’re spreading happiness and helping someone establish the career they’ve worked so hard on.
Being nominated for a Stabby Award was really nice, too. Just seeing the other nominees made me think, “wow, do I belong here!?”
The response to my events, particularly Norsevember has been really fulfilling — when you have followers of Norse paganism thanking you for drawing attention to their religion, that feels great. A few people have credited/blamed me for all the attention on Norse related things on book twitter at the minute, but I’m pretty sure that’s due to shows like Vikings and The Last Kingdom!
Who are some of your favourite indie authors and bloggers?
This is the hardest question on the list because there are so many. There must be 50 bloggers I could name without taking a breath and loads of authors. You may want to check out my Bloggers Spotlights on the ‘features’ section of my website. I’ve got around 5 or 6 lists so far of great bloggers to follow. I’ve also got a ‘Hidden Gems’ feature if you want to check out some indie authors you may not have heard about.
You have created lots of great events for the book community to get involved with, including the 2021 SFF Badge Collection. How did that come about and where did you get the ideas for the different awards? How has that been going so far?
The 2021 SFF Badge Collection is by far my most viewed post! There are thousands of views, whereas every other post is either in double or triple digits (unless you count the Norsevember home page). I never expected it to get so popular!
I saw reading challenges go up every December for the start of the next year, and noticed people lamenting how behind they were later in the year. I also thought some of the existing challenges were a little uninspiring or inflexible. Choice was still important to me.
I wanted to create something different that gave readers the incentive to complete the challenges, whilst also giving a feeling of achievement even if everything wasn’t read by the end of the year.
People seem to love collecting things and evidently this appealed to everyone’s secret magpie side when I introduced the badges. If you look at the success of Pokemon and collecting both the Pokemon and the gym badges, there is a similar appeal with things like the SFF Badge Collection I guess.
I started off simple and thought of some of the broader sub genres – epic fantasy, space opera, post-apocalyptic. I then tried to look at individual features or themes that would still encompass a wide range of books but were more specific, such as African inspired fantasy, a non-human main character and one featuring a dragon. For the remainder, I wanted to mix things up a bit and introduced a debut badge, a book published in 2021, and a book with less than 100 Goodreads ratings. I then felt I had the right balance and a mix of different challenges. There have been a lot of people sharing their virtual badge wallets with updates on where they are – a few people have even completed the collection and earned all 21! I’d like to think there are people playing in private, too.
One person even had the badges made as actual embroidered patches, and has been sewing them on to her jacket as she completes them. That blew my mind!
Last year you started Norsevember, a celebration of books inspired by Norse mythology and history. Tell me about that — what inspired it, how many people took part & how did it go? Where can people sign up for 2021?
I did indeed! So, as mentioned somewhere above I’ve always liked history and had a basic knowledge of the Vikings. I’d recently listened to Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman too, which was just amazingly written and narrated. I highly advise you to listen if you are able – and on this occasion, keep the speed at 1.0x!
This combined with watching seasons 1-3 of Vikings a few weeks earlier had me interested in learning more. As I learnt more about the Old Norse culture, history and beliefs, I fell more in love. Although I am not religious myself, I found a lot to appreciate, learn from and live by in the lore. And of course, ‘Norse Mythology’ is just a branch on the tree of the old Germanic religions, which at one stage dominated the cultures of the British Isles, Scandinavia, parts of Eastern Europe and Germania before Christianity took hold.
In Britain, Odin was Woden for example – and it’s where Wednesday comes from – Wodens’day. Any guesses for where Thursday comes from?
Something that stands out about Norse Mythology is that there isn’t an abundance of knowledge. Most people kept no records and in fact much of what we know was recorded in 13th century – past the time of the Vikings and at a time when Scandinavia was predominately Christian. We humans thirst for knowledge about the unknown, we fear that which we do not know. It’s what makes everything Old Norse just so captivating to me, and in a way heart-breaking because there is so much more to know!
So to get back to the point, this is a fascinating time period, culture, religion and people that we can learn so much about but with an air of mystery still surrounding to this day. The history and mythology give such great foundations to inventive, magical stories in fantasy, down to serious academic study with ongoing theories and opinions.
When I spoke about wanting to find more books – a range of different types – a lot more people than expected joined in and said they wanted to do it with me. What started as an individual reading challenge evolved into a group one, which very soon became a full event.
I then went completely overboard and spent around 50-60 hours creating a month long bonanza that books were only one aspect of, with a new post every day, giveaways, interviews and more. I even managed to get an interview with an archaeologist, Dr. Marianne Hem Eriksen which was amazing! This year I’ve added even more sparkle with some big names (Gaiman’s representative did say no, but it was worth a try!), informative posts, features and giveaways. I’m really excited.
In terms of signing up, there is no official sign up – just have fun and take part! Make sure to check out my twitter and the #Norsevember hashtag and you shouldn’t miss anything. It will all be on the Norsevember Hub too on my website. There are a few skalds helping me out this year for the official schedule, but your own posts are encouraged! So please feel free to be creative and contribute to the month if you’d like to, I’d be really glad to have you take part in any way you’d like.
Finally, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? (doesn’t have to be about blogging – just life generally!)
A good one is, “Change what you can’t accept; Accept what you can’t change.” My Mum introduced me to that phrase although I think I’m a little too much of a pessimistic whinger to fully embrace that mindset! I wholeheartedly agree with it though, what’s the point in worrying about something you can’t change – and if you can change it, go ahead and make yourself feel better about it!
There’s also a bit of a cliché I see on pictures and stickers about appreciating the little things because one day you’ll realise they were the big things. I try to be mindful of that and just slow down and take in those moments where I’m with my family or friends laughing at something, or the weather’s nice and I’m sat in the garden playing with my son. I try to take a step back and remind myself that although sometimes shit happens, I have a lot to love and appreciate. One day I’d be willing to give all the money in the world just to be back here, where I am now. I struggle with anxiety which mostly manifests itself as overthinking about both past and potential future events. Over time I’ve learnt to recognise that the negative feelings will pass — when I know those uplifting moments are often around the corner, it helps to lift me up and keep moving forward. It also means future me can (hopefully) tell himself that I made the most of the moments that mattered.
If you gear yourself up to appreciate the moments you might otherwise be moving too fast to acknowledge, you can bring a little extra shine and positivity in, that was there all along.
You can see all of Alex’s reviews and features on his website, Spells & Spaceships.
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